Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Power of the Pen

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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Today’s thought comes by way of my neighbor, Dr. Alan Christensen, a professor of Maya history and language. For those of you who don’t have the benefit of living close to someone who knows more about the Maya than most of us know about our own home towns, let me share a fact or two. The Maya are the indigenous people currently living in Mesoamerica. Over six million of them make their homes in a region that runs from the Yucatan peninsula down through Central America. Around four thousand years ago the Maya developed astronomy, a calendrical system, and hieroglyphic writing. In fact, they developed one of only five phonetic writing systems known to the world. During their golden age, the Maya were more advanced than almost all of the civilizations of their time.

The story that caught my attention goes back a few years to when Alan was helping create a Maya dictionary. One evening as he closed up his work in the mountains of Guatemala, he realized that he needed to descend to his base camp before it grew too dark. He would be hiking through a dangerous jungle known for, among other things, packs of wild dogs.

As Alan hurried along an animal trail he stumbled upon a tiny Maya village. It consisted of a few huts surrounding a central courtyard. In front of one of the huts stood a bench, and sitting on the bench were the village elders. Rather than ask for directions (his pressing issue), Alan gracefully started the conversation with what is known as the Maya introduction ritual. With the Maya you can’t merely walk up to someone and ask, “What’s happening dude?” Instead, you must introduce yourself and all of your known ancestors along with what they did during their lives! After over an hour of ancestor talk, Alan finally was able to ask for directions down the mountain. By now it had grown so dark that he was quite worried about the wild dogs. The locals assured him that his journey would be safe. One of them would accompany him to his destination.

Before Alan could continue his hike down the mountain, one of the villagers asked him what had taken him up the mountain in the first place. Dr. Christensen explained that he had been compiling a dictionary of their language. His answer took them by surprise. They had known that the Spanish language could be written, but it had never occurred to them that their own language could ever be captured on stone or paper. Alan assured them that not only could it be, but that their language had been written centuries earlier but lost. In fact, the land around them was replete with ancient temples that contained a great deal of early Maya writing.

“What did our ancestors have to say to us?” one of the elders asked. Alan just happened to be carrying the translation of one of the more famous passages (to archeologists, not to the Maya), so he pulled it out and read it to them. The villagers sat in silence, eagerly listening. Tears ran down their cheeks as they heard for the first time the wisdom of their much-honored predecessors. “Are there other words? Where can we find all of what they had to say to us?”

As Alan explained that scholars were working on translating other writings, one of the elders asked, “Could I speak aloud to you and then you write down my words—for my children?” “Yes,” the others chimed in, “Could you write our words?”

Alan didn’t make it down the mountain that evening. Instead, he played the role of scribe as eager fathers composed words of wisdom to their offspring. Finally, the chief invited him into his hut where he privately composed a document for his only son. He had already lost seven children, and now his only remaining son had been struck with tuberculosis. He wanted to write a message to him before he was inevitably taken by the disease. He poured his heart out as Alan sat and wrote.

As I listened to Dr. Christensen tell this story I was intrigued to learn that upon first hearing of their long-lost language, the villagers wanted to hear the words of their ancestors—to learn from the wisdom of the ages. Then they became consumed with the ideas of writing down their thoughts to benefit their own children.

How different we are from these Maya villagers. For the Maya, who saw and heard the written word for the first time, the value of the written word was incalculable. To those of us who live in a veritable sea of text, the marginal utility of the next written word approaches zero. Our indifference is understandable. Since a codified system can be applied to any and all words, including a list of ingredients on the side of a box of Cocoa Puffs, most of us have developed methods to insulate ourselves from the unrelenting deluge of minutia, sales pitches, and unsolicited advice that streams before us each day.

As a natural consequence of nearly drowning in words, most of us don’t write much—well, certainly not much of any substance. Unlike the Maya elders who, after knowing of their written language for only a few minutes, had already composed heart-felt notes of love and advice to their children, we haven’t done the same with our own offspring despite the fact that we have known how to write for decades. Somewhere between penning our first “I love you Mommy,” and writing a term paper on the digestive system of the worm, we stopped writing for pleasure.

Writing simply isn’t our medium of choice any more. As leaders we certainly don’t write serious thought pieces or calls to action, and as parents we rarely write words of adoration or instruction. Today we compose e-mails and text messages—often unpunctuated and almost always brief. The coin of today’s verbal realm is idle chit chat, acronyms (LOL), and abbreviated business-speak.

