Crucial Accountability QA

Protecting a Predecessor's Reputation

Dear Authors,

I recently took a new position as a specialist reporting to the VP of HR, who doesn’t have much specific knowledge about the regulations that affect my job.

My predecessor, whom I’ll call “Brian,” was promoted to another department. He is generally well liked and is viewed by everyone—including my boss—as having done a fantastic job. Unfortunately, as I’m digging into his past work, I’m finding many areas of regulatory compliance where Brian’s work was far below the standards.

At first I tried to just quietly correct these mistakes, but I can’t always do so without involving others. In order to ensure we meet regulations completely, I’ll have to let others know they’ve been doing things wrong and need to change.

So far I’ve tried to defend Brian as much as I can. How can I get this issue in the open without appearing to be simply tearing down my well-liked predecessor?

New Kid on the Block

Dear New Kid,

You’ve demonstrated a great heart by your sensitivity to the good name of your predecessor. And you’re right to do so. It’s so easy to be concerned with self on entering a new job and find ways to criticize previous occupants in order to differentiate your brand. You’ve definitely taken the high road.

Now, let’s help you stay on the high road. In Crucial Conversations, we point out how when we face challenging interpersonal situations it’s easy to frame our circumstances as an unnecessary “either/or”—what we call a Sucker’s Choice. In your case, you seem trapped between being honest about past mistakes and being respectful of Brian. I think it may be a false tradeoff, and if you handle it well, you ought to be able to do both. Here’s how:

1. Hold the right conversation. First of all, you need to ensure that your boss a) sees the need for change; and b) offers required leadership. If you don’t have your boss’s support, you’ll be swimming against the tide and may be completely subverted if your boss concludes you’re just out on a grudge errand against Brian. So this is clearly the first crucial conversation you need to hold.

2. Contrast to clarify intent and respect. One of the most powerful skills in Crucial Conversations is one we call Contrasting. In our research we found effective communicators naturally use this skill because they know that during crucial conversations they are at serious risk of being misunderstood. Simply put, Contrasting is a Don’t/Do statement in which you clarify your intentions or your respect FIRST by pointing out what you DON’T mean to say, then what you DO. You want to begin by acknowledging what people are likely tempted to believe from what you’re saying and pointing out how this misrepresents your true thoughts or feelings. Here’s how you might use Contrasting with your boss:

You: “Over the past few months I’ve noticed a number of important irregularities in regulatory compliance in previous years. I’d like to discuss those with you because in order to bring us into compliance I believe I’ll need some level of support from you. Is that okay?”

Boss: “I’m surprised to hear that. My impression was that Brian was top notch. Is this just a style difference?”

(Here comes the Contrast)

You: “Well, I’d like to lay out the problem for you, but first I want to reassure you of something that has been keeping me silent for months. I have been so worried that I would appear critical of Brian that I’ve been trying to bring things up to par without pointing out the reason. I want you to know that I have seen plenty of things that Brian did exceptionally well, and I can only hope to live up to the level of trust and respect he’s developed in the team. So please know that I have no desire to disparage Brian. I also want to make sure I’m complying with the regulations the job requires.”

Boss: “Okay, so what’s up?”

Notice what you’ve done here—you’ve offered evidence that you care for Brian’s reputation (i.e., you DON’T intend to tear him down) and yet you want to do your job right (i.e., you DO intend to contribute to proper standards). This use of Contrasting can free you up from dancing around the issue.

3. Maintain understanding through repeated Contrasting. If during the course of the conversation you find your boss appearing defensive on Brian’s behalf, recognize this as a sign that he or she misunderstands your intent. Stop the conversation to offer another Contrasting statement to separate your comments from his or her misperceptions of your intent.

4. Share the facts. Once you’ve clarified your intent and your respect, you’ll have to lay out your facts. Do your homework. Bring in both anecdotal examples of the problems you’ve encountered as well as valid cumulative data showing the breadth of the pattern. You’ll need both to help persuade a boss who resists criticism of Brian.

5. Invite dialogue. After laying out your concerns, open yourself up to dialogue. Be willing to let your boss challenge your facts and your conclusions. It could be that you have misunderstood local requirements, alternative methods, etc. Don’t go in with a goal of convincing your boss that you’re right, or you’ll be far less convincing. Be willing to be wrong but intent on speaking the truth as you see it.

6. Agree on who should do what by when. Once you and your boss agree on the scope of the problem, identify how the other crucial conversations should be held. Clearly you’ll have to let those whose support you’ll need know what has to change. Your boss will likely have a role in announcing support with this group. Ensure the group involves only those affected—that helps protect Brian’s reputation from unnecessary tarnish.

