Crucial Conversations QA

Childish Behavior at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband asked my help in a situation at his job and I’m turning it over to you, the experts!

Two newer coworkers have formed an alliance and seem to have bonded over nightly drinks at the local watering hole, which my husband does not participate in. One of them created a ruckus over a boxed lunch that was to be delivered to a subcontractor. He asked my husband to deliver it on his way somewhere, but the recipient declined the lunch. It was given to someone else. This coworker made assumptions that my husband didn’t try to give the lunch away and just ate it himself. He then e-mailed these assumptions to two supervisors and carbon copied my husband.

When my husband tried to work this out, the second coworker shouted at him and called him a liar and other unprintable things. He was also instructed to “stay three feet away from him at all times.” My husband strongly suspects alcohol abuse and is upset at the lack of resolution of this childish situation. He is worried about the effect that the e-mail had on his superiors and is also attempting to collaborate with these men as they do an important job.

Although this situation sounds to me like something from a playground, I realize that things like this happen regularly at jobs. I should also mention that upper management seems loathe to contend with any of this, so my husband does not have much in the way of support.

Thank you for your insight,

Bamboozled Spouse

A Dear Bamboozled,

It’s never easy to assess a complicated interaction from afar. Add to distance and time the fact that the story has now been passed on twice—first by your husband and then by you—and it only gets more difficult. This particular scenario has all of the earmarks of multiple causes. While it may be true that the two individuals in question have indeed formed an ill-intended alliance and alcoholism may be at play, I’m still left wondering what would set off such an outburst given the triviality of the originating event. I’m also interested by the statement that the bosses don’t want to get involved. Shouting and cursing usually get everyone’s attention.

I’ll start by assuming that your assessment is completely accurate and that your husband has played no role other than victim. Your husband needs to keep his distance from the two parties in question. When tempers and alcohol are involved, it’s safest to stay away if at all possible. In today’s world of violent outbursts at work, I’d be irresponsible to suggest otherwise. In addition, your husband’s boss needs to be informed in private along with the HR department. He needs to document the event as a means of protecting his reputation as well as to keep the company informed of inappropriate behavior.

Here’s my advice to your husband on reporting the behavior: When reporting the event, remain calm and stick with the facts. Your conclusions only make you look reactionary or possibly suspicious. For instance, you don’t know that the two coworkers have formed an alliance—that’s a conclusion. If you suspect that alcohol is at play, you have to report the facts—slurred speech, loss of balance, etc. When it comes to reporting the shouting match, the same is true: Don’t vilify the individual by offering hostile conclusions (“He was a maniac!”). Instead, write down the exact words as you recall them, including a description of tone and volume.

Now let me add one final piece. My experience in similar situations has taught me that in about one-half to two-thirds of cases like this, the people who end up being the targets have done things that started the ball rolling—or at least gave it momentum. While it’s true that eventually they end up being cut off socially or that people mysteriously overreact or “blow up” in their presence, when you talk to others about the situation they point to the victims and suggest that they may have initiated the problem. I’m acutely aware of the fact that sometimes we blame victims as a way of making the world seem more safe and sane for all of us and that doing so is completely unfair. This is a known psychological phenomenon and I don’t want any part of such thinking. However, I’m also aware that there are often two sides to a story.

Generally when I’m brought in to consult in similar circumstances, there are not complete victims or villains. Usually everyone involved has played a role. As the spouse, listen to your husband carefully and see if you can uncover something he may have done to cause the hostile reaction. Watch him in action in similar situations with friends or family. Is it possible that he’s unaware of something he’s doing?

For instance, I’ve watched people talk to colleagues about a problem, and when they reported the conversation to others afterward they appeared innocent. However, during the actual conversation their tone came off as patronizing or insulting. These people are terrific at having a surface appearance of innocence while simultaneously making people angry. Then they point to the anger and ask, “What’s wrong with them?” I was once asked to consult with an executive who was routinely judged as being arrogant. He knew what people thought of him but nobody ever told him what he actually did. I watched him in action until I saw him do things that appeared arrogant and then described this behavior in detail. He hadn’t intended it, so he needed an outside observer to point it out to him.

You get the idea. If the behaviors are subtle, seek them out and talk about them openly. If your husband is truly an innocent victim, treat him as such.

Thanks for submitting this question. I know I have equivocated a tad, but I’m merely trying to help you think through the event in its entirety. You husband is lucky to have a loved one who is looking out for him.

Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Big Bosses and Bad Behavior

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Kerrying On

Yesterday a colleague of mine told me that the company he works for has a rather interesting practice. At the end of every quarter, no matter the company’s financial state, the sales team holds four meetings a day for two weeks. During each, they talk via conference call with the big bosses. The first call is devoted to that day’s tactics. Twice more during the course of the day they talk about how things are going. Then at the end of the day they conduct a post mortem to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Four meetings a day sounds a bit intense—maybe even like overkill—but not particularly worth further comment.

Then my friend sprung the punch line. The first conference call starts at 4:30 A.M.; the last starts at 11:30 P.M. It seems that the execs want the sales team to put in a minimum of seventeen hours a day for two straight weeks. It’s all part of their “maximum commitment” culture. The senior leaders want to model total devotion as well as an intense passion for hitting the numbers. Apparently one of the bosses read an article that suggested that if you really care about something, you make a big show—you know, make a huge personal sacrifice. Let people know that you’re not all talk and no walk. This particular group of leaders chose to walk alright—only they chose to walk on the backs of their sales force.

Here’s the weird part. According to my friend, nobody quits. They complain a lot and heaven only knows that their families are really miffed about the practice, but somehow they’ve convinced themselves that if you really care about something . . .

Besides, the execs aren’t asking something they themselves don’t do all the time. “They’re a bunch of characters,” is a common reaction from other people. However, as employees describe the founding owners who are known for their long hours and raucous behavior—often involving lots of liquor, gambling, and cursing at their assistants—they begin to sound more like selfish curs than “characters.”

No less than an hour after hearing about these execs, I read in the newspaper about a leader who had been caught with a prostitute in his fancy car in the parking lot. But the tone of the article wasn’t critical—it sounded more like a PR piece touting the leader’s chutzpah.

It seems that this founding leader is a technical genius who is entirely misunderstood and whose contribution to the world of marshaling electrons exempts him from having to follow the rules of common decency and courtesy. Once again, the employees quoted in the article spoke of him with something approaching reverence—justifying a long list of behavior that would get anyone else fired or even jailed as a natural side effect of misunderstood genius. They spoke of him as a “genuine character.”

A dear friend called me that very same day to tell me that his sister Marinda had just completed a trip with her boss, the founder of a well-known company. He too, she explained, is a character. When the meeting with the other company’s president didn’t go well, the “character” blew a gasket and called Marinda a vile sexist term to her face. When Marinda attempted to change the subject to their client’s objections, the boss called the widely respected president the same thing—repeating the vile words. When asked why she tolerated such abuse, Marinda explained: “He’s one of those young geniuses who has carried the company on his intellectual back. I guess he’s earned the right to be a bit quirky.”

In fact, she went on to explain that the fellow’s quirky (although frequently abusive) behavior was what gave their company an edge. “When you learn to snarl at the world, break social barriers, and spit in the face of convention you get good at thinking outside the box.” So instead of arguing that her company has done well in spite of the president’s arrogant, abusive, and insulting actions, she recast them as the force behind their success. Somehow “in spite of” had transmuted into “because of.” This clever transformation, of course, not only dismisses the disgraceful actions, it also suggests that the founder’s roguish behaviors need to be both rewarded and replicated.

Here’s the scary part. As you listen to the employees of these quirky, outside-the-box (and often abusive) founders, many take the same route as Marinda. They brag about their off-kilter leaders and determine that their offensive behavior is okay because they’re being suffocated by unduly repressive social norms. They just have to strike out at those around them in order to release their misunderstood genius.

This tortured logic, of course, is nothing more than a steaming pile of . . . untruth. Anything that profoundly disrespects the basic humanity of those around you never makes things better. Anything that abuses, insults, and demeans people only makes the world a worse and less effective place. Anything that deprives people of their dignity or shackles them to their desk can only contribute to your eventual failure. And finally, anything that results in the enormous transaction costs associated with repeated abuse (e.g., complaining, hiding, getting even, giving up, etc.) will eventually bring any organization to its knees.

So how do these “characters” continue to survive? Every time there is a group of thugs whose founding genius masks their bad behavior, it is invariably the original idea—the technical breakthrough—that causes their success. When an idea is big enough to lead to a near monopoly, companies can continue to survive despite leadership actions that would cause most organizations to fail. Create a large enough competitive advantage and you can house a whole host of “in spite of” behaviors.

