Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Buck Stops Here

Today I’d like to use this column to honor a select group of people out there who provide a critical role in society. These are the people who find themselves in a family, company, or community that routinely demonstrates unhealthy behaviors—and yet they’ve found a way to create a safe and healthier haven within these unhealthy domains. Instead of continuing the culture that’s being perpetuated all around them, they take responsibility for making changes and improving circumstances for those who depend on them. The buck stops with them.

I first learned the value of this role in my days in the United States Coast Guard.

In 1971 I found myself in charge of the Coast Guard’s west-coast clothing locker. As a newly graduated officer I was assigned to lead the team that measured and outfitted enlisted recruits with white Dixie cup hats, bell-bottom sailor outfits, cool looking pea coats, and the like. By the time the recruits left our domain, they would be fully fitted for whatever the U.S. inland waterways and international seaways had to offer.

Before we saw the recruits, they would arrive at boot camp where they were given baggy army fatigues to wear while they were harangued and emotionally abused for a week. During this first seven days they were mistreated in almost every way imaginable. For instance, they’d be awakened at 2 A.M. and forced to shave their face with their belt buckle while looking at their reflection in their metal locker. Then they’d be asked to drag massive chains around until someone passed out. Some days the recruits would be marched straight into the estuary holding their rifles over their heads where they’d be forced to slog along until someone would nearly drown.

Of course, the real agenda of the first week was to get those who were going to quit the Coast Guard to quit before they showed up at the clothing locker and we fit them with expensive uniforms. No use wasting money on people who were just going to take the clothing home and sell it. So the boot-pushers worked extra hard at haranguing and humiliating the troops the week before they showed up at our door.

My first day at work I watched the clothing locker operation unfold. The troops marched in wearing their army fatigues, and marched out ten hours later out wearing their Coast Guard uniforms. The only thing was, the sorry looking bunch looked more frightened, exhausted, and cowed than any group of humans I’d ever encountered.

The support staff members who worked the locker every day didn’t like the abuse that had gone on any more than I did, so they did their best to treat every new recruit with kindness and respect. But the beleaguered troops never dropped their guard. Not for a moment. No amount of decency on our part could undo the utter terror that now consumed each newcomer’s every waking moment. Besides, as we encouraged people to calm down, standing within a few brisk steps of each recruit stood the fellow who had been abusing him for an entire week. As long as he was in the room, nothing was going to change.

But that didn’t keep us from trying. Each week we’d do something new to help set the young men at ease so we could readily measure them, but nothing overcame the sheer terror the recruits carried.

Once I stumbled on an idea that seemed just too good not to work. If I could simply get recruits to laugh at a joke or two, surely it would go a long way toward encouraging the frightened fellows to settle down. So I decided to find something funny. One Monday morning after looking around for a minute or two, I noticed that one of the recruits had put his skivvies on backward. Somehow that seemed funny to me at the time, so I mentioned something to him about not knowing his front from his back.

Nobody laughed.

In fact, everyone tensed up a bit more as they snuck a quick glance at their trainer. No sooner had I chided the poor recruit than the petty officer who had been training the company decided that this truly egregious error deserved his special attention. How could America possibly prepare for the oncoming onslaught of the communist hoards while wearing their undershorts backward? Oh no, this kind of sloppy behavior needed to be nipped in the bud. So the boot-pusher quickly stepped up to the recruit who was now completely terrified in anticipation of the punishment that was sure to follow.

After thrusting his grizzled face to a point about a millimeter from the recruit’s mug, the angry trainer shouted, “You’ve embarrassed me in front of an officer and a gentleman and I won’t have that!” In a thousand years I never would have expected what came next. After pronouncing his embarrassment, the petty officer in charge made a fist, reached back, and took a swing at the vulnerable recruit—knocking him to the cement floor where he hit his head with a sickening thud and then lay there unconscious.

Eventually several corpsmen attended to the fallen fellow and within an hour he was back being measured right along with his company mates. I, on the other hand, wasn’t doing so well. I had just put an innocent recruit in harm’s way because I had the audacity to believe that I could somehow act in a decent and human way in a world that was abrasive and violent—more so than I had imagined. I hadn’t helped the recruit and I most certainly hadn’t put anyone at ease. Nobody laughed, nobody relaxed, and our job of measuring people wasn’t made one bit easier.

