Crucial Accountability QA

Legal Dilemma

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am a corporate lawyer. I have been trying to tell our VP of Legal Affairs that I believe the company is at serious risk for litigation on an issue. Each time I do she cuts me off without listening and argues that we’re fine. I see major holes in her counterarguments and don’t believe they would stand up in court. This particular issue is a specific area of expertise of mine. The VP–while very smart–has no real background in this particular area. Mainly I just want her to listen to and consider my points. If after listening she still thinks she is right, I am fine with her making the final judgment.

This is especially risky because she has a short fuse and both yells at and fires people who disagree with her. How do I get her to listen on this important issue that I’ve already unsuccessfully approached her on several times?


Gag Order

A Dear Gag Order,

It’s interesting to me how often our answers are embedded in our questions–particularly when it comes to crucial conversations. Other people (like me) look smarter than they deserve when they do little more than play back what you just told them. I believe that may be the case with your question. You ask the question, “How do I get her to listen to us on this important issue that I’ve already unsuccessfully approached her on several times?” My first piece of advice is to have a conversation with her about precisely that. Don’t talk to her about this issue. Talk to her about your inability to talk to her about the issue.

If you ever find yourself having the same conversation twice, odds are you’re having the wrong conversation. If your real concern is how the conversation is going, then that’s what you should be talking about. Now, with that said, it’s important to ensure that she feels safe when you do talk. Otherwise she’ll likely attribute bad motive to you (you’re doing this because you’re arrogant, or gunning for her job, or whatever) and then she’ll feel totally justified in yelling at you or firing you. Not a good outcome. In the critical first 30 seconds–what we call the “Hazardous Half Minute”–of this crucial conversation, you must do three things:

1. Make it safe. Help her know that you respect her and that you care about her best interests.

2. Describe the gap. Describe factually what has happened compared to what you expect to have happen. Be sure to avoid hot, judgmental, emotional words that would damage safety.

3. Make it motivating. Help her understand the natural consequences of her not engaging with you on this topic–obviously emphasizing consequences she’ll care about.

Here is a possible script just for illustration. Your choice of actual words will best be informed by your best guess at what makes her feel unsafe when others challenge her and what consequences motivate her the most.

“Ms. Finch (for fun let’s pretend she’s Atticus’ daughter), I have a concern I’d like to discuss if that’s okay. I want you to know my whole reason for raising it is to be sure I’m doing the job I was hired for, and to be loyal to you in every best sense of the word. Can I take a minute to share my concern? (Make it safe–clarify your intentions and respect). Here’s the concern: On three occasions I’ve attempted to describe some legal risks I see on issue X. On each occasion you’ve disagreed so quickly that I have not been able to do justice to my argument (Describe the gap). Here’s my concern–I don’t think you want me to check my brain at the door. And yet that’s what I’ve felt tempted to do. I’m also absolutely sure that you care a great deal about this company–and hope you see me having the same value. I know you wouldn’t lay low if you saw a big risk–and I suspect you’d see me as delinquent if I did the same (Make it motivating–give her a reason to listen to you and describe motivating natural consequences of not listening). May I have five minutes to make my argument? After that, I’d like to have you shoot holes in it–and give me permission to do the same with your points if that’s okay?”

Now–I don’t know that this is the right script. But so long as your VP has some good motives somewhere inside her, I think I’ve accurately described your objective. In the first 30 seconds, you must Make It Safe, Describe the Gap, and Make It Motivating for her to listen to you. Once you get started–particularly if she’s an impatient person and begins to cut you off again–you’ll need to hold her to the agreement she just made. Very politely remind her of her commitment to your five minute speech–and continue on. Then be sure to be true to your commitment to listen to her counterarguments and support her final decision.

I especially loved your question because your attitude is 100 percent right. Organizations are not democracies. We don’t all get to vote about the final decisions. But we do have an obligation to speak up when we have important meaning to contribute. You clearly do–and I wish you the best in discharging your responsibilities!

Warm regards,


Crucial Conversations QA

Micromanaging Revisited

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I read with interest the Q&A posted 9/8 (“Being Micromanaged”) and handled by Joseph Grenny.

