Ron McMillan is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
The following article was first published on August 31, 2005.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I suspect one of my direct reports (my assistant) has an issue with me that she is unwilling or unable to address. To my face she is pleasant and appears content. I have clearly expressed my desire for open communication and she has acknowledged that she feels comfortable coming to me with any concerns. However, in an exit interview, one of her coworkers told me that this employee “feels oppressed” by me. Another of her coworkers has referenced “communication problems” between us.
My gut tells me she is sharing her concerns with others, but not me, yet I have nothing tangible to reference with her. I don’t want to seem paranoid or have a conversation that is so vague it has no impact. I’d be more inclined to just let it go if it weren’t for the fact that I believe others are getting a negative perspective on me.
I’ve long believed the most useless employee idea is the one you never hear—and likewise, the most hurtful customer complaint is the one that’s never shared. If you’re not aware of the problem, it’s tough to solve it. Now, in your case, you’ve got some clues that there is a problem, yet you have been unable to get direct understanding from your assistant. Apparently, she’s gone silent with you on this issue.
I find it helpful to think of this as a safety problem; because your assistant doesn’t feel safe, she doesn’t want to share. It’s not content that keeps people from talking openly. It’s perceived lack of safety. With enough safety you can share almost anything with almost anyone. The way to solve this issue with your assistant is to make it safe enough for her to share how she views the situation. Here are a few ideas.
First of all, think about what it is you really want here. This is a relationship problem. The first conversation you need to hold is not about whatever topic she’s holding back, it’s about how you work together. You not only want to identify and solve a communication problem, you want to do it in a way that builds a safe, effective relationship going forward. You want a relationship that’s open, a relationship where you can both talk about what’s working and what’s not—and where you can work together on making things better. Keep these goals in mind as you move forward, and they will help you stay on track in creating safety.
In order to build safety into this conversation, begin by sharing your good intentions. You might explain your reason for having this conversation. For example, “I want to talk to you about our working relationship—how it’s going, and how it can be improved.”
I also think it would show respect and be a nice touch to ask your assistant’s permission to have this conversation–again adding to the safety. Ask by saying something like, “Would that be alright?” If she says yes, proceed. If she says no, ask why not.
Now you want to share the issue you’re concerned about–you want to get your meaning into the shared pool. Start with the facts you have collected: “In an exit interview, your coworker shared with me that you feel oppressed by me, and another coworker referenced communication problems between us.” Then you can tentatively tell your story: “I’m wondering if I’m doing something that makes it hard to work with me and that makes it hard to talk to me about it.” And finally, ask for her perspective: “What’s going on? Please help me understand.”
And then—really listen. Honestly invite her to share and sincerely show your interest in what she’s saying. You achieve this by staying calm and professional as she shares her concerns. Don’t be defensive—that would likely reinforce the story she’s already telling about why she can’t bring things up. Often, actively listening will create a strong sense of mutual purpose and respect, and people will feel safe enough to open up.
If your assistant still does not want to talk about it, exercise your best judgment as to when to stop the conversation. At some point, to continue pressing is to cross the line into disrespect. If you decide to disengage, leave her with an invitation: “I would like to better understand how you feel about our working relationship, and would like to hear any ideas you have about how I can be more effective. Would it be alright with you if we revisit this issue another time?”
Keep in mind that for some issues, you will have to work on mutual purpose and respect consistently over time before you can build enough safety for others to be willing to open up.
As an additional note, if you suspect that the problem is more widespread than a single direct report, you might consider a simple tool to gather feedback, such as an anonymous survey. Often, if people can give you feedback in writing anonymously, they will be honest and direct. Try a short paragraph describing the feedback you want, such as, “I would like to collect feedback on my leadership style. Will you help me? Please identify the things I am doing well that I should CONTINUE doing, the things I am not doing well that I should STOP doing, the things I am not doing that I should START doing, and the things I am doing but should MODIFY. Do not attach your name. All responses will be collected and compiled by [a third party, perhaps an administrative assistant].”
This becomes a quick and efficient way of ascertaining whether or not there is a widespread problem that needs your attention. Be sure to thank your team for their time and thoughts and share with them some of the things you’re going to do to improve. Ask them for their support in making these changes and make sure you do not try to identify individual comments or be punitive in any way. As you target the things you need to change and as they see you making improvements, you will be creating a safer social climate in your team—making it easier for people to be honest with you in the future.
I wish you all the best in your most crucial confrontations.