Crucial Conversations QA

Vicarious Conversations

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was wondering if you could share your insights on a perplexing issue: How can I devise a plan to creatively/effectively communicate with workers on shift (those who can’t attend regular face-to-face meetings with supervisors, all-hands meetings with plant managers, etc.)? Our managers/supervisors are finding it hard to have crucial conversations with shift personnel because of their odd schedules. As a result, these employees feel “disengaged” and not aligned with our company’s strategies. Can you help?

Indirect Communication

Dear Indirect,

Thanks for the question. The problem you bring up is shared by thousands of people worldwide. It highlights the challenges often explored under the behavioral science category known as “propinquity”—that is, physical distance and frequency of interaction. It turns out proximity and interaction have a greater effect on likeability, collaboration, respect, and inclusion than virtually any other variable. Research on friendship patterns reveals that distance and the frequency of interaction account for a great deal (often almost all) of the variance. You like people you see all the time. People you don’t see, you don’t care for as much. In more common relationship terms, “Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder.” The more likely outcome is “Out of sight, out of mind.”

As a consultant, I worked on this very issue long before we ever wrote our books. The finding was always the same. A lack of face-to-face time typically creates problems. People who work on different shifts in the same workspace (usually sharing the same equipment and production line) suffer twice. First, they don’t see each other. Second, they share the same space, so they’re constantly causing each other problems. One shift doesn’t clean up or does all the easy jobs, etc. Under these circumstances you have the unsavory combination of high interdependence with almost no direct interaction. It’s a near perfect formula for backbiting, stereotyping, and infighting. And as you pointed out, people who don’t work on the day shift typically feel less included and often act less engaged.

So, what’s a person to do?

Beware of e-mail, voice mail, and other electronic solutions. These modern technologies aimed at resolving propinquity problems can be both an aid and a challenge. E-mail may make it easier to share information—and that can be good—but it keeps people from ever talking face-to-face—and that’s generally bad. “We’ll just drop them a note,” people think to themselves. That way they don’t have to stay after work to hold an actual conversation. If you’re merely sharing information, it’s a good use of the medium. If you’re trying to replace an actual conversation, it’ll never work.

Of course, when people start to talk about problems via e-mail it can be a real disaster. You don’t have the normal give-and-take you would have in a tête-à-tête. You can’t read nonverbals. You can’t make quick adjustments. Problems end up going unresolved and relationships typically grow worse. Like it or not, you can’t hold a crucial conversation via e-mail.

The same is true when giving complicated or tough assignments. People resent being given additional assignments through an e-mail that implies they have plenty of free time when, in fact, their plate is full. People want to be able to discuss priorities, push back where it makes sense, and otherwise discuss what should happen. It’s hard to do this when you can’t read each other. Even a phone conversation doesn’t completely suffice.

The solution to a lack of face time, as you might imagine, lies in offering more actual human contact. Everything else falls woefully short. With shift work in manufacturing, many companies now schedule the two groups to overlap one afternoon every couple of weeks. They pay one team overtime to come in early or to stay late and then discuss common challenges and the solutions. This has proven enormously effective in reducing conflict.

When it comes to supervisors having to deal with people who are working different hours, there is no royal road to helping those who are on different shifts feel included—short of meeting with them fairly regularly, even if for just a few minutes. If you want to find a group of really disgruntled people, talk to employees whose boss works in a different town or isn’t on the same shift. This same boss writes these people’s performance reviews, and as you might imagine, employees almost always feel unfairly judged when they’re being evaluated merely on output measures by a person from afar. These folks don’t only feel excluded, they also typically feel mistreated.

Until leaders schedule time to meet and work with people on different shifts, don’t expect much to change. The presence or absence of the ability to rub shoulders and get to know and respect one another is such a powerful force that almost nothing can replace it. In your efforts to create a sense of commitment and inclusion you can give fancy speeches, write clever memos, even put together engaging videos; but nothing will ever replace meeting informally, chatting, problem-solving, and just having actual time together. So, meet informally and share your views of what can be. Jointly celebrate your successes and mourn your losses. It’s the only cure to the propinquity problem.

Best of Luck,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Some Thoughts on Knowing

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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In the spring of 1958, in my seventh-grade Civics class, Mr. Edwards introduced a classroom full of slack-jawed students to the mysterious field of epistemology. Between explaining to Sam Barker that it was bad to flick the back of Carol Simpson’s left ear and chastising Curt LaMay for taking his shoes off and putting his feet on his desk, Mr. Edwards raised the mind-boggling question, how do we know what we know?

“We often say that we know certain things to be true,” the balding Mr. Edwards expounded, “but how do we know that we know?”

At first, this curious query yielded blank stares. However, as the concept of needing to validate what we accept to be knowledge sunk into our largely unused craniums, it wasn’t long until we were caught up in the intellectual chase. After thinking about Mr. Edwards’s question for a second, I came back with, “If we discover the secret for knowing how we know something—how do we know that?”