To put this change in communication style into perspective, consider the following: Thomas Jefferson wrote over 20,000 letters during his career. Of course, if I wrote with the majesty and eloquence of Thomas Jefferson, I’d write more letters too. But it’s not merely a matter of ability. Most of us no longer desire to write. We choose not to. Maybe we’re reluctant to express ourselves in writing because our first attempts to capture our thoughts and dreams typically fell under the chilling gaze of grammarians who accused us of dangling our modifiers and splitting our infinitives when all we really wanted to do was tell a story and have someone read it.

So today we rely on other media. At work, we write precious little of any real substance. Instead we hold meetings. Talking is fast, cheap, and interactive. Talking requires no style guide, spell check, or grammar review. And let’s not forget the really big benefit of oral argument: If you don’t put anything in writing, you aren’t committing to something that people can rub your nose in later. Nobody ever made a photocopy of something stupid you said in a meeting and circulated it around the company.

And yet, writing remains a powerful tool for influence. I once worked on a massive corporate change project where I wrote a weekly e-mail to all of the leaders. In the document I described what we had done that week and why. I shared theory and philosophy. I honestly described both successes and failures. I even expressed my concerns and feelings. Often the document was a full two pages long.

At first I worried that the weekly two-pager was out of step with the corporate culture, but soon learned that the documents were becoming the voice of the change project. People would stop me in the hallway and ask questions or make comments. The letter drew people together in a way that I hadn’t imagined. Water-cooler talk transformed from light-weight sports analysis and petty gripes to thoughtful discussions of where the leaders were trying to take the company and what it would require to get there. An atmosphere of concern and criticism slowly shifted to one of guarded optimism. The ailing company was on the mend and everyone was playing a role in the healing. And strangely enough, the weekly letter played an important role in propelling the change.

And how about parents? Should they make more use of the written word? When my oldest daughter took a job in Ecuador, I wrote her a weekly letter where I expressed my love and concern for her along with daily chit chat and updates on sports and current events. These were the first letters I had composed since 1966, when I was living in Brazil and wrote to my own parents. I hadn’t written a letter for over thirty years because the phone had replaced my pen. However, since the cost of even a brief phone call to Ecuador was the equivalent of a steak dinner, I returned to writing letters. Since writing down my thoughts seemed more formal and important to me than merely chatting, I made an effort to express deeper and more meaningful ideas than I would have left to my natural proclivities. My daughter still has all of those letters.

I’m reminded of the movie The Great Santini. When the Santini’s oldest son turns sixteen, his mother writes him a letter and places it in his lunch bag. In it she expresses her love and appreciation for the man he has become. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and I’ve often thought of that scene, wondering how many of us have the courage to do the same. Will we take the time to write our thoughts on paper, where they are recorded forever and can be easily recalled years, even centuries, later? Probably not. Either we don’t think to write down our thoughts or we’re afraid of placing them in public view.

But like it or not, fear it or not, the written word still can play an important role in our lives. The day will come when we’re gone and the only thing left of us will be hundreds of still photographs that place us in front of tourist attractions, a handful of short video clips where we ritually mouth, “Get that camera out of my face!” and lastly, perhaps most importantly, our written words. The Maya understood the value of the written word the minute they learned that they could write their thoughts to their own children. And now, through their eyes, I’m coming to the same understanding.

Crucial Conversations QA

Confronting Favoritism

Dear Crucial Skills,

At work, a small group of “good old boys” (friends for over twenty years) is in charge. One got the position because of the other. They “invented” a full-time position for another friend that they just hired. She now has more authority and higher pay (including bonuses and overtime) than many of us who have been here much longer. It seems like the only way to get a good opportunity here is to be part of this group. Those who complain are treated disrespectfully and sometimes end up quitting.

Is there a crucial conversation that can make a difference?

Shut Out from Opportunity

Dear Shut Out,

The first step toward resolving this tough issue is to separate your facts from your stories. You describe a world where connections are more important than contribution, and if you complain, you’re punished. The situation you described does exist in some organizations—but rare is the company where nothing but ragingly unfair politics dominate. There’s usually more to the story. Prepare by asking yourself which of the elements you shared in your question are facts and which are stories. Are any of your assertions merely your judgments? Are the political animals you describe so blatant in their contempt for fairness that they disregard equity or good business sense? What are their actual motives? Could some of the elements you shared as facts be hasty conclusions fed by misunderstanding?

To help complete your preparation, tell the rest of the story. Ask: Why would reasonable, rational, decent people do these things? Does the answer to this question cast any doubt on your stories or assumptions? Could there be an alternative explanation? If so, by working on your stories you have helped diffuse your own strong emotions and prepared yourself to conduct a crucial conversation.

