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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,

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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