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Will the Leader Interfere?

Kerry Patterson

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

We are planning a communications workshop with our senior team this winter. Our president is wondering if he should take part in the training. What will the impact be if he does not? He is completely supporting this initiative, but he is thinking his presence may “shut down” some folks and limit their learning. What do you think?

Curious About the Effects of Power

A Dear Curious,

Normally we use this forum to answer questions about how to hold specific crucial conversations and crucial confrontations. However, since we’ve been fielding this particular question about how to deal with power differences in training groups for almost two-and-a-half decades, I’ll break from tradition and address it.

When bosses sit next to their direct reports in a training session and the training topic deals with how to speak your mind in a way that is heard, the presence of an authority figure can indeed have a chilling effect on the training. Within these groups participants often seem more reluctant to answer questions, and often remain stiff throughout the training. It’s common for participants to refuse to deal with problems that in any way touch on how they relate to their boss—after all, their boss is in the room. And while the purpose of training isn’t to sit around and talk about the bosses, it is important that participants feel safe to apply the skills they are learning to every domain of their lives.

In some cases, participants are so comfortable with their boss that they are able to speak about anything in his or her presence. When this is true, having leaders in the room provides a genuine benefit because they can encourage people to use the new skills and the entire team is able to work through real issues—often dealing with problems that had previously been undiscussable. When this happens, the training experience serves the purposes of both skill building and team building.

So here’s what I typically recommend. If the primary purpose of the training is to learn the material and build skills, I suggest that the boss not attend the entire workshop. Instead, ask the leader to help kick off the training by sitting in on the first few minutes and explaining that he or she has gone through the material, supports it, and is doing his or her best to improve. Then the boss can wish everyone good luck and gracefully exit. He or she may also return at the end of the training to discuss what people will be doing in order to excel in the application of their newly learned skills.

If the purpose of the training is to help build a stronger team—with emphasis on how the leader and team members relate—then by all means have the boss attend the training right along with his or her direct reports. Be prepared to deal with problems of deference to authority. If necessary, talk openly about the fact that people appear to be holding back. Make sure you talk with the leader in advance, coaching him or her on the importance of being open to learning. Teach the leader to respond to potentially sensitive feedback with genuine curiosity rather than defensiveness ( “That’s interesting, tell me more”).

Within a mixed group, expect that if the boss does make it safe to talk about issues, at some point in the training people may want to stop and talk about problems that had previously been undiscussable. Build time for this into the training. An open discussion of real issues provides a wonderful context for applying the skills participants have been learning. You also get the added benefit of solving actual long-standing problems. Carefully facilitate the discussion to make sure that people remain on their best behavior.

If you can’t decide if the training is intended more for building skills or for building teams, build skills. The material is hard enough to learn without any added stress. Thank the boss for being willing to attend the full training with his or her direct reports, involve him or her at key times, and if you’d like to enjoy the benefits of team building, conduct an application session with the entire team after the training has been completed.

Whatever method you choose, good luck with your training, and thanks for the insightful question.


Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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