Crucial Conversations QA

Addressing Workplace Flirting


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

I have a surgeon colleague who is flirting with a staff member. He is very obviously taken with her and cannot seem to help himself. She is now reciprocating the attention. Both are married to other people and the staff are becoming uncomfortable. I need some advice on how to have the conversation with the surgeon so we can maintain a professional working relationship.

Flirting with Disaster

A Dear Flirting,

Yikes. That’s about as sensitive a subject as you could take on.

And I absolutely agree that you must. People under the spell of intoxicating hormones often delude themselves into thinking that their behavior is either invisible or acceptable to everyone else in the world. Or they become so self-absorbed that they stop caring what others think. This is a tough veil to penetrate.

But there’s a good chance you can.

Your first challenge will be to Start with Heart. You’ll need to do this in a different way than we sometimes advocate. Your challenge will be to clarify what you really want out of this conversation. If you’re like most of us, you’ll be tempted to try not just to solve the problem of unprofessional behavior, you’ll mix it in with some nonverbals—or even verbals—that cross into the moral domain. Knowing the two are married I’d personally find the behavior repugnant and be inclined to comment on this point.

If you want to succeed in dealing with the professional behavior problem, I suggest you not try to deal with your moral opinions. Mixing the two will likely result in you accomplishing neither. And it sounds as though your relationship with the two of them is not such that they are asking you for moral guidance.

If you are with me on the goal of the crucial conversation, then you need to prepare for it by gathering facts. Think of the facts you will need to share with them to help them nondefensively appreciate how their behavior is being perceived. For example, if the surgeon tends to place his hand on the small of the staff member’s back when talking to her, and leaves it there for some time, you would note that and prepare to share this concrete behavioral description of your concern. Try to identify four or five behaviors in this way that will enable you to illustrate the problem.

And prepare to share them in a non-judgmental way. Do not, for example, say to the staff member, “You fawn all over him.” Strip all the judgments and conclusions out of your description. Instead, say, “When he says something that few others find funny, you laugh loudly—not something you tend to do when others are making jokes.”

Now that you’ve prepared by clarifying your goal, and by gathering the facts you’ll need, you’re ready to begin. Start the conversation with a contrasting statement that first points out what you are not trying to discuss—and then points out what you are discussing.

For example, “Doctor, do you have a minute? I’d like to have a private chat with you if now is okay.” Continue when you have some privacy.

“I’ve noticed a few things between you and (the staff member). I was very, very reluctant to discuss it with you or her because frankly, for the most part, it’s none of my business. I want you to know that I believe your personal matters are exactly that—personal. And I would not venture to intrude. The reason I’m bringing it up is that a few things you and she are doing are having an effect you may not be aware of. It’s creating discomfort for others and may even affect the quality of care we’re giving. Can I describe the concerns?”

With that said, share the behaviors you’ve observed. Then share how you’ve seen people reacting. Add how you believe future reactions may affect the doctor, his patients, and the team—or any other consequences you believe might be important to the doctor (or staff member when you speak with her).

If you want them to care enough about the problem to listen—in spite of their likely embarrassment as you raise the issue—be sure you’re prepared to share natural consequences of their actions in the workplace that they would care about. If you do this and the previous steps well, you’ll have the highest likelihood that you can get their ear and have an influence.

And if the concerns persist and cross ethical lines in the company, be sure to do what’s right in getting HR or compliance involved.

Best wishes. Your very question demonstrates your commitment to doing the right thing. I trust you will.


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Restless Thoughts

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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Sometimes my wife buys dark chocolate mini candy bars and sets a bowl of them next to the TV in the family room. If I get caught up in a program (say, I’m watching a show involving moving pictures) and don’t pay attention to my snacking habits, it’s not long until I’ve eaten twenty or thirty delicious dark-chocolate treats—which I then pass off as health food because we all know that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants.

Unfortunately, when I go to bed later that evening my mind races wildly under the influence of the caffeine.

While I’m in the throes of this caffeine-induced altered state I often come up with some pretty whacked-out thoughts. The first time this happened I waited until I was almost asleep before I picked up a notebook that I had left on my nightstand and wrote down my ideas—which seemed positively brilliant at the time. But it turns out that I had waited too long, and the next morning I found the following note: “Productivity, it can only be increased by rubber ducky asphalt hypochondria.” Since then I’ve learned that if I get up before I’ve grown too sleepy and write down my ideas, I catch them before they have been morphed by the sandman. Then, instead of being incoherent, my ideas merely turn out to be off-beat.

Two nights ago I got up and wrote what I have come to think of as my restless thoughts. So, instead of offering up an extended narrative as usual, this month, thanks to the Hershey Corporation—and with apologies to Jack Handey—I share with you my latest restless thoughts.


If reincarnation is true, I want to come back as myself—only in the form of one of those plastic bobble-head dolls. That way I can sit at my desk and jiggle my head back and forth and I won’t have to move my arms and legs at all. That’s what I currently do at work, but if I were a bobble-head doll people would find my inactivity cute and charming instead of loathsome and disgusting.


Sometimes I drive around town in my car while wearing a bicycle helmet. Then when I spot a biker who isn’t wearing a helmet I roll down my window and screech obscenities while pointing at my helmet. Everybody deserves a positive role model.


Next time you’re at, say, a Kevin Costner movie and the person behind you starts talking real loud on his cell phone, close your eyes and think to yourself, “Phone explode! Phone explode!” If everyone in the theater did this at the very same moment the phone probably wouldn’t explode or anything, but then again, with their eyes being closed and all, nobody would have to be watching a Kevin Costner movie.


