Crucial Conversations QA

How to Change Social Norms at the Office

Joseph Grenny 

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



QDear Crucial Skills,

I moved to a new branch a year ago and am managing a new team of people. The long-standing norm has been to allow staff to spend time on activities that are not work-related. I am very frustrated with what I believe is dishonest behavior, as people use paid time to do personal chores. I am also concerned that my frustration will come across to the staff in the wrong way.

I have looked to many sources to deal with this effectively. When I bring up the issue, things change for a short time, and then behavior reverts back to old habits. How can I get across to the staff once-and-for-all that this is not acceptable?

New Kid in Town

A Dear New Kid,
I applaud your integrity. We operate in a far less-supervised workplace than people did fifty years ago. So much of our work is electronically mediated and done independently, that there is a much greater temptation to slack off now and again. And given all the tools that make it easy to e-mail, shop online, connect with friends on Facebook, or share videos on YouTube—it takes an enormous amount of self-discipline to stay focused on the job you’re paid to do.

You face a tricky situation because your challenge is not how to change bad behavior; it’s how to change bad norms. It’s one thing to confront the inappropriate meanderings of one individual. It requires a wholly different strategy when you’re attempting to reset the norms of a group of people.

Here are some thoughts about how to approach your problem. You’ve got at least three crucial conversations to hold:

1. Establish air cover. The big problem with bad norms is you don’t know how high and wide the acceptance runs. If, for example, your peer managers in this new location give tacit approval to personal indulgences during work hours, it’s much harder to establish new norms. It’ll be even harder if those above you have enabled this behavior. If this is the case, then the first crucial conversation you need to have is with other managers and your bosses.

When discussing the problem with peer managers and bosses, you’ve got to give yourself air cover in the form of facts and data so you won’t be standing alone when the going gets tough. Gather and share data about the frequency of the problems and do some rough calculations of the effect on costs or other important business results. In doing so, be sure not to come across as indignant or self-righteous. If you do, you’re more likely to be seen as a zealot than as a reasonable leader.

Your goal in these crucial conversations is to establish mutual purpose. Don’t push them faster than they’re willing to go. Let the data do the talking and let them come to conclusions with you about what to do. Of course, if the problems are open-and-shut violations of policy, you’ll need to notify HR or other appropriate leaders—but if we’re talking about sloppy management and gray area issues, these conversations are your most effective influence tool.

2. Make it public. Next, you need to start a public dialogue about these concerns. Bad norms are usually established in silence—no one discusses misbehavior but everyone is guilty. The first thing you need to do is openly and publicly acknowledge the frequency of the concerns. Show a bit of respect by acknowledging your own natural tendency to fall into bad behavior when others are doing so. Be careful that you don’t come across as thinking you are better than your colleagues. Instead, talk about your growing awareness of the ethics involved and share your perceptions about the consequences of this behavior (on costs, customers, peers, etc.).

3. Clarify three kinds of consequences. Your goal in the crucial conversation with your staff is to help them clearly understand the importance of changing their behavior. Less effective influencers attempt to motivate people to change solely with threats. Remember, you aren’t trying to alienate them; you’re trying to help them change. You’ve got to work with these people to get things done and don’t want to start your relationship with them by provoking resentment. As we’ve suggested in Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, you’ll do far better if you have three sources of motivation rather than just one. Your goal is to help people change through personal, social, and structural motivation.

Personal: Raise the issue candidly and respectfully as a moral issue and invite people to challenge your view of the concern if they see it differently. If people don’t immediately feel defensive, they are likely to realize they have fallen into moral sloppiness. If this happens, you’ll have their consciences as your ally in influencing change. And that’s an ally that is with them more often than you are.

Social: Encourage people to respectfully confront violations of the new norm. They are unlikely to join you to begin with—but letting them know there will be social consequences for misbehavior can be a powerful deterrent.

Structural: Let people know what sanctions will be applied for first time or repeated offenses. This public discussion—done in a respectful way—can cause people to be far more conscious of their choices than they have been in the past. If you do this well, you’ll take a big step toward disrupting the past norm. The last step is to establish the new norm.

4. Follow up scrupulously and compassionately. New norms are established when people experience immediate and consistent social consequences for their behavior. So be sure they do. If you see violations, confront them. But also confront those who were aware of them but said nothing. You need to not only communicate your desire for new behavior—but also your expectation that others will join you in encouraging the agreed-upon values. And when repeated offenses occur, be sure to invoke the sanctions you committed to. But when you do, do so in a way that shows you get no satisfaction from inflicting punishment. If you seem vindictive or remorseless about it, you will once again alienate those you’re trying to influence.

The bottom line is if your goal is simply to crack down on bad behavior, you can go in with guns blazing. But if your goal is to influence sustainable and healthy behavior, you’ll have to use a broader range of influence strategies—beginning with a few crucial conversations.

Best wishes in your worthy attempt to change the behavior of your team.


Crucial Conversations QA

How to Recover From a Failed Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

When reading the concerns of “Tired of the Attitude” and your recommendations to her, I couldn’t help but think of the many times I have tried to follow the recommendations given in the Crucial Conversations literature—begin with the facts, make it safe, etc.—and I find myself in the middle of a defensive attack-fest. Despite our best efforts, will we sometimes still fail?


Dear Seeking,

Haven’t we all failed sometimes? I have and after years of experience, still do. In the Crucial Conversations Training, we have a couple of sayings that apply here:

When it matters the most, we often do our worst. This is because we’re not built to effectively handle crucial conversations. When we feel threatened, our body prepares for fight or flight by sending blood and adrenaline to our extremities and away from our brain. As a result, we are “dumbed down.” So, when it matters the most, we are often on our worst behavior.