As my classmates came up to speed with the idea of an infinite string of “how-do-we-know that” questions, I then added another idea that my father had brought to my attention the previous summer while driving across the country and tiring of playing “I spy with my little eye.”

“Suppose there’s this planet called Zaltoid. The Grand Fubah in charge of Zaltoid has a dog named Fido—only spelled with a P-H, not an F. One day Phido eats a spoiled piece of road kill, falls into a restless sleep, and has a horrible nightmare.

“Now here’s the interesting part,” I said quoting my father, “What if we are that nightmare? What if this whole universe is nothing more than someone or something else’s dream?”

Since I raised those questions that day, I have never received a satisfactory explanation for how we know anything. Apparently I’ve flunked epistemology. Nevertheless, I do have some good news. I have learned a fair amount about examining the validity of what other human beings claim to be true. This is important because people are constantly trying to get one another to believe one wild idea after another, and many prop up their arguments with all sorts of supposed “scientific evidence.”

For instance, can we really believe that four out of five dentists recommend gum to their patients who chew gum? And sure, we all know that kids who watch more than five hours of TV a day are more violent than kids who watch less TV, but is this because they watch violent TV? I, for one, longed for slow-motion decapitations as a part of my daily childhood TV diet, and yet today I lift spiders off the floor and take them outside rather than step on them. And finally, has anyone ever trusted statistics? Have you seen the people who teach it?

Today I’m prepared to answer these penetrating questions. Over two decades ago I spent six straight years in graduate school where I learned how you can be duped by nefarious tricksters who employ faulty thinking, dreadful research techniques, and clever statistical ploys—all aimed at convincing naïve listeners of the veracity of something that may not be all that true. I wish I had learned the basics of statistical analysis and research design earlier in life. I want my own children to know about it today. I wish the university students I continue to teach were far less willing to accept questionable research findings—just because they’re printed to three decimal places in a seriffed font.

So here goes. Here are three popular methods people (often researchers) use to support their conclusions. As you read the examples, see if you can catch the errors or, in some cases, the tricks, they routinely employ.

Bald-faced Cheating. First, let’s consider those eager dentists out there who recommend gum to their patients who chew gum. Does sugarless gum help clean teeth or might it pull off your crowns? What are the actual pluses and minuses? It’s hard to know because the research wasn’t really conducted. Here’s how I found out.

When I was a Coast Guard officer I ate lunch every day alongside a table filled with doctors and dentists. One day one of the dentists pulled out a letter with a flourish. “Take a look at this baby!” he exclaimed with a grin. It was a letter from people who made and sold gum. The letter explained: “Dear Dr. Snodgrass, if you recommend our gum to your patients who chew gum, don’t return this letter. If you don’t recommend our gum, please answer the following fifty questions and mail your response to us.” No return envelope was provided. So Dr. Snodgrass threw away the letter—as did four out of five other dentists.

I start with this particularly slippery example of questionable research methods because it represents the worst of research trickery. It’s premeditated, self-serving, presents a lie as the truth, and then dresses up the lie with numbers.

The solution to this type of shenanigan is obvious, but not always simple. If a research finding is important enough that you’re about to act on it, study the original research. Learn what they actually examined and how they examined it. Don’t take anything on its face. Without knowing how people actually conducted the research, you can’t begin to understand, let alone trust, the reported findings.

Faulty Conclusion. A large petroleum provider runs a country-wide magazine ad that points out that children who watch more than five hours of TV a day are more violent than children who watch less TV. From this finding the suspicious do-gooders make two recommendations. One, don’t let your kids watch so much TV. Two, take particular care to avoid violent TV.

What’s wrong with this ad?

While it’s hard to fault the advice, it’s not as if you can offer it based on the research finding. The authors are assuming that correlational data imply causality. Just because violence increases with increased TV watching doesn’t mean that watching TV is causing the violence. The causality could run the other direction. Perhaps kids who are violent (for whatever reason) might like watching TV. Or there could be a third variable. Perhaps parents who let their kids watch a lot of TV are inattentive and violent on their own. These unhealthy behaviors cause both TV watching and violence.

Question correlational data. Correlational data doesn’t always explain direction and could be puppet to a different variable altogether.

After-the-fact Conclusions. This one’s a bit tricky and I learned about it in an unexpected way. One day my teenage son and I were walking along a rocky beach in Puget Sound. After hitting a few rocks with makeshift bats and skipping flat rocks over the placid surface, we eventually settled in on the age-old contest of rock throwing for accuracy, which I wasn’t very good at. So I decided to impress my son in a new way. I grabbed a plum-sized rock, told my son to watch closely, and then threw the rock as far as I could chuck it. It fell upon a small piece of driftwood some forty yards away and careened into the water. “Do you see that tiny piece of driftwood I just hit?” I asked. He indicated that he did. “Okay hotshot,” I continued. “Now you hit that piece of driftwood.”