If it’s true that it’s big ideas that cause success and not the weird actions of a handful of leaders, then how is it that we routinely conclude the opposite? How do we find a way to transform “in spite of” to “because of”?

First, it’s hard to determine cause in complex social interactions. Who knows? The company is doing well and the bosses have created this weird culture; maybe it’s the weird aspects that make it work. Stranger things have happened.

Trust your gut on this one. If it walks like a duck, flies like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If actions appear inexcusable, they are. A healthy leadership style and work culture would make the company even more effective.

Second, we often transform “in spite of” into “because of” due to a powerful psychological effect called cognitive dissonance. To quote the renowned social psychologist Leon Festinger, “Rats and people come to love the things for which they suffer.” As counterintuitive as this may sound, when you’re forced to do something you don’t like or are treated badly, you can say it was a painful waste of your time (adding to your growing depression) or you can paint a happy face on it.

Humans often take door number two. Apparently we all have a feel-good cheerleader embedded deep inside our heads and, by golly, we routinely turn lemons into lemonade. We think to ourselves, “The poor treatment must have been good for me. That’s it—it helped mold my character.”

The third reason we label a disease a remedy stems from our tendency to bundle negative and positive attributes into one massive and inseparable thing we call personality. For example, I was recently talking to a friend who runs the HR function for a large law firm. He complained that flamboyant courtroom lawyers who are applauded as geniuses in front of a jury are allowed to be egotistical lunatics with the other members of their firm. Not only have these long-winded geniuses earned the right to be prickly and proud through their courtroom brilliance, but, according to the firm, that’s just how “those types” are.

Apparently you can’t be brilliant with the jury and a valued and respectful coworker all at once. Nope. Apparently personalities come like bills sent to the Senate—each with quasi-insane riders that nobody really wants attached—but you have to take the bad along with the good. That’s just how things are.

Finally, we often allow ourselves to conclude that bad behaviors cause good outcomes because we don’t know how to confront the bad behavior. If we speak up, we figure our career is toast. When people in positions of authority are at fault, who’s going to battle that lost cause? At first we hate what our bosses or coworkers are doing to us, but since we feel powerless to change it, we decide that maybe the mistreatment is not really so bad.

Consider the case of the salespeople who are routinely forced to work from before the crack of dawn until nearly midnight. They don’t like it. They don’t even think it’s good for them or the company. But then again, they don’t complain either—not to the big bosses anyway. This means that sooner or later they have to conclude that they’re spineless wimps, or that maybe (upon further review) the quirky strategy isn’t so bad after all.

The solution to all of this incessant “perfuming-the-pig” lies first in admitting the truth. Bad is bad and always will be. Calling bad good just makes it that much worse. Second, we must willingly and ably speak up when we observe inappropriate behavior—whatever the source and no matter how many other people are arguing that it’s good for them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to label the bad good if we know how to make it go away. I know this can be challenging, maybe even impossible in some cases, but certainly not always. I’m reminded of watching a skilled leader at Ford Motor who one day turned to his coworkers and asked, “Are we going to continue working hours that are killing our health and harming our families or are we going to find a new way?” Nobody had wanted to speak first, but this fellow finally did.

His willingness to confront their pressured brand of workaholism would have been downright dangerous if he hadn’t discussed the problem with such a wonderful blend of candor and professionalism. His ability to master crucial conversations took away all the risk. Instead of unleashing his pent-up anger in an ugly outburst that eventually would have haunted him, the Ford executive calmly raised the issue and discussed it in a way that made it safe for everyone to weigh in with their hidden concerns. It was something to behold and led to a change in the lives of dozens of people. In my view, this ability to stand tall in the face of crippling silence is the brand of everyday heroism that every organization could use.

Now, many of you may be thinking that you don’t have to work seventeen-hour days and people don’t curse one another in your company, but you do see things that simply aren’t right. Don’t let them continue. Step up, speak up, and if necessary, skill up. Learn what to say and how to say it. We’ve written two books on the topic. But here’s my addition to these two works: If nothing else, become good at pointing out one important fact. “Because of” and “in spite of” are two different animals. It pays to know which one you’re facing.

Crucial Accountability QA

Talking to Your Children

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can your materials help a mother of a ten-year-old respond appropriately when her child speaks disrespectfully? I know this is usually not your focus, but maybe you can offer some direction.