Best wishes as you contribute to improved performance while demonstrating due respect to all of your colleagues. If your heart is in the right place, you’ll find a way through.


Crucial Conversations QA

Changing Conversation Habits


Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

I am the first to admit that I do not do well during crucial conversations—especially if the person I am having the conversation with gets angry. I immediately go silent. Then I hold my true feelings inside until I can’t stand it any longer and I let my own stories out, usually causing more problems and hurt feelings.

I know I need to make it safe and talk about facts, but lack the courage to do so. I want to stop this behavior, so I need to know if there is any kind of exercise I can do to change my behavior. Waiting for the next crucial conversation is just not working.

Wanting to Change

A Dear Change,

Let me begin with an old academic framework. When people want to improve, they move along a continuum from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence. In plain English, this means people can go from being unskilled and not knowing it to being skilled and not having to think about it. You feel that you’re lacking some skills and know it. That recognition is progress—way to go! Now, how do you get to the point of putting the skills you’ve learned into action?

Given that long introduction, my advice is that you need more practice in a safe environment. You seem very motivated and very much aware. Motivation and awareness are the first steps, but they are not enough. What you need to work on now is your ability. Using the skills to prepare for or evaluate the crucial conversations you may face is a good place to start. Try writing a script for how you will start a crucial conversation before approaching it. Focus on the skills that will make it safe for you to share your views.

One point we’ve learned through years of training is that it’s very hard to improve your skill in significant and sustainable ways by yourself. You can grit your teeth, read, think, and plan and improve in many of your conversations. But to really get better, find a “coach”—a friend you trust to help you recognize how you’re doing with the skills. Over the years, I’ve made a distinction between “friend” and “accomplice.” A friend is someone who helps you; an accomplice is someone who helps you get in trouble. You need a friend: a buddy, a family member, a colleague at work, etc. Review your script with this person and have him or her point out places where safety still seems at risk or where you or others are likely to move to silence or violence. Discuss a previous conversation and have your coach help you explore what went wrong and see where you could have improved on these skills. Even practice role-playing a conversation with this person. Plan an approach that will help you step up to the conversation.

Another thing we’ve found helpful in learning transference is that often, people learn by teaching. Those who teach learn the content and the skills much better than those who don’t. Share a concept that you want to understand better with a family member, friend, or coworker. Teach someone about a principle or skill that you’d really like to improve in.

Finally, you have to keep the concepts on your radar screen if they are to become meaningful. Spend time on this each week—keep the concepts in your mind, notice opportunities to apply the skills, and take time to practice or rehearse.

When we have both the motivation and the ability, and then we see the opportunities, we are much more likely to face our crucial conversations and deal with them well. And the good news? Tens of thousands of people are doing this very thing every day and improving their results and their relationships in the process.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: My First Job

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

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Right after graduation, I got a job. I was so excited about the prospect of earning cash money on my own that I could hardly sleep the night before my first day. To prepare for the big event, I set the alarm for 6:00 A.M. and placed my work clothes neatly on the floor next to my bed. The next morning I awoke without the aid of my alarm, made a breakfast of six pieces of toast and two cups of hot chocolate, packed a lunch, and then trotted out to the corner where I waited impatiently for my ride.

When my carpool vehicle jammed with coworkers eventually pulled over and picked me up, everyone was deadly quite. It was still fairly early in the morning and driving out into the countryside alongside the morose crew felt as if I were being transported to work in a wheeled casket. It took just under an hour to arrive at the job site where we immediately took up our posts. I didn’t actually know how to do my job, so I decided to fake it. A couple of hours later when I handed in my first project, my supervisor ridiculed my efforts and then forced me to redo the job. My fellow employees came by the supervisor’s work station and handed in their work—all the while poking fun at me. It was humiliating.

As the day dragged on and the sun rose in the cloudless sky, two of my coworkers actually passed out from the heat. They fell like stones while the rest of us pushed ourselves to get even more work done. With continued practice I became more adept at the job so I eventually was able to produce a better product and at a faster pace. When I finally arrived home dog tired and filthy at the end of my first day of work, I ran up to my mom, gave her a big hug, and exclaimed, “I earned almost two dollars!”

This all took place in June of 1958 when I was twelve years old.

I had just graduated from elementary school and during that summer before entering junior high school, I took a job picking strawberries (later in the season, I picked beans and raspberries). The commuter vehicle that picked me up was a berry bus and my coworkers were other kids who gladly signed on to pick berries—fifty cents for a flat of twelve boxes. The boxes were large. The berries were small.

