Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
A friend has an office director with a clear cut drinking problem. The drinking has, at times, interfered with the director’s ability to carry out his work to his full potential. The problem is also becoming apparent to people in the field. This frustrates and worries the office staff. My friend does not report directly to the director; there is an intermediate boss. Who, if anyone, should confront the office director? And how?
This is a tough situation. Let me see if I can offer some broad guidance—keeping your friend’s vulnerability in mind. If I were speaking to your friend, here’s the advice I would give:
First, because of the chain of command, I would recommend that your friend have a crucial conversation with his or her own boss or an HR professional. Often an organization will train HR professionals in how to deal with this sort of situation, and all you will need to do is provide the facts. Then the situation is out of your hands. However, if you’re in a smaller organization, you may have to pursue the course a little further.
In approaching this initial conversation, it’s important to first separate facts from stories—don’t assume the director has a drinking problem; don’t make judgments. Rather, identify the specific behaviors that are problematic and the outcomes that are hurtful (I don’t have any of the actual facts, so please allow me to invent some for the sake of example): “On our last major project, the director was unable to come in on several mornings, and my team missed an important deadline. This has happened four times in the last three months—typically on Monday mornings. On several other occasions, the director has returned from lunch disoriented, with the smell of liquor on his breath.”
Once you’ve shared your facts, it is then appropriate to tentatively share your story and ask for the other person’s input (“Several people have brought up these same issues, and we’re starting to suspect a serious drinking problem—which is making our work less effective. I’m wondering if we can address the issue and find a way to resolve it. What are your thoughts?”). If your boss or the HR professional agrees, now the conversation should be about how he or she should confront the director. If he or she disagrees, or refuses to confront the director, you should consider whether or not you should request a meeting with the director. I would encourage you to answer the questions “What do I really want?” and “How can I create safety for the director?”
The person speaking to the director should start with a mutual purpose in mind—one that would help him understand why he’d want to have this conversation. You could begin with, “I wonder if I could talk to you about some things I’ve observed that are undermining your effectiveness?” The director should be interested if someone is aware of a barrier to his success. You could also reinforce mutual purpose with a statement declaring intent: “My reason for talking with you is to be of help. I’m not trying to tell you what to do or be disloyal.”
The conversation should then start the same way the first conversation began—with the facts. Start with a description of the problem and try to clarify why it is a problem. Focus on the director’s behavior and the natural consequences of his behavior that he would care about; for example, how is it affecting major stakeholders, including customers, coworkers, etc.?
The biggest problem in this situation is whether or not the director will acknowledge a drinking problem that is affecting his work. Perhaps speaking up will help him see that his problem is not hidden; but if it doesn’t, the only solution is to escalate the problem to those the director reports to.
If you take this step, make sure you are very familiar with the organization’s processes for remediation of tough problems like this—and make sure you are safeguarding your own career and interests as you do so.
As I said, this is a tough situation; however, I think these ideas will increase the probability of success for the individual and for the organization.