A Dear Mom,

You’re right that our research and consulting work has not involved children. As social scientists we prefer to work with rats, pigeons, and sophomores. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that our most taxing, passionate, and rewarding applications of Crucial Skills have been in our own homes. All told, my coauthors and I have helped rear twenty-three children. And many of these have long since gotten over what we did in rearing them! So I’d be happy to share some reflections on your question.

First, I believe that the most important life skill we can teach our children is, without question, the capacity to hold crucial conversations. If they leave our homes equipped to deal in a healthy way with the inevitable interpersonal challenges of life, they will be physically, financially, and emotionally better off than with any other single skill set we could bless them with.

So, Tip #1: When dealing with a child who speaks disrespectfully, remember that the most important outcome of this conversation is not just extinguishing unacceptable behavior, but teaching the child how to influence behavior in a healthy way. You’ll teach this by modeling how to have a good crucial conversation. So, Start with Heart. Be clear coming in that the quality of the conversation is as important to you as the quality of the result.

Tip #2: Hold the right conversation. Most parents make the mistake of dealing with disrespectful behavior at the same time they’re solving some other problem. Say, for example, your ten-year-old wants to have a slumber party at a friend’s house where you believe there will be insufficient supervision. You say no and explain your reasons. She calls you an “overprotective witch.” And you holler back, “Okay smart-mouth, now in addition to missing the party you can miss out on playing with friends for the next week!”

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, the obvious problem is that you lost your temper and made this a power issue by imposing consequences. Your daughter will likely conclude from this that the problem was not her disrespectful behavior; it was that she disagreed with you. Wrong lesson. But the less obvious and equally important problem is that you failed to hold the right conversation. When her disrespectful behavior became the issue, you should have set aside the discussion about the slumber party and opened up this “relationship” discussion. For example, “Honey, I can see you aren’t happy about my decision for the slumber party. And I’m willing to talk to you about that. But something more important just happened. You called me a name. I want to talk about that for a minute because it’s very important that when we disagree we do so in a way that doesn’t create a bigger problem . . .” Do you see the difference? In this example we’re clearly changing topics.

What parents (myself included) often do when a new problem emerges is to “act out” rather than “talk out” the new problem. We get ticked off because of the misbehavior and rather than talking about it we let our upset emotions drive how we respond to the original topic (the sleepover in this case). So, if you choose to deal with disrespectful behavior, don’t do it while solving another problem—be sure to distinguish that conversation from the conversation about the issue at hand. Even better, if you already know your child has a pattern of disrespectful behavior toward you, don’t wait for another incident to occur. Set aside a specific time to talk about this pattern of behavior—that helps you remove the emotion of the moment and do a better job of it.

Tip #3 tells you how to describe the problem you want to discuss. Start with the facts. Try to remember three or four specific examples of the behavior you’re trying to describe. Avoid the temptation to lump them all together in an insulting description like, “I’m tired of you treating me like trash.” Instead begin with, “The last three times you didn’t like a decision I made, you threw something down, ran to your room, and slammed the door. Then you didn’t speak to me for a few hours.” Stick with the facts and strip out any judgmental language you might be tempted to add.

Step #4: Finally, the biggest challenge in dealing with disrespectful behavior is helping children care about it in the first place. Don’t try to make them care by threatening them. Instead, think carefully about the natural consequences of disrespectful behavior. In a respectful tone, teach your children what happens in the real world when they speak disrespectfully to others. Help them see how the world will work better for them if they avoid this behavior. Then—and this is tricky—try to make your home operate this same way.

For example, you may ask your child what happens when she is rude to a friend. Help her see how disrespectful behavior hurts relationships and even makes people less willing to help her when she needs it. Explain that in order to prepare her to have a successful life, you won’t allow disrespectful behavior to slide by either. When she is disrespectful to you, you will not be as supportive of some of her special requests. Now let’s say the next day she is rude again. Then later that evening she wheedles and begs you to give her a ride to the movie with a friend—you must not rob her of the chance to experience the natural consequences of her actions. You must follow through. Otherwise she learns that the real world does not work as you said it does. The “real world” to her is one where her mother makes up consequences then can be manipulated into compromising on them.

Now I know that this is an awfully short response for a complex question, but I have great confidence that if you keep in mind that the quality of your crucial confrontations with your child is the most important gift you will give him or her, you will continue to improve in the most important conversations of your life.

Best wishes,