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.