Crucial Conversations QA

Getting the Cold Shoulder at Work


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

A few years ago I interviewed a woman for a specific job which she didn’t get. Two years later she interviewed me for a job that I did receive. I heard through the grapevine she didn’t want me to get the job as she felt someone else was more qualified. We are in the same department now and have the same job title.

For five and a half years, I’ve been polite, smiled and said hello in the hallways, asked about her vacations, started small talk, etc. She, on the other hand, provides an occasional forced smile and limited eye contact, like I’m invisible. She has only started one conversation with me in all these years.

I’m not a chatty person, but a little friendly hello or smile would be nice. I want to break down the barrier between us, but I don’t want to come off as being overly personal or needy. How can I approach her and overcome this after all this time?

“The Other Woman”

A Dear Other Woman,

Sometimes I find it useful to spell out my options. When I do so it helps me become more decisive rather than a harboring a nagging feeling of vague dissatisfaction and a gnawing hope for a magical solution. I think your options are as follows:

1. Get over it. Just accept that you won’t have warm relationships with everyone and don’t let it drag you down.

2. Continue the campaign. It sounds like your strategy so far has been to be overtly polite or solicitous and hope that this communicates your desire to have a cordial relationship. It also sounds like the current level of your campaign has failed (five and a half years is probably a long enough trial period!).

3. Bring it into the open. If #1 seems like a cop-out to you and #2 seems like more of the same, then you’re left with the crucial conversation option. My coauthor, Al Switzler, has often said that “A clear bad relationship is preferable to a vague bad relationship.” What you have now is a vague bad relationship. You don’t know where you stand, you just know the “other woman” seems cold to you. You think you know why, but you’re not sure. If you step forward to have a crucial conversation with her, there’s a chance things could get worse—but the likelier outcome is that—if done well—you may get information that could help you understand why things seem strained. From there you may be able to make things better.

I’ll offer two suggestions for kicking off this conversation.

First, you need to invite her into the conversation. It’s likely she’ll feel threatened by admitting to the problems both of you have avoided discussing for over five years. So you need to give her a reason to engage. Check your own motives at the same time. Clearly you want to improve things so you don’t feel social discomfort around her. She may be interested in that, too. But how else would she benefit if the two of you had a better relationship? And are you sincerely motivated to help her get these benefits? If so, you may begin with something like:

“Can we get a cup of coffee this afternoon? I’d like to get twenty minutes with you to get some feedback from you and to see if there’s a way I can be a better teammate. Would that be okay?”

I don’t know if this is the right offer—but come up with a way of inviting her that sounds inviting, friendly, and limited. The “twenty minutes” lets her know this doesn’t have to be an emotional therapy session. Coffee communicates the same limited risk.

Second, when you get together start with “priming.” Reaffirm your reason for taking this time, then lay out your reasons for believing there’s a problem between you in a way that makes it easy for her to acknowledge. We call this “priming” because it’s akin to priming a pump—you put a little water in to help get the flow of water started. You do so by taking a guess at the thing the other person might have a hard time saying. For example:

“Thanks again for taking a few minutes. Here’s what I’m thinking. We’ve worked together for five years and I think our relationship has been okay—but not particularly warm. I would like to collaborate better with you and be a good colleague to you. I wonder, though, if something happened when we first started that got us off on the wrong foot. For example, that you think I did you wrong when I interviewed for the job you didn’t get? Perhaps that I was unfair or political about it?

“I’d like to get your feedback about anything I’ve done to damage my relationship with you so I can learn from it, but also so I can resolve it and improve things between us as well. Have I done anything that bothered you?”

Again, don’t focus on my exact words as much as the underlying principles. If you want to improve things, the likeliest path may be an attempt at a crucial conversation. And the likeliest path to help that succeed will be to make it safe for her to join you in that conversation and to get the ball rolling by “priming the pump.” If you’re willing to open yourself up to feedback like this, it may help her question her view of you and reciprocate by opening up as well.

Best of luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Firing Advice

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m faced with having to fire someone for the first time in my career. What advice would you give on handling this very crucial conversation?


Dear Hesitating,

Firing someone is never easy. It shouldn’t be. Whenever someone is unilaterally separated from his or her income stream, it’s likely to cause problems and it would be wrong to take the topic lightly. The task can be particularly difficult if you haven’t taken the right steps along the way. Here are some tips for ensuring that when it comes to letting someone go, you’re following a professional and sensitive path.

Provide early feedback. People are typically fired (as opposed to laid-off) for a cause. Either they don’t live up to their job description or they do something particularly bad—such as stealing money from the slush fund. Let’s address the more common issue—an employee doesn’t do his or her job well enough.

When faced with a poorly performing employee, supervisors often complain about the employee to friends and family or drop hints to the person, but fail to give clear and honest feedback until it’s too late—“Guess what? You’re fired!” That’s a mistake.

The moment you become aware of a performance problem, particularly one that puts the person’s job at risk, talk face-to-face with the person. Clearly and calmly describe the gap between what he or she is doing and what the job demands. Focus on behaviors and outcomes. Avoid vague, inflammatory terms such as “unreliable” or “hard to work with.” Stick with the facts. Explain exactly what needs to change and, where possible, advise the employee in ways to improve. Document your conversation.

