Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
A colleague recently informed me that a relatively new member of our team has made disparaging comments to her about my job skills and work style.
My colleague was torn about letting me know because, even though she felt I should be aware of what is being said about me in my absence, she knew I would want to have a crucial conversation with our new team member. She also knew this would likely mean that the team member would realize the source of my information even if I did not divulge it. My colleague doesn’t want to experience backlash from informing me, but realizes this may be inevitable.
I’ve not yet decided whether to have this conversation with the new team member, but I notice myself withdrawing in my interactions with him—and I know he’s noticed my changed demeanor toward him.
What is the best way to present indirect or hearsay facts in a crucial conversation?
Second Hand News
Dear Second Hand News,
Yes, you’re in a quandary. When people give you information that changes how you see others, but swear you to secrecy, they’re essentially saying, “I’m about to tell you something that will make you feel bad but I want you to promise me you won’t do anything healthy about it. Okay?”
I’ve been in this predicament, too. As a result, I’ve developed a few personal codes I try to abide by.
Don’t listen if you can’t act. I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to warn people away who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in a gossip direction, I politely stop them and say: “Please do not put anything in my head that you expect me to not act on. I will not carry around a conclusion about another person without sharing it with them.” This helps people understand that speaking implies taking responsibility.
Separate the problems and address both. You’re right to worry that the team member will demand to know who shared this information with you. Even if you didn’t make this agreement with your colleague in advance, it sounds like you still put her on notice that you are likely to approach your teammate. So you are within your rights to hold the crucial conversation. I suggest you hold a crucial conversation first with the woman who passed along the criticism, and second with your team member. Here’s how I suggest you proceed:
- Give advance warning and a chance to take responsibility. Let your colleague know that you will be having a conversation with your team member. Suggest to her that she preempt your “surprise” by letting him know in advance that she gave you a heads up about his concerns. For example, she could say to him, “I told her you had some concerns about her competence and approach—I knew she’d want to know this. I think she’d like to talk to you to understand your concerns.” This won’t be easy for your colleague, but she may find it preferable to the tension that will result if you blow her cover for her.
- Approach him and acknowledge HIS right to feel insulted. When you approach your team member, begin by acknowledging any complaint he has about people talking behind his back. Rather than wait for him to ask, “Who said that?” let him know that this is not the way you wanted to receive feedback either, and that you can understand if he wants to know who said this. If, however, you don’t have permission to disclose the names, simply encourage him to make his best guess and approach them directly as well—then shift the conversation to his concerns.
- Discuss his issue first. Next, focus on the content issue—the fact that you have heard he has concerns with your competence or approach. DO NOT address the “talking behind my back” issue first. Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation—even implicitly—as “Shame on you for talking behind my back” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short—I am desperate for that feedback. Nothing makes me more worried than believing that I might have an inaccurate view of myself and that I am failing to address weaknesses.” This disarming approach makes it harder for him to tell a villain story about you (although not impossible) and will make it harder for him to justify badmouthing you in the future.
- Discuss the process second. Only after you’ve explored any concerns he has with you can you productively hold him accountable for the indirect way this feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do. Promise him the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold him accountable for his bad behavior.
You’ve got 80,000 friends reading this newsletter who all wish you the best as you approach this issue. But more importantly, these tips will hopefully help you and others better manage this kind of situation in the future.