I wish I could have been a mouse in the pocket of the famed alpinist Sir Edmond Hillary when he climbed Mt. Everest for the very first time. Or maybe with Albert Einstein when he first scratched on the blackboard the mind-boggling formula E=mc2. Not that I care about mountain climbing or physics; I just think it would be cool to live in a pocket.


When I was a kid growing up my dad always used to tell me he was an entrepreneur—which I looked up in the dictionary and learned is French for “between preneur.” And although I’m not absolutely certain, I’m pretty sure preneur means “jobs.”


Yesterday I rushed myself to the emergency room to have my heart massaged. I didn’t have heart problems or anything I just wanted to see what it would feel like to have my heart massaged. It turns out that the bureaucrats who run the hospital had put into place a bunch of policies that discourage such curiosity. It’s no wonder American healthcare is so screwed up.


My mom hates all forms of confrontation. Rather than tell dad that his feet stink, she gave him charcoal insoles and explained that in case he ever got lost in the mountains he could use his shoes as a hibachi.


One of the great ironies of our time is that despite the fact that our cities are becoming more choked and congested and we’re stacking more and more people on top of each other, we’re growing increasingly isolated and lonely. Couple this with the fact that we’re a much more mobile society with children moving to the far flung reaches of the world and increased political tensions and rivalries pitting family members against one another—and it’s little wonder that there are times when I swear I feel just like an orphan. Mostly when I’m standing over my parents’ graves.


There’s been a lot of talk lately about CO2 emissions. It appears that we produce more of it than we need. But going to the trouble to reduce CO2 will eventually cause a major inconvenience to all of us. So I was doing some outside-the-box thinking. Why not just learn to be more open minded and tolerant? Maybe we should embrace CO2 rather than ridicule it. After all, aren’t we living in a time where race, gender, and carbon-based molecules of all creeds and origins should be able to live peacefully side by side? I think so.


Never borrow a coat from the guy who first came up with the expression “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”


The other day I went to the pet store to buy my wife a puppy for her birthday. The salesman up-sold me to a Clydesdale. One thing’s for sure—when you give your wife a Clydesdale you don’t get that cute little jump in the air accompanied by a screech of joy. Nope. Not with a Clydesdale.


Have you ever noticed that it’s perfectly correct to say, “Sometimes your feet come in handy”? But it’s always wrong to say, “Sometimes your hands come in feety.” What’s with that?

Crucial Accountability QA

Who's the Boss?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 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,

My boss was promoted five months ago to an executive level position and I was promoted to his previous position as a Department Manager. He continues to give assignments to my direct reports, bypassing me in the process. I have discussed this with him more than once, and on each occasion he got irritated with me. He will typically change his behavior for a few days, then resort back to bypassing me and going straight to my directs. I feel disrespected and don’t know what else I can do without harming our relationship. What should I do?

Caught in the Middle

A Dear Caught,

You are indeed in an awkward position. You’ve confronted the problem, it’s with your boss, and your boss still isn’t coming around. This is the person who writes your performance review and as such will have some influence over your next rent or house payment. This is also a person who is supposed to be a skilled manager. Bringing up the fact that your boss has promised to comply and then hasn’t lived up to his word could easily sound like an attack on his integrity. In short, you’re preparing for a mini up-hill performance review with your boss about a fairly serious problem over which you have little or no control. The stakes are about as high as they get and your odds for success look bleak.

So much for the pep talk.

Typically when we teach individuals how to motivate others who are doing something that is out of line, we suggest that it’s best to start with the reasons the other person needs to stop doing what they’re doing. That is, it’s best to explain natural consequences. Anyone can make threats or use power, but this often only adds tension. Besides, you want the other person to comply for the right reasons. So, start by explaining what’s happening as a result of the existing behavior.

In your case, your boss giving assignments to your direct reports without going through you has some fairly obvious natural consequences. Your direct reports are being put in an awkward position—should they follow their new marching orders or should they stick to their old priorities? They’re caught between the demands of two different leaders. This, of course, should never happen. In addition, you’re stuck wondering whether your direct reports are doing what they said they would or whether they’ve been given another assignment. You end up having to watch them more closely than either you or they would like.

Now that your boss has agreed to comply and obviously hasn’t done so, you have an even greater problem. Your boss isn’t living up to his word. Now the issue is a matter of trust, and that’s a whole new challenge with a whole new set of natural consequences. You can’t count on him to stick to an agreement, and as trust between you and your boss drops, your relationship suffers. You can’t predict important elements of your job and you’re starting to feel resentful. Your boss is clearly out of line; if you haven’t talked to him about the relationship issue, then hold this new conversation.

You also might want to find out if your boss faces an ability barrier. Perhaps it’s difficult for your boss to track you down when he needs to get something done, or some other factor tempts him into going straight to your employees. Identifying and reducing such an ability barrier could be the easiest solution. Start by pointing out that your boss continues to work around you, and ask if there is some reason he doesn’t involve you—is there something making it difficult or even impossible at times?

In most cases, explaining natural consequences and removing ability barriers is enough to motivate a change. Also in most cases, if the person won’t come around no matter what you explain, you can start the disciplinary process or move to power—but only do this as a last resort.

If it does come down to power—no amount of sharing consequences or problem solving works—then you’re left with the question: Should you go to your boss’s boss? This is certainly a high-risk strategy and might be viewed as a big mistake by both bosses. Your boss wonders why you ratted him out. Your boss’s boss wonders why you can’t work it out on your own. I think I’d start floating resumes before I’d ever talk to boss’s boss unless I was quite certain that (1) my boss’s boss would understand and take the appropriate action and (2) my own boss wouldn’t take it out on me.

So what’s a person to do? I’d return to my boss with a full list of all of the consequences of all of his behaviors along with a lengthy discussion on what I could do to make it easy for the boss to include me in the loop—before I’d decide between coping and leaving.

Best of luck,