Dear Crucial Skills,
I was wondering if you could address how to make it safe to discuss something when certain answers really are going to result in very bad consequences?
I understand the need to master my stories, but sometimes the truthful answer is the one with negative consequences. For example: You suspect an employee of having lied on his or her resume. You hope it’s not true, but there is a lot of reason to think it is. How can you make it safe to talk about if the person knows that admitting the truth could get him or her demoted or fired?
Hopeful but Worried
This question gets at the very foundation of safety. You want the other person to talk openly and honestly about a possible problem, and this requires that he or she feels safe. And yet you fear if he or she does talk openly, it could easily result in a serious negative consequence. How can that be safe?
Let’s look at two elements of safety. First, can a person express his or her opinions without others jumping all over what he or she has to say? Will his or her ideas be listened to in an atmosphere of curiosity? Do others desire to learn, or do they just want to look good or “win”? Will the discussion be propelled along by the merits of each argument, or will power, position, and politics play a bigger role than the facts?
People need to know that if they do open up, their thoughts will be treated with respect and genuine curiosity. We all make better decisions when the pool of shared meaning is filled with a complete array of thoughts, feelings, opinions, and theories. Each opinion must be given a fair hearing. Each must stand up to honest and careful scrutiny. Facts must rule over politics. This type of safety helps people make the best decisions and lies at the heart of many of the skills we cover in the book Crucial Conversations.
But there’s another element of safety that gets to the heart of your question: “But what if honesty leads to severe negative consequences?”
The safest world is one where individuals are held accountable for the consequences of their own actions. While an individual may shrink in the face of criticism, and it may be easier in the short run to avoid paying the consequences, it is always better for the individual as well as the society at large if people are connected to the consequences of their own behavior. People can’t learn and organizations can’t progress if the feedback loop connecting behavior to outcome is in any way blocked or tainted.
Allowing individuals to face difficult consequences can be hard. For example, as much as a parent might desire to celebrate a child’s honesty for having the courage to admit to his or her wrong actions by glossing over the actions themselves—such misplaced mercy not only keeps the individual from learning and growing, but insults honesty itself. You don’t need offer others a “free ticket” in order to protect them or make their life easier, when what you’re really doing is making the situation easier for yourself while potentially harming them in the long run.
I broached this very topic last month in a conversation with the renowned psychologist Albert Bandura at his office at Stanford University. At the time I was trying to understand how Mimi Silbert, known for helping criminals turn their lives around, had been able to create a culture where ex-felons “ratted on each other.” At her facility in San Francisco, if you observe someone doing something against the rules or the law, you turn him or her in—on the spot. This flies in the face of the unwritten rule to never rat on a buddy—so how has she been able to successfully turn this norm on its ear?
“It’s because she’s not asking them to rat on each other,” explained Bandura. “It’s because she’s asking them to care enough about the other person to hold him or her accountable. When you love others, you don’t turn a blind eye to their mistakes. You provide the other person an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Now, this isn’t a lesson in spin or semantics, it’s a philosophical stance. First, you make it safe for others by listening to what they have to say. Second, you create the ultimate safety net by being consistent in connecting behavior to consequences, thus allowing both the individual and the organization to progress unhindered. In the case of people who have lied on their resume, better to learn from the experience than to be rewarded for a behavior that will not serve them over the long run. Yes, bringing the truth under the harsh light of day could hurt in the short run, but isn’t that how we develop character in the first place? By doing what’s right—even when it’s hard to do?
Good luck on what could be a true test of character,