Step up the consequences. If the person continues to perform below an acceptable level after you’ve given him or her feedback, increase the severity of the consequences. First meet with HR and ask for advice on how to put the person on formal notice that his or her job is at risk. For some companies, this is a written warning; others call for a face-to-face formal discussion; and some don’t have a structured process at all. Whatever the process recommended by HR, let the person know that if certain standards aren’t met, he or she will be on probation for a certain length of time, and if the problem still isn’t resolved, he or she will be asked to leave. The key point here is to give the person a clear “heads up” about where he or she is heading if things don’t change. “If you don’t improve, you’ll lose your job by this date.” Continue your documentation.

Offer detailed advice and coaching. As people start down a path that could end in losing their job, it’s your job to not only give them a warning, but also to help them improve their performance. Provide behaviorally specific coaching. That is, demonstrate or clearly explain what the person needs to do differently. If you don’t know exactly what the person is doing wrong, watch him or her in action. You can’t provide coaching by merely looking at the final score. Watch the person perform and see how he or she needs to change. If possible, suggest a class or perhaps a book or two—but only if you think additional learning can actually help (people often suggests classes because they don’t have the nerve to provide frank feedback). Document this step as well.

Prepare for the final meeting. If the person doesn’t improve, you’ll need to remove him or her from the job. Once again, meet with HR or your immediate boss to gather advice on how to handle the final meeting. How long will the person stay? Will there be a severance package? What else do you need to say? Know the detailed mechanics so you don’t make a promise the company won’t keep.

During the actual meeting, summarize the steps you’ve taken along with the specific warnings. Explain that you’re sorry that he or she hasn’t been able to come up to standard and that his or her job will be over as of the date you’ve selected. Explain any details such as severance, handoffs, file management, etc. If your company has any outplacement assistance, explain this as well. Ask for questions. Give the person to a chance to express his or her concerns or grief. Maintain a professional and humane tone throughout. Finally, complete your documentation.

Best of luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Bullying at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I would like to ask about dealing with workplace bullying, and how middle managers handle it from the top? New York State just adopted a bill to address workplace bullying, which has become the “new” harassment “just under the waterline” methodology.

I would love to hear from you and would offer that more of us are experiencing it than we think.


Dear Curious,

I have to admit that when I hear the word “bully” it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Like many boys growing up (I was small for my age) I faced bullying at every turn. I had friends who didn’t take a single shower after PE during their high school years because bullies would snap them with wet towels and otherwise harass them. A few months ago a local TV station shot video of a group of teenage boys abusing their peers during lunch, so it appears as if the problem hasn’t changed much. Couple this with the recent release of the terrific book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons (which makes it clear that bullying isn’t gender restricted), and it’s not hard to imagine how aggressive, intimidating behavior has found its way into the workplace.

Bullying is now finding its way into the corporate vernacular.  As the government continues to enforce harassment laws, many employees are beginning to wonder if certain behaviors that aren’t necessarily gender, race, or belief related, but still seem highly inappropriate, should be outlawed—or at least prohibited at work as well. These “under the waterline” behaviors include actions such as making false accusations, glaring, discounting others’ ideas, backbiting, threatening work life quality, gossiping, constantly criticizing, giving people the silent treatment, making impossible demands, etc. All are examples of not treating people with the respect they deserve.

It’s important for leaders to make it clear that all forms of disrespect, dishonesty, and lack of teamwork are unacceptable at work. Perhaps it’s time for companies to begin talking not only about harassment, but also about social abuse in general—giving specific examples of unacceptable behavior that fall under the rubric of bullying. To get a feel for the various forms bullying can take, search “workplace bullying” on the Internet and check out the Workplace Bullying Institute.

At the personal level, if you fall prey to bullying, you have several responses. Most of us, like the boys who wouldn’t shower, remain silent. We don’t want to look weak. We also don’t want the bullies to find out that we’ve tattled on them, only to have them increase the intensity. When we do speak up, we tend to talk to a friend or loved one. If pushed at work, we may talk to HR, but that’s pretty rare. And frankly, when it comes to subtle behaviors such as glaring at you or giving you the silent treatment, it’s difficult to document the problem, so you won’t get much help from HR (you’ll have to keep a detailed behavioral log of times and behaviors).

With many bullying behaviors, you’ll probably need to talk to the other person or people directly. When this happens, it’s time for a crucial confrontation. When others bully you, that’s a violated expectation. You’ll need to start by explaining what was expected versus what was observed. However, don’t allow yourself to become upset before you do address the problem. Maybe others are unaware of what they’re doing. In fact, you’ll probably want to start with a statement to that effect.

For example, “I’m not sure you intended this, but in our last meeting you laughed at two of my ideas. I expect people to disagree sometimes, but to me it felt as if you were making fun of me. Is that what was going or am missing something here?”

This beginning sentence should at least get you to the point where you’re talking openly about bullying and should help you get started on the right foot.

Best of luck,