It was at that moment I realized that if was if I was going be a “border guard,” keeping out the abuse routinely handed out by the wider and more noxious environment, I’d have to speak the language of both domains. For the next year I learned how to play the game the way that it was normally played. I learned how to survive in the world as it existed. But day by day I learned new ways to create the world I wanted.

For instance, I learned to give the boot-pusher a dollar and suggest that he leave his company in our care and go get a cup of coffee at the club. “Don’t worry,” I’d enthuse, “we’ll give you a call when we’re through.” Removing the primary source of terror went a long way toward helping the young men relax so we could then do our job of outfitting them. We could also more easily live up to our values of treating people with respect. In a similar vein, I learned that no matter how poorly I was treated when given an assignment or command, I could pass it down the chain of command in a far more respectful, caring, and involving way. When it came to insults and threats, I didn’t have to pay it forward.

Over time I discovered hundreds of methods that allowed me to survive in both worlds.

People play this role in corporation and family settings all the time. They create a healthy haven despite the far less healthy world around them. I know this because I frequently run into leaders who are truly admired by their direct reports, no matter how awful or repressive the broader organization they serve. You can always find a few individuals who have found a way to stick to their own values, despite the insane world about them.

So today I extend these noble folks my heartfelt congratulations for having the courage to stand at the border between their haven and the prickly, noxious world around them and boldly proclaim: “the buck stops here.”

Crucial Accountability QA

Overcoming Past Cultures

Dear Authors,

I am a new manager in a department that has a long history of being very guarded, political and untrusting. Much of this was due to the style of the previous manager.

In the time I’ve been here I’ve attempted to be more involving, open with information, and trustworthy in all I’ve done. When I attempt to draw people out they resist—telling me they are uncomfortable taking a risk. Some in the department have read Crucial Conversations, and I know they would appreciate that kind of environment. They just don’t seem to believe it’s possible.

How do you start over again when mistrust is so deeply ingrained?

Searching for a Clean Slate

Dear Clean Slate,

I love getting questions like this. I love it because your very question is evidence of your own ideals. You aspire to be a good leader. You aspire to create a nourishing environment. And there’s no one I’d rather help.

My premise in answering your question is that creating rampant mistrust isn’t a one-person job.

Now, I think it’s entirely possible that heinously evil leaders can sow fear and mistrust between themselves and their employees. I also believe a bad leader can behave in ways that foster mistrust between others. But for the mistrust between others to take root, those others must collude in the process. In other words, they must make choices to respond to the miserable leader’s actions in a way that is untrustworthy as well.

If what I’m suggesting here is true, then you should be aware that while the previous manager is gone, much of the problem remains—not just in the form of residual mistrust, but in the form of residual behaviors.

So that’s the problem we need to solve—not just a history, but a culture of mistrust. Your challenge is to influence not just the memories but the behavior of some of the people in your team.

Here are some suggestions I hope will help.

  1. Engage opinion leaders. One of the best ways to promote change in an organization is to spend disproportionate time with opinion leaders. These are the people who are most respected by others in your team. Find out who they are, listen to them, ask for their help, and try to establish mutual purpose with them in building trust in your organization. Find one who can serve as a coach to you and let you know when you’re doing things that might erode trust.
  2. Listen a lot. The foundation principle of crucial conversations is that when we’re stuck, it’s because we’re not holding the right conversation in the right way. If “mistrust” is where you’re stuck, start by talking about that. Create safe, small groups where you can listen to people about the culture of your team. Involve an opinion leader or two in this process. Ask if they would be willing to conduct the interviews with you. In the interviews, ask open-ended questions: “If you could change anything here what would it be?” As people begin to discuss problems related to mistrust, ask them about the causes. Ask questions not just about what others do, but also about how those you’re interviewing respond to these provocations. Then conclude by letting them know how important it is to you to improve in this area.
  3. Teach. Once you and your opinion leader colleagues have come to understand both the history of the mistrust and the behaviors that perpetuate it, go into a teaching mode. Share your findings with people. Do it in a way that acknowledges both the contributions of the previous leader—or your own contributions if you’ve made missteps—and the response of the people on the team. This will be a very crucial conversation—so be sure to use your best skills to make it safe. Don’t present this information on your own; ask for an opinion leader or two to present it with you. Don’t present the information in a way that looks self-serving (positioning you as the white knight and the previous manager as the villain). Humanize the previous manager without justifying bad behavior. Acknowledge that his or her motives might not be well understood.
  4. Commit. Try to end these teaching discussions with commitments. Ask people to help you generate a list of ground rules that they believe will help rebuild trust. The ground rules should deal both with how they will behave in the future as well as how you’ll behave as the manager. End the discussion by committing personally and unilaterally to the ground rules. Invite them to do the same.
  5. Continue teaching and talking. Finally, schedule follow-up sessions where you’ll ask for feedback about the ground rules. Ask for feedback (anonymously or personally) about how you’re doing. Ask people to rate how they believe they and the team are doing at their ground rules. Keep the air clear by ensuring crucial conversations like these are held regularly. Teach people how to hold crucial conversations about mistrust to avoid it festering in the future. One of the best ways you can inoculate against mistrust in the future will be to help people build their crucial conversations skills. We would urge you to become certified to train the course yourself. There is nothing more powerful than a leader who teaches positive skills like these in creating rapid and sustainable change.