Crucial conversations take time; but ultimately, the alternatives take longer and cost more. The alternatives are varied versions of silence and violence. When we engage in less effective strategies, then we have to revisit the issue, repair damage, etc. This process takes time and can come at great cost.

So, I can sympathize with you that even when I try my best, I still don’t win them all. However, here are a few bits of advice to help you prevent failed conversations:

1) Sometimes our conversations fail because we neglect to “Work on Me First.” Pausing and asking, “What am I doing? How might I be a part of the problem?” is one of the hardest skills to master. Often, this comes down to the story we have told ourselves about our intentions. We get carried away thinking that we’re right and that everything that is good and virtuous is on our side. We also feel that we’ve thought it through and consequently, our approach is not only thoughtful, but borders on genius. As a result, we push and push, but this pushing often creates the very resistance we’re trying to avoid. Just because we’re bright and right doesn’t mean we are being skillful. It also doesn’t mean we are controlling the obvious facial expressions that show we are exasperated and think the other person is wrong or maybe even evil.

So, when you’re not getting the kind of results you want, start by looking at yourself. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking? What am I showing?” Often, when we get into a debate, the real problem is that we have not clarified mutual purpose. So, pause and find out what the other person is trying to accomplish, and then share what you would like to accomplish.

2) Too often, we rely on verbal persuasion. Too often, when we are not getting the results we want, our strategy is to increase our verbal persuasion in both volume and frequency. This behavior is also called nagging and nagging doesn’t work. So what should you do instead?

In Influencer, we talk about using vicarious experiences—stories that help people connect emotionally and not just intellectually. Share your experiences, then ask for and listen to stories and examples from the other person. Another alternative to verbal persuasion is field trips. A field trip helps you gather relevant data, and with new data you can often find new solutions. In the case where you are constantly debating or revisiting the same old problem, work together to see if you can find a place or person to visit that would provide new information and a new perspective for both of you.

3) Sometimes, you have to agree to disagree. Sometimes, you have to seek agreement to bring in another perspective or a mediator. Sometimes, you have to work on building more safety and trust in the relationship. Sometimes, you realize you are not interdependent and you can each do what you want. If your situation deals with these interdependent groups, like teams or families, keep working on it, even if it means taking a breather and trying again.

Remember that when the issues are very crucial, it’s worth hanging in there and trying one more time.

Best Wishes,

Crucial Accountability QA

How to Let Others Learn the Hard Way

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My sister-in-law is in a cycle of denial and anger at having lost her home and many possessions. She is also on the verge of losing her business. She is lashing out toward family members because they aren’t stepping up to the plate.

I am resentful because she isn’t taking responsibility for the role she played that brought her to this current crisis. She believes her family should be bailing her out of trouble physically and financially. I honestly would help if I thought I could, but I’m afraid I’d simply be enabling her bad habits and keeping life from teaching its lessons.

How do you deal respectfully and compassionately with others, when the guilt of watching them sink deeper and deeper into trouble becomes uncomfortable?

Helpless Spectator

A Dear Helpless,

What a wonderful in-law you are. The fact that you are agonizing over your response is evidence of your compassion for your sister-in-law. Here are a few thoughts about your dilemma:

1. Learn the difference between guilt and pain. You talk about feeling guilt, but if you truly feel you are doing what is best, what you’re feeling is not moral guilt. It could be that you’re feeling social guilt—a worry that your sister-in-law doesn’t approve of you or that others may judge you harshly because you aren’t doing what they think you should do. This isn’t moral guilt, it’s dependency. If this is the case, you need to look inward rather than outward. Be comfortable and confident with your response and affirm your own choice rather than looking to others for approval.

You may also be feeling simple pain. You sympathize with your sister-in-law’s predicament and hate the fact that she is creating this misery for herself. If this is the case, then you’re human. This is the right way to feel and there is no solution for it other than to stop loving her, which I don’t advocate or believe you want to do.

2. A little distance makes pain manageable. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to protect your own happiness by giving yourself a little distance from someone who is on a self-destructive path. Have a little less contact, talk about her less with others, but be careful about too much distance. Stay close enough to be accessible, and far enough to avoid excessive misery. When you put yourself too far out of contact you could be slipping into selfishness rather than self-management.

3. Develop a message that expresses both your love and your boundaries—and deliver it consistently when she attempts to draw you into enabling her. If you are comfortable that you are doing the right thing, then your guilt will turn into a cleaner and more manageable kind of pain—and you’ll be able to confidently and compassionately express two messages: 1) that you love her and will help her; and 2) that you won’t participate in things that won’t truly help. This is a tough message to get across, and many people who are intentionally blind to their own role in their misery won’t hear it from you until the 100th time you say it—perhaps many years down the road.

One dear friend didn’t truly hear it from me for four years. But when he did, we began to work together in a healthy way. This is a bit wordy, but here’s what I said over and over again to him:

“I know you think I should help you in ways that I don’t think would truly help. I know you resent me for that. But I want you to know that any time you are willing to engage in a plan I believe will be healthy, I will do everything in my power to help. Until then, I will maintain a little distance because I think our disagreement about what I should or shouldn’t do will hurt rather than help our relationship. But please don’t mistake that distance for a lack of affection. If anything, it is my way of protecting our relationship. I will always love you.”

Don’t make the sucker’s choice of maintaining your boundaries by becoming cold. And don’t become an enabler in order to avoid seeming cold. Express both your love and your convictions—over and over again. Someday she will hear them both and appreciate your wisdom.

You have my admiration. I hope my words help, too.