Now, let’s move to the tough part—talking to someone. With whom do you hold this crucial conversation? I suggest holding it with the person who appears to be unfairly giving others an advantage. You might begin by saying, “Would you be willing to talk to me about an issue that is causing problems in our workplace?”

If the boss is willing to talk with you, use your STATE skills to be 100 percent honest and 100 percent respectful. Start with the facts. For example, “I noticed that when the last four tasks were assigned, Jane (your coworker) received all four of them.”

In this conversation, don’t forget to tentatively tell your story. You might say, “I would have expected that other employees would have a chance at some of those opportunities. I hate to say this, but it’s beginning to appear to me that Jane is getting special treatment. Is there something I’m missing? Do you see it differently?”

Then listen carefully and problem-solve.

Crucial Conversations skills will not guarantee the outcome you desire. There are no guarantees. But by stepping up to the problem and discussing it frankly and respectfully, you’ve increased the probability of solving it rather than limiting your career.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Tough Promotion Decisions

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have three direct reports who are very loyal and hardworking supervisors. These employees have worked for the organization for over twenty years. They have also held down the fort during my and my predecessor’s lengthy absences.

I have recently hired a fourth supervisor with better leadership skills. I would like to promote this newcomer to a manger’s position without hurting the feelings of my current supervisors. HR has recommended that I create the new management position and interview all internal candidates and then select the most qualified.

What would be an effective crucial conversation with these supervisors?

Painful Promotion

Dear Painful,

You’re in a very tough situation. I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that some of the reason for your predicament could be of your own making. I offer that perspective not to create more pain or turmoil for you, but to teach something that I hope is of use to you and other readers. If my perspective is unfair, I beg your patience as it may be relevant to others.

One way people get into your situation is by failing to hold crucial conversations with the previous three direct reports over the course of years. When long tenured and loyal employees do good, solid, competent work over the years, they can often fail to move to “great” because their supervisor becomes accustomed to “good enough.” And because they work hard a supervisor can feel guilty for riding them too much to help them work better. We reward loyalty with our silence about employees’ potential for greater contribution.

But I would be less than fair if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s another way leaders get into your predicament. And that’s through growth. In these cases, as the company becomes more complex, someone who filled a job perfectly for years will simply be “outgrown” by their job. These are painful situations to respond to as a leader because the individual has done nothing wrong—in fact they’ve been contributing to the growth that they now can’t keep up with.

Difficult as these situations are, you still have an obligation to do right for the “many” first, and the “one” second. In other words, your first commitment must be to your leadership responsibility. As a leader, you are trusted by the organization to ensure that you make the right decisions in the best interests of the institution. Having made the right decision, you then need to do right by the individual in how the decision is implemented.

Even in situations where the job has outgrown the candidate, we have to be vigilant by not waiting for organizational changes or promotion opportunities to let someone know they aren’t keeping up. Your job, as a leader, is to help them see how their game has to improve so if they’re passed over, it is no surprise.

Here’s how that might look in your current situation:

1. Commit to doing your duty. You absolutely must commit yourself to promoting the person who will best serve the needs of your organization.

2. Own up to your loyal employees. You owe it to the three loyal direct reports to let them know as far in advance as possible that there is a gap between the needs of the organization and their current capabilities. If you’ve waited too long to do this, then you’ve failed them and need to acknowledge that as you discuss the promotion possibility with them. It should not have taken a better candidate arriving on the scene to show you what “great” performance looks like. If it did, then you may need to own up to having allowed mediocrity to become your own measuring rod. You can’t let this conversation with the three long-timers be about “them vs. the new kid”—because it isn’t. It’s about them vs. the needs of the organization. So whether you’re doing this early or late, sit down with them and a) shower them with praise for the loyal service they’ve offered; while b) letting them know that the promotion requires capabilities they currently lack.

3. Show loyalty through generous coaching and support. The way you can reciprocate the loyalty of the three employees is by letting them know that you will give them all the support you can to help them compete for the open position. Now, if the time required to prepare them is unreasonably short, there’s nothing more you can do—just apologize for your failure and commit to helping them prepare for future opportunities. Offer coaching, training, cross-training, temporary assignments, or any other things you can give to help them step up their game. This is how you show loyalty, not by giving them something they don’t deserve.

4. Offer similar support to the new kid. Be sure you aren’t guilty of cronyism by ignoring the need for coaching and advocacy of the new supervisor. Let the new candidate know that you will offer any support he or she needs—including any of the developmental opportunities you’re affording the long-timers.

I wish you the best. Even if you’ve made any of the mistakes I describe above, you’re not alone. And facing this situation appropriately will make you a better leader in the future.