You have my very best wishes in your vital quest. Trust truly is the force that moves the world. Anything you do that contributes will certainly change the world for the better.


Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with an Abusive Physician

Kerry Patterson

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


Crucial Confrontations

Q Dear Authors,

I was wondering if I could present you with a question. I have read your book and think it is great! I have used your suggestions and they have worked in just about every situation except one. I am a registered nurse with ten years of critical care experience. I also have a master’s degree and specialty certification. I feel that I am very knowledgeable and have saved a few physicians from disaster or inappropriate orders on several occasions. But one thing continues to bother me and I am not sure how to deal with it. What do I say or do when I have a physician act very sarcastic, rude, or insulting on the telephone?

It is rare, but lately I have had to deal with it on two separate occasions. I do let their supervising physicians know about the situation and how it made me feel, but I get the same excuses, “Oh they are just having a bad day,” or “They are tired and don’t really want to be on call; don’t take it personally.” What should I say other than I don’t appreciate being spoken to in that manner? It is a huge problem and the verbal abuse needs to stop. If their supervisors won’t deal with it what can I say to tactfully stand up for myself? Thanks in advance for any input you might have for me and the rest of the nursing community.

Trying to Be Tactful

A Dear Tactful,

Good for you for applying your crucial skills to tough problems in healthcare. Your patients, colleagues, and other healthcare professionals have all benefited from your willingness and ability to step up to high-stakes conversations. When it comes to dealing with abuse from a person in a position of power—and over the phone to boot—the challenge goes up because you’re now dealing with more subtle behaviors that you only hear and can’t see.

With phone conversations, tone, pacing, volume, and other factors take center stage while body language, facial expressions, and other visual elements no longer play a role. That means when you’re providing information to others about what happened, or giving feedback directly to the person, you have to take special care to point out the exact verbal elements that led you to the conclusions you reached. To you, the physicians’ words and tone communicated insult, abuse, and sarcasm, but you’ll have to explain exactly what they did if you expect them or others to act on your conclusion.

You said the physician’s supervisor tried to downplay the incident by suggesting that the person was having a bad day. My guess is that the supervisor is not feeling the full force of the abuse because you’re short-cutting the description of what took place. You might think that labeling the interaction as abusive or insulting would be enough to capture others’ attention, but you’re likely to get more of a reaction if you replay the interaction in detail.

Next time you’re poorly treated by someone and you choose to talk to the person’s supervisor, come with written and dated notes. Write down the exact words. For example, say you record the following:

“And then he said, ‘I figured that someone with your experience wouldn’t be such a bumbling idiot. Keep it up and I’ll have your head on a platter. Do you hear me? Keep it up and it’ll be your job!'”

When you read aloud the exact words of this clearly abusive interaction, it’s hard to simply dismiss the interaction as being trivial or to conclude that you were being far too sensitive.

Should you choose to talk directly to the offending party, the same rules apply. Start by sharing your detailed description of what took place along with how it came across to you. Allow the details to carry the weight of your argument. Nobody is going to defend his or her right (or for that matter, their subordinate’s right) to call you a bumbling idiot or to threaten to hand you your head on a platter.

Make sure you separate facts from conclusions. Start with the facts—the exact words, tone of voice, volume etc. Then tentatively share your conclusion. You’re beginning to think that the other person doesn’t care how it makes you feel, or worse still, that he or she is using harsh and insulting words to intimidate you. Let the person know that it makes you feel disrespected, and that you really want to have a working relationship where you both feel supported and able to talk through problems.

In any case, please continue to demand that you be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone deserves it no matter the circumstances—and the more people speak their minds, the more likely it is the word will get out in your organization that being upset never gives anyone permission to be insulting or abusive.

Good luck in the future,