‘Hey!” he chided me. “I would be a lot more impressed if you had told me what you were going to hit before you threw the rock.”

Researchers use this same technique all the time. For example, a group of organizational theorists enter healthy organizations as well as those that are limping along. After looking for differences between the two groups the researchers explain exactly why the one group is healthy and the other isn’t. In the healthy companies people are empowered, or their bosses are LMNOP-types, or they all wear yellow accessories, or whatever.

Making ambitious pronouncements after completing a series of observations is, indeed, similar to stumbling on a target and then acting as if you knew about it all along. Such research methods could actually serve us well if they were followed by experiments that tested the conclusion and tracked the results. But they rarely are. Instead, researchers fling a rock in hopes of hitting something and then convince themselves that they knew what they were going to hit long before they so much as moved a muscle.

Review after-the-fact pronouncements with caution. While observational research can be enormously helpful in generating hypotheses, don’t take the observations as experimental findings that are worthy of you acting upon them.

In summary, research findings shouldn’t be accepted as if somehow they had been carved in stone on a mountainside. Findings should be used as a starting point for a thoughtful discussion. If you’re about to bet on the study by actually doing something, pull out the study and examine it with a fine tooth comb. Don’t be tricked by the decimals.

Crucial Conversations QA

Avoiding Anonymous Feedback


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

In our school we have a teacher who is a bully. Others are afraid to confront her and the team atmosphere has suffered as a result. Word has now reached us in administration that some teachers might even leave the school if this continues. However, no teacher who has complained to us is prepared to be quoted. This makes it impossible to either coach this teacher by sharing examples with her, or hold her fully accountable with verifiable evidence.

Given this need for anonymity, how should I, as the supervisor, approach this with the teacher concerned?

No Data

A Dear No Data,

I believe the most basic yearning of the human soul is the desire to be loved. We all want to be accepted, affirmed and approved of by those around us. And when you tamper with someone’s view of their peers’ esteem, you touch the most tender part of their self.

When supervisors presume to expose an erring employee to the scourging experience of long-withheld negative feedback, we must do so with utmost caution. When a community colludes for a long period of time in sustaining someone’s distorted view of themselves, we stand to inflict enormous pain on this person who is suddenly dragged kicking and screaming from the cave into piercing daylight. The experience can ultimately be healthy, but it can also drive someone back into the cave if not handled appropriately.

I say this for two reasons.

First, I’d like all of our readers to think carefully about the active damage we do when we collude with others by withholding negative feedback for a colleague. When we allow a colleague to continue for long periods of time with a distorted image of themselves, we set them up for profound suffering in the long term—not to mention immediate ineffectiveness as they continue their bad habits.

Second, while I have no desire to absolve this teacher of responsibility for her abusive actions, I want to temper the emotion that often accompanies long-withheld feedback. The longer you wait to confront others, the more toxic our emotions become. Interesting, isn’t it? The other person continues to behave in the same way, but our emotions get hotter and hotter. Why? Our reaction to the first offense is the maximum amount of negative emotion we should attribute to that person. The rest of our upset that accrues over time is due to our own sellout—our long-standing decision to withhold the honesty we owe others.

I hope this brief reference to the shared responsibility that got you to your current position helps temper the emotions you (and others) might carry as you begin this crucial confrontation.

Now, you’re in a tough situation. Given that you’ve chosen to step up, and those with the information required to do so have not, you’ve got two hands tied behind your back. So let’s see if we can wiggle a limb loose to help you succeed.

I suggest the following three options to get unstuck:

1. Challenge the offended. Consider gathering the handful of people who have been offended by the teacher and respectfully encourage them to consider their own role in perpetuating the situation. Ask them to consider “What do I really want?” and see if this reflection and the safety of numbers boosts their confidence in being quoted.

2. Gather direct data. In an ideal world you would put yourself into a situation to observe some of the teacher’s behavior. This may be difficult, but if you could gather these facts you would be able to speak with first hand knowledge.

3. Contact for coaching. If #1 and #2 fail, you can discuss the concerns at a high level and offer to play the role of coach. You would let the teacher know that you ve heard multiple concerns about behavior that some find abusive. You should let her know that your only goal is to help both this teacher and those who seem offended. Explain that others have been unwilling to be quoted, but that you would like to conduct interviews with a broad sample of other teachers who would have a view on the topic and then share findings from those interviews afterward. While the teacher will likely be uncomfortable, if you help her understand that you want to get her the coaching she may need and support her in addressing these concerns, you can build a modicum of trust and safety with you. Finally, during the interviews, I would encourage you to ask each interviewee to commit to attending a group debrief with this teacher at the conclusion. This would be a 30-minute session in which you would share the findings with this teacher, and allow her to ask questions of any of those who were in the interview. If they agree to participate in this, it would help them accept some of the responsibility they should own for influencing the situation for the better.

There are no easy answers at this point. But I hope these suggestions help you find a path forward.

Best Wishes,