Crucial Conversations QA

Accountability or Forgiveness?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I work in a religious organization. In the organization’s culture, the rank and file employee has very little ability to raise questions about policies or directives without being seen as not only challenging the authority/expertise of the applicable supervisor, but sometimes as being “out of line” ecclesiastically. What compounds this problem is that the organization implicitly endorses silence over violence (it is better to “turn the other cheek”) and sometimes even endorses silence over attempts at dialogue. In this environment it is very difficult to establish the safety necessary for dialogue.

Recently, I was trying to talk with my supervisor about some promises he had repeatedly made that had never been fulfilled. He said that I shouldn’t have relied on those promises since he didn’t have full authority to make them and that I should learn to forgive. I was then encouraged to read the teachings of one of the ecclesiastical leaders on forgiveness. Others have tried approaching him on similar issues of accountability for himself or others and it is common for this supervisor to tell others to forgive. This is the case whether he or someone else has violated their promises. The message we get is that violated expectations are just part of life so “forgive and forget,” but most of all “be quiet.” How do any of us talk about this problem with accountability without looking like the bad guy who can’t forgive?


Dear Fettered,

This problem, by its very nature, can easily fire up one’s emotions and is exacerbated by the complexities of mixing religious doctrine with day-to-day accountability. The problem itself depends on how your faith defines each. Not knowing your definitions I’m a bit shackled, but I will plow on ahead anyway. I’ll draw on my own definitions and then you can decide if they make any sense to you.

Let me start by suggesting that in my view the concepts of forgiveness and accountability are never at odds with each other. Forgiveness takes place in one’s heart. You’ve judged another person’s actions, often become emotional as a result, and now are living with these thoughts. The idea of forgiving is to refrain from judging and let go of the strong emotions that come with it, thus freeing yourself both intellectually and emotionally. Gone are the bile and bitterness and the effects on your health and on the relationship. Once again, all of this happens within your own heart.

Accountability, in contrast, deals with the practical aspects of working together. In an environment where you’re interdependent, you make promises to one another, count on people to deliver, and then talk to one another if things don’t go as planned. If you can’t talk about disappointments and letdowns, predictability flies out the window and you live under the stress of not knowing what to expect. Living in a culture of low accountability drives you nuts and ends up killing your business. In volunteer organizations that won’t fail per se, it makes you very inefficient. All organizations, religious or otherwise, have to rely on the same rules of accountability or suffer the consequences.

Now, here’s where this takes us. When your supervisor lets you down, you try to work through the issue, and then he skirts the topic by asking you to forgive him, he’s confusing the issues. He’s taking you off the topic of accountability and reframing it as your problem of having judged him harshly–thus affecting your spiritual well-being and your emotions. Consequently, you need to forgive him to get back to where you were before. Not only is this sidetracking you from the issue of his not living up to a promise, it’s an assumption on his part about what’s going on in your heart. Maybe you don’t have to forgive him because you’ve made no such negative attributions. And even if you had judged him harshly or unfairly, it still leaves the accountability issue—a separate issue—unaddressed.

Imagine if people applied the same confused logic on a larger scale: “You’re right, I did embezzle money from the organization. I guess you’ll just have to forgive me.” Forgiveness and accountability are indeed separate issues and should be handled in separate ways.

So what’s a person to do? At a minimum I’d want to talk about separating forgiveness from accountability. I’d bring this problem up as one that needs to be resolved in order to continue improving the quality of your organization. Try starting with something like, “Can we talk about something that I fear is making it hard for us to continuously improve?”

Surely you need to be continually progressing, and this requires the ability to address and solve problems. Anything that stifles honest accountability discussion—both up and down the chain of command—stands in the way of continuous improvement. Stepping away from problems, refusing to resolve them, and calling for forgiveness does just that. It sidetracks a healthy problem-solving process. It ruins accountability.

Set up the problem by starting with the facts and then describing why you see them as a problem. Remember to use tentative language and avoid accusing your supervisor without knowing the whole story.

“When I bring up a problem, you suggest that I need to forgive you. This often takes the focus off the problem and keeps us from resolving it. I’d like to be able to talk about problems until we’ve worked them through to both our satisfaction.”

You might also want to tentatively tell the story you’re starting to tell yourself–suggest that this tactic feels manipulative and that you’d rather keep the discussions of forgiveness and accountability separate. How far you want to take this aspect of the problem is up to you, but my guess is you’ll need to say something or it could eventually harm your emotions, your beliefs, and your relationship with key people of your faith. Remember again to be tentative and make it safe for the other person when stating your conclusions:

“I’m beginning to wonder if you’re bringing up the need for forgiveness because it’s more comfortable for you than addressing the problem at hand. Is this what’s happening or am I missing something here?” Whatever you do, make sure that you separate the two issues; stay focused on problem solving rather than forgiveness, and keep an upbeat and pleasant tone.