Of course, today kids don’t perform these jobs. If you sent one of your own children out into the dark morning to wait all by him- or herself for the bus, your neighbors would probably report you to the authorities—and rightly so. Having young kids hunch over a row of strawberries all day long, sliding their flat through the dirt, picking through the slimy muck in the mornings, and suffering the heat in the afternoon would also be frowned upon.

Don’t get me wrong; even in 1958 not everyone made it to the end of the berry season. After the first day about a third of the kids never again stood out on the curb. Several didn’t return to the fields after lunch the first day. They lay in the shade, ate strawberries, and giggled while the rest of us slaved away. All of those who didn’t last very long shared one characteristic in common: They didn’t need the money. They had taken the job on a lark and when it turned out to be dreadfully difficult, they quit. The rest of us stuck with the job because we’d be using the money to buy our school clothes. I’d be using it to buy clothes and to fund my daily school lunches.

I suppose a lot of those kids as they grew into adults swore that they would never force their own children to take a similar job. Several friends who picked berries with me have even gone so far as to suggest that they are the person they are today in spite of their years of tortured labor in the berry fields. I’m of the opposite belief. I think they are who they are at least partially because of those unending hours where they continually forced themselves to the limit.

I realize that the job was a bit too much for a twelve-year-old to perform—even in the fifties. But I do know I learned dozens of lessons as I worked those fields for the next six years.

For example, I’ll never forget the day I was hurrying along a row on the way to take a bathroom break, and I came across a full tube of Sea-and-Ski suntan lotion. I could see the tube lying ahead of me in the furrow with its cap off and facing away from me. At the same moment I spotted Jimmy, a fellow teenage berry picker I hardly knew, coming my way. He didn’t talk much, and when he did speak he sounded rather childlike. I don’t think he picked more than a few boxes of berries all day.

When I spotted Jimmy coming toward me and the lidless tube of lotion lying half-way between us, I had a vision. I could see myself leaping through the air and coming down with my full weight on the tube of lotion. The tube would then shoot a mighty stream of slimy grease at Jimmy. It would be funny.

This thought entered and exited my brain in an instant. And since I was around thirteen years old at the time, I didn’t pause to contemplate the moral consequences of bullying a person who was probably handicapped. I could clearly imagine the stream of lotion shooting at Jimmy, it seemed like a cool idea, and that’s all I needed to move me to action.

A split second later I sprang like a ninja, flew through the air, and came down on that tube with every ounce of my weight—just as I had envisioned. Only the tube didn’t spew a stream of lotion at Jimmy. It was more like an explosion. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny globs of white grease hit Jimmy from the crown of his head to the tip of his toes. There wasn’t a two inch square space on his body that didn’t have a daub of lotion on it.

Both of us were shocked speechless by the result. I hadn’t intended to paint Jimmy’s body with slimy chemicals. Nevertheless, I’m ashamed to admit that I felt a bit exhilarated. Jimmy responded differently. I don’t think he had the capacity to impute evil intent to what I had just done to him. I flew through the air, he was now covered in lotion, he didn’t know what to make of it, and so he looked to me to see how he should react.

I hadn’t intended anything evil, and noting that Jimmy wasn’t offended or angry, the sight of him completely covered in lotion struck my funny bone and I began to laugh. Jimmy laughed back. Then I guffawed. Jimmy even more so. Soon we were howling as tears rolled down our cheeks. Eventually we fell to the ground and laughed the laugh of the totally insane, pounding our thighs with our hands and pumping our legs as if we’d fallen off a bike but had continued peddling anyway. I’m pretty sure I’ve never laughed that hard since.

Once we regained control of our faculties, I helped Jimmy remove the lotion from his clothes and spread it on his and my exposed stretches of skin. As we completed the cleaning job, not once did Jimmy chide me or act offended. I hadn’t intended to harm him. I really hadn’t thought about what the stream of lotion might do to him, and I realized that Jimmy’s pleasant reaction was what made the situation delightful instead of one I would surely have regretted.

For the rest of that berry season, whenever Jimmy and I saw each other we’d chuckle a little and then continue along as we hustled our flats full of berries to be stacked and counted—two friends remembering a humorous moment that we had shared. And every time I saw Jimmy I mused over the fact that he hadn’t become the least bit angry at me because he hadn’t miscalculated my intent. He wasn’t easily offended. He didn’t carry a grudge, and he took his cue from my laughter. Instead of getting angry over something that had already happened and had been sort of by accident, he gave me the benefit of the doubt—he took the squirting like a true sport and enjoyed a good laugh.

That day, through the innocent eyes of my new friend Jimmy, I gathered more knowledge about human beings than you’d ever expect to find between the rows of a strawberry field.