Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
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 Shit 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.