Best of luck,
Kerry Patterson

Crucial Conversations QA

Group Crucial Conversations?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a partner in a small law firm in a small town. I’m about to have a Crucial Conversation with a fairly new secretary who is doing a lot of personal stuff on ‘company’ time. Two problems: 1) the secretary who shared her concerns with me about this new secretary doesn’t want to be identified as the source of the information and no one else would know all this info about her; 2) the new secretary’s response is likely to be “Everyone does it—why pick on me?” I know that’s a sidetracking tactic, but she’d be right—we’re pretty lax. We try to treat our staff well, and allow them a fair amount of freedom. Sometimes I feel it gets abused, so my question is, do you ever have a Crucial Conversation with a group—in my case, at a staff meeting, for example?

Thanks for the guidance. And thanks especially for a great course, a great instructor, and great information.

In a Box

Dear In a Box,

There are a few interesting issues you raise. Let me point them out, then respond to them in reverse order of my final recommendation.

1. How can you raise a crucial conversation or confrontation when the factual basis for it is confidential? The answer, of course, is you can’t. Imagine opening this way, “Okay, I know you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, but I can’t tell you what. So, please just knock anything off that you’re doing wrong.” Hmmm. This may fall a bit short of your intended mark. So how do you get yourself out of this box? One reason you are sitting on the horns of this dilemma is that the secretary who shared the information with you is unwilling to hold a crucial confrontation herself. In healthy organizations, everyone is responsible for maintaining standards. For example, if someone made a racist comment in a healthy organization, you would not expect that a private complaint would be filed to HR, who would then confront the individual. Rather, the person hearing it would respectfully, directly, and immediately talk to the offending person. So, issue number one is that you need to work on building competence, confidence, and responsibility in your organization in each person to challenge things that are not as they should be.

2. The second issue you raise is “With whom should I hold this conversation?” If your culture is one that is lax in general, as you suggest, then it is patently unfair to single one person out to demonstrate a new standard—at least a standard that has not been communicated. The first crucial conversation you need to have is with your partners. You need to gain their support for raising the performance standard of your company. As a group you have opted to preserve “niceness” over accountability. This is a sucker’s choice. It is possible—in fact it is more possible—to create a highly satisfying workplace by sustaining high expectations of performance. Nothing erodes a sense of mutual respect and camaraderie more than mediocrity and laxity. As you work on improving people’s ability to hold crucial conversations and confrontations about their concerns with each other, you are likely to go through a period of adjustment. But ultimately, people will feel greater pride, security, and mutual regard as they can candidly express their views and concerns with each other.

3. Finally, we get to the acute issue you raised initially. After coming to agreement with your partners about raising standards, you are absolutely right in having a “group crucial conversation” about how things used to be and how they should be in the future. Use all your crucial conversations skills to do so. Create a mutual purpose for raising the standard. Acknowledge the acceptability of lax practices in the past—no one is a villain for having followed them. But clearly outline your behavioral expectations in the future. And be sure to describe one most important behavior: It is everyone’s responsibility to help establish the new standards—everyone must be willing and able to step up to crucial confrontations to respectfully remind others when they violate the standards.

If you actively work to build a culture of competence with crucial skills, you will never again have someone asking you to act on information you can’t share and hoping you’ll hold their crucial conversation for them.

Good luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Overcoming the “Nasty versus Nice” Debate

Lately it seems the evolution of corporate leadership has come full circle: feared tyrants to spineless pushovers and back again to oppressive leaders. This cyclical trend sparks a timeless debate: which management style is better for business? The “nasty boss” or the “nice boss”?

For more than two decades, we have spent more than 10,000 hours observing and studying more than 25,000 influential organizational leaders. To identify these leaders, we compared top performers to above-average employees and evaluated the differences. What we discovered is effective leaders are both 100 percent honest and direct in describing tough issues and 100 percent respectful in the way they communicate. Additionally, effective leaders demonstrate the following characteristics:

  • They transform potential conflict into improved results.
  • They confront poor performers and incompetence in a timely manner without tolerating or ignoring the real issue.
  • They remain candidly honest when issues arise and avoid tolerating lax accountability or instilling fear in employees.
  • They frequently interact with direct reports as a team player, not an individual contributor.
  • They provide coaching that is specific, clear, and actionable without capitalizing on shortcomings.

Our experience and research findings suggest the timeless dispute is a moot point. “Nice” and “nasty” management styles are not predictors of success or failure. What is best for business is an approach that respectfully confronts the gap between business objectives and the level of performance and, with employees, jointly solves problems and violated expectations. Civilly confronting workplace issues as they occur with honesty, directness, and respect builds a culture of safety and productivity where employees are held accountable and feel empowered to meet and exceed expectations.