Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Where Are You Mr. Capra?

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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Yesterday my neighbor told me an interesting story. She noticed that a girl in the grade-school class that she teaches wasn’t bringing a sack lunch to school. The hungry child explained that they didn’t have a refrigerator, so her parents didn’t keep ingredients for a sack lunch. The teacher immediately started a fund-raising campaign that culminated when the school gave the needy family its very own refrigerator. The girl brought a sack lunch to school for two days, and then missed an entire week of school—after which she returned to class, but without a lunch. When asked why she was no longer brown-bagging it, she explained that her parents had sold the refrigerator and with the proceeds had taken the family to Disneyland!

When you hear stories like this you want to climb on your high horse and lecture anyone who would trade off their children’s health for a couple of days of fun, but the more helpful response is to ask: Why would someone do that? Why would a rational human being trade off the conveniences and utility of owning their very own refrigerator for one week’s pleasure?

As I thought about living a life almost as if there is no future (even if the future is merely a few days away), I turned to my own upbringing. As a child I was exposed to dozens of stories that taught the same message: How you act today affects how you’ll live tomorrow and into the distant future. As one of those messages, I was instructed to be the hard-working and frugal ant, not the silly grasshopper who partied during the harvest only to suffer through winter. Popular movies of my parents’ era (which were shown on TV to my generation) were made by directors such as Frank Capra, who told us in his award-winning movie It’s a Wonderful Life that true happiness comes from prudent living. Heroes go without in order to secure their future. Heroes worry about how today’s actions might affect the person they become. I watched dozens of such Capra-esque morality plays and they all sang the same tune—behave wisely today so you don’t have to suffer tomorrow.

But there are more forces at work here. A changing economy, a growing interest in being “cool,” and massive changes in technology have transformed each successive generation into a very different populace from those of Frank Capra’s era—one that cared deeply about the future in general and financial security in specific. For instance, in today’s society, homes are plugged into TVs that pump 20,000 half-minute commercials into every TV-watching child’s head every single year. These ads don’t teach frugality or temperance or anything long-term. Instead they argue that you need whatever they’re selling and you need it now.

Couple this rampant live-for-the-moment consumerism with a social movement that suggests that being snide, hip, and cool is far more sophisticated than preaching what is right, or helpful, or prudent—and it’s easy to see why so many people today live as if there is no tomorrow. In contemporary movies, writers frequently decouple behavior from consequence—because cool people live for the moment. For instance, if you commit crime—but against a nasty person—and if you’re handsome, and glib, and hip while you’re doing it, it’s okay to be a criminal. Don’t worry, a life of crime won’t ruin your life or have a negative influence on the person you become. Capra’s movies may have been corny by today’s standards because they dared to teach something by linking behavior to consequence, but they didn’t lead to a people who live so much for the moment that they routinely put their future at risk.

TV is no better. It often teaches us that the good life consists of sitting around with friends, flirting and playing—and nobody has to work very much in order to afford outlandishly upscale New York apartments. Plus by using their magical clocks, the main characters are able to spend all of their perceivable time goofing off with their friends, yet somehow still have time to meet people and have amazingly active and glamorous dating lives as well as successful careers. How does that work? It’s all part of decoupling action from consequence. Selfish and unrealistic lifestyles lead to fun—not the heartache and deprivation that would likely ensue.

I suppose airing a show or two that creates a fantasy world isn’t all that harmful, but when you combine the unrelenting and selfish messages of commercialism with the TV and Movