Crucial Conversations QA

How to Influence Bad Behavior

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you do about folks who absolutely refuse to take responsibility for their own behavior?

One of my colleagues frequently behaves disrespectfully and even aggressively toward others—including myself. A number of us have spoken with him about his behavior. At times he’s defensive and denies the problem—but at other times he’ll apologize then ask me or others to monitor his behavior for him. At the end of the conversation I have somehow become responsible for his future behavior.

How can I change this so that he is responsible for his own behavior and starts to make real changes?

Not My Job

Dear Not,

First, let me offer a note of encouragement.

In researching our latest book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, one of the most inspiring places we visited was an organization called Delancey Street. Delancey was founded thirty years ago by Mimi Silbert, a remarkable woman who has changed the lives of more than 15,000 graduates of her program. Mimi works exclusively with hardened felons and drug addicts and has a 91 percent success rate at helping them turn their lives around—forever. She gets no government funding and has no staff, no guards, and no locks. All she has is a remarkable influence strategy.

Now, here’s why I bring up Mimi. She would tell you that the most powerful source of influence she taps is social influence—the peer pressure applied by the combined group of Delancey residents. She believes that people who behave badly typically do so because those around them allow and enable their bad behavior. And the reason people at Delancey change is because everyone around them demands that they change.

When I hear questions like yours, it’s hard for me not to remember Delancey. Mimi’s philosophy makes me stop and wonder, “If someone is behaving so badly, in what way are those around them part of the problem?”

So—thank you for your question. Your question demonstrates your willingness to examine your own role in perpetuating your colleague’s bad behavior. And since you asked, I’ll offer two suggestions about how you can ensure you are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

1) Hold the right conversation. It sounds like you have raised concerns about his bad behavior. What you haven’t done is raised concerns about his failure to take responsibility. Whenever you walk away from a crucial confrontation feeling unresolved or suspecting things won’t really change, you should take those feelings as a sign you didn’t hold the right conversation. Your real issue is not his bad behavior; it’s that you believe he isn’t owning up to his commitment to change. That’s a different conversation. It’s a trust problem, not a behavior problem.

2) Move to Action. The goal of a crucial confrontation is not mere understanding, it is real change. That’s what you were hoping for and didn’t get. And part of the reason is that you failed to agree on consequences and boundaries. Whenever you’re concerned about recidivism, you should deal with that question in your crucial confrontation. Let’s say, for example, that your colleague shows acceptance of your concerns about his behavior. And even agrees to change. If, based on your past experience, you believe he may not change, it is your job at this point in the confrontation to raise this issue and agree on what will happen if he doesn’t change.

For example, you may say, “I am hopeful about the commitment you’re making. And yet I hope you’ll understand that since we’ve discussed this before and it continued to happen I am nervous about your follow through. I would like to have an agreement with you about what I will do if the problem occurs again. Does that sound reasonable to you?”

If he consents, then you should propose something like, “I believe my next step should be to hand this over to HR or your supervisor. If it happens again I don’t want to feel responsible to continue to have to deal with it. And I think you are in a position to make this stop forever, immediately. Do you agree? I’m trying to be clear that this is not my problem to own, and that since this is now a ‘relationship’ issue, I must discuss how the boundaries of our relationship will need to change if the problem isn’t resolved.”

Finally, I suggest you figuratively link arms with others. In the spirit of Delancey, if everyone demonstrates a resolve to not tolerate his behavior, he will either change or leave. That is how people work. No one can stand being in an environment where others neither allow nor enable his or her bad behavior. So once again I congratulate you for your willingness to examine your own role, and encourage you to spread the word to others. You have enormous power to influence change. Use it!

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Some Additional 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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A couple of months ago I wrote a piece on epistemology—or how we know what we know. I addressed methods for cheating, the dangers of drawing causal conclusions from correlational data, and the insidious threat of post hoc analysis (and yes, it was every bit as scintillating as this summary suggests). This month I complete my thoughts on the subjects with four more vignettes that help answer the questions: Should I trust what you’re telling me? How do I separate the wheat from the chaff? I’ll start with a threat to all of us . . .

Bad Research. One day while I was chatting with a graduate student about research methods, he pointed out that he didn’t have much faith in research because, in his mind, it wasn’t all that scientific. He then went on to explain that he was once part of a research team that observed birds of prey within their various habitats. The hypothesis they were testing was that a certain bird would hang suspended over one habitat more often than another bird which preferred a different habitat.

The trouble was that as researchers observed the birds riding the updrafts, it was tricky to divine which was which. The birds often appeared as little more than specs against the blue sky. Undeterred by the ambiguity, my friend explained that he wrote down the bird that was supposed to match the habitat because he “knew it would confirm the professor’s hypothesis.” From this experience he concluded that research is bad. He should have concluded that bad research is bad.

What made this research bad?

The grad student needed to be “blind to condition.” That is, he shouldn’t have known the hypothesis because it might bias him—which it did.

A Lack of Control. My wife once took a children’s literature class. The teacher explained that one “seminal” study discovered that if children are reading more than two years behind grade level, and if you read aloud to them, then their scores would miraculously return to normal. My wife asked how the research had been conducted. It turns out that researchers had identified students who were two or more years behind reading level and then read aloud to them. Their scores improved. Ergo, reading aloud causes reading scores to improve.

What’s wrong with this study?

The reading scores may have improved simply because the students matured over the year and they caught up naturally. We’ll never know for sure, because the researchers didn’t simultaneously track a control group. Without a control group, you can’t conclude that the intervention caused anything. Who knows what else might have been going on in the environment to cause the improvement?

A Random Idea. One day, when I was six, I was searching for frog eggs in the swamps behind my back yard it suddenly hit me that I had been slogging through filthy, slimy, gunk all day long and that I just might have contacted a polio germ. I immediately sprinted home, boiled water, and tried to gargle with it. Never before had cleanliness concerned me an iota, but on this day in 1952 the fear of contracting polio was on everyone’s mind. Nobody knew how you caught the frightening disease, it struck down young children, and its victims could end up in an iron lung for the rest of their lives. Thus the painful gargling.

Later that year when medical researchers called for volunteers to test a new polio vaccine, my parents eagerly signed me up. After receiving four doses of a very thick vaccine that had to be pumped into my tiny arm through a painfully thick needle, I was awarded a small metal button that proclaimed me a “Polio Pioneer.” I had been one of thousands of children who had served as experimental subjects, and the good news was that the vaccine had worked. Fewer of those of us who had received the shots came down with the frightening disease than the children whose parents hadn’t signed them up to be guinea pigs.

The victory celebration didn’t last very long. Within weeks an embarrassing announcement followed. The research was flawed.

The scientist who were trying to save thousands of people untold suffering didn’t know how to design an experiment. Someone who did know a thing or two about research design asked the senior designers a pesky question: “What if the parents who volunteered their kids to be tested treat their offspring differently than parents who didn’t volunteer?” Perhaps people who willingly expose their kids to medical research are more scientifically oriented. Maybe they’re more educated. Maybe they keep their houses cleaner. If any or all of this were true, then maybe the kids who received the shots experienced a lower incidence of polio because of the washings and cleaning and not because of the innoculations.

Now what’s a scientist to do? You can’t ask kids to number off and then give half of them a shot and leave the other half untested. That’s illegal and unethical. But you can call for volunteers once again and then give half the kids the vaccine and half a placebo. So that’s what the researchers did. They created a new strain of vaccine, called for volunteers (my parents couldn’t sign me up fast enough) and gave us shots. Of course, they didn’t tell us kids that half of us were getting water shot into our arms.

We discovered the trickery later that year when, with all of the drama associated with the Academy Awards, our teachers handed out sealed envelopes. Inside my envelope I found a small slip of paper with the word “vaccine” printed on it. I had won. I had been properly vaccinated and once again the newly-formulated vaccine had proven to be effective. My neighbor Bobby Kaiser opened his envelope only to find the word “water.” In order to be properly inoculated, Bobby was forced to take four more shots—ending with a grand total of twelve arm puncturings. And why? Because researchers didn’t understand that not only must you create experimental and control groups when designing an experiment, but you must also randomly assign people to their conditions. Anything less than this and you can’t trust the findings.

Lying with Statistics. When listening to sales pitches you often hear things like “individuals who have been immersed in our award-winning Executive Leadership Training Program are ‘significantly more effective’ than those who haven’t!” That sounds good. Participants don’t just do better, they do significantly better.

Do you know why this might actually be a bit of a lie?

Here’s what’s typically going on behind the scenes. A group of subjects is exposed to a treatment—say leadership training. The subjects then score 3.5 on a 7-point effectiveness scale whereas people who missed the training score 3.4. The designers don’t like this oh-so tiny improvement so they launder their results in a way that gets them what they want.

Here’s what they do. If they then put, say, 2,000 more people through the training and the expanded population continues to score a tenth of a point higher than people who aren’t treated, the difference actually may be statistically significant. This, unfortunately, is a poor choice of terms. What statisticians are really saying when they use the word “significant” is that 95 times out of a hundred—if the two groups were actually alike—you wouldn’t get that .1 difference. So, you can be 95 percent sure that the difference is real. In the leadership training case, that means you’re 95 percent sure that those who paid for the leadership training improved a very trivial amount—a puny one-tenth on a 7-point scale. By misapplying the statistical term “significance,” the training designers report that their trained group did significantly better.

The solution to this deliberate obfuscation is rather simple. When someone reports “significant” results, ask to see their raw data. Demand to see the difference of the scores between groups. You might discover that the number of subjects was large but the difference between groups was puny. From this you’ll know that the person claiming “significant” improvement is misapplying the term.

So there you have it. Hardly a day passes that someone out there doesn’t make some audacious “research-based” claim about what we need to do to improve our lives. Naturally, before we start drinking brine-shrimp juice, or standing on our heads during the nightly news, or pumping water into our colons we ask, “How do you know this method actually works? It doesn’t sound all that fun and if it doesn’t work, well, why should we suffer?” These are the right questions to ask. And whether you studied epistemology in school or not, it turns out you need to be an epistemologist to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Otherwise you’ll need to get used to being “chaff-ted.”

Crucial Conversations QA

Don't Blame the Spouse


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,

What do I do if a team member blames a family member for problems?

We have someone who is on flex time to help with child care. A number of times he cancelled meetings at the last minute, saying something along the lines of “my wife had to go to work and had a meeting that lasted several hours longer than expected, so I have to take care of children and cannot make it.”

What do I do in this situation? The schedule changes disrupt my plans and sometimes result in delays if I cannot re-schedule the meeting for several days. But I cannot tell someone how to deal with their spouse. Also, I can’t hold my team member accountable for his wife failing to live up to her commitments.

All in the family

A Dear All in the family,

You’re absolutely right. You can’t tell someone how to deal with his or her spouse. And the spouse is not the problem. You’ve fallen into a very common trap of allowing someone to change the subject of your crucial confrontation.

Your issue is not his spouse. It is him. It is your team member’s responsibility to find a way to keep his commitments. Period. And when you allow his explanations to turn into excuses, you are the problem, not him.

Frequently leaders with the best of intentions think that showing concern for someone’s challenges means they become slack on accountability. This is a sucker’s choice. Your job as a leader is to expect people to keep their commitments and to demonstrate a willingness to help them if they are trying to find a way to solve problems. But don’t let your willingness to help turn into weakness in accountability.

Even when you have a flex time arrangement with an employee, it is the employee’s job to keep the agreements they make within his flexible schedule. “Flex time” does not mean “any time.” You should have clear expectations about the boundaries of flexibility and hold your people accountable to working within those boundaries. The flip side of flexibility is responsibility. Flex time does not work if employees are not scrupulously responsible to the agreements they make when taking advantage of it.

Here’s how the conversation should sound when this pattern occurs:

Employee: “Boss, I’m so sorry I didn’t make it to the meeting this morning. My wife took my car for an urgent work issue and I had to arrange alternative transportation at the last minute.”

You: “I’m sorry things were so hectic for you this morning. Sounds like it’s been a stressful one. And I want to do all I can to accommodate the unpredictability you face. And yet a pattern is emerging that I need you to help me figure out.”

Employee: “What’s that?”

You: “In the past month we’ve had six scheduled meetings that you’ve missed—all for valid reasons given your family complexities.”

Employee: “Yes—I’ve told you about all of those problems.”

You: “Yes, you have. And as a result of your frequent absence at the last minute, we’ve stopped trusting that you are able to keep your commitments. That’s undermined trust in our team and created a lot of rework for myself and others. We’re at the point that we don’t want to count on you anymore. Not because you aren’t a great team player or don’t make a contribution when you’re here, but because you seem unable to keep commitments due to family challenges. I don’t think that’s fair to the team, and I need to find a way to function better given your unpredictable schedule. What do you suggest?”

From here the conversation is on the right topic. Now, I don’t know that there’s anything magical about these words. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how you can show sympathy for your colleague’s challenges without allowing your sympathy to shift the problem to you. It is not your problem, it is his.

Show him respect. Be understanding. But expect him to do the work he’s being paid for. Anything less than that is dishonoring his personal responsibility and makes you an enabler of his unfair treatment of your team and organization.

I know those words may be hard to hear—but I hope the ethical clarity helps you find your way forward in this tricky situation.

Best wishes,