I’d like to reverse the scenario and ask what should the manager who believes that his/her direct report is “wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability” do? As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. With one employee I recently approached this crucial conversation perhaps too delicately. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Thank you,

Dr. Delicate

A Dear Dr. Delicate:

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimized collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement–from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person. The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as: “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

2. Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”: a choice where we see only two options–both of them bad. (e.g., “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.”) In reality, there is often a third, better alternative: You can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?” Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship…you can get both.

3. Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation. When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened–I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Vague Feedback

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

The director of the agency I work for has decided (after three years) to call us in every month or so to discuss what’s going on in our departments and the agency in general. I’ve had two of these conversations with her. What it turns out to be is, “You’re doing a great job” (no details), then focusing on a “problem.” She tells me what she sees as a problem, tells me what agency policy is, and vaguely tells me how to handle it. She never asks my side of the problem, never asks how I currently handle the issue (exactly the way she says it should be handled!), and leaves me feeling unsupported and on the outside. I’ve been coming up with some ideas for these conversations such as asking her to define certain words she uses to describe me and find out if she means them positively or negatively–it’s often difficult to tell since she has a perpetual negative look on her face and in her tone.


Anxious and Confused

A Dear Anxious,

I’m glad you asked this particular question because it brings up an issue that we’ve explored in some depth. The challenge in this case is: Which problem or problems do you deal with, and how do you start the conversation?

1. Which problem?

This is a classic case of one set of circumstances serving up a variety of problems–all related, and yet distinct and different. Let’s look at the array you mention in your description.

-It’s been three years without feedback.
– Your boss’s choice of words is vague, often leaving you wondering exactly what she’s talking about–with both your problems and successes.
– You’re not sure how she defines certain terms.
– Her tone and look are perpetually negative.
– She fails to involve you in problem solving, providing only her view.
– At the end of the conversation you don’t feel supported.
– She doesn’t recognize that you’re currently solving problems in the way she suggests.

In addition to the issues you allude to in your question, you may also have doubts about her motive (I know I would). Is she trying to help you? Or is she following a recent mandate, using the time to exert her influence, doing her best to show off in your presence, etc.?

As you try to choose from this rather long and varied list, ask yourself: What bothers you the most? What do you complain about when you go home at night? In short, what do you really want? This last question helps you select from the various options (you can’t discuss all of the issues in one sitting).

My guess is that while it may help clarify matters if your boss defines her terms, this is a far less important issue than several others you mentioned and wouldn’t be the best place to start. The fact that she fails to ask for your input and doesn’t recognize your current skills sounds far more important and both problems may be contributing to your feeling unsupported. Clarifying her words might help a little and would certainly be easier to discuss, but isn’t likely to get you what you want.

So, think about the various issues, talk about the component parts with a friend, ask yourself what you really want, and then reduce the problem to a single sentence–forcing yourself to get at the core issue.

2. How do you start the conversation?

Choosing what to talk about is only the beginning. Now you have to talk. Before you open your mouth, keep a good thought. Don’t enter the conversation feeling angry, smug, or superior. Most of us aren’t good enough actors to hide our underlying emotions. If you hold court in your head and find your boss guilty, the verdict will come out in your tone of voice and choice of words. Your nasty conclusions will make your boss defensive and put you at risk. Make it safe for both yourself and your boss by assuming that she’s simply unaware of the problem and doing her best. Then start by asking for permission–after all, this is your boss. For example: “I’m wondering if we can take a few minutes to talk about the new feedback process.”

When you’ve got permission, start by describing the problem. Don’t start with your conclusions or feelings. Both are controversial and typically cause others to become defensive. Start with the facts. For example: “In our last discussion you pointed out a problem and then made a suggestion on how to solve it. The last two times you’ve offered suggestions, I was already doing exactly what you proposed. It left me wondering if you have an accurate view of what I do and how I do it.” Then pause and wait for your boss’s response.

Now, a lot more will follow as the conversation unfolds, but this forum doesn’t allow for a complete handling of the confrontation. For now, let’s assume that you want to start off on the right foot and to do so you have to do two things well: select the right problem and then describe it in a way that makes it safe for the other person. Do these two things well and you’ll be heading down the right path in a way that will likely lead to a healthy confrontation.

Good luck and may all your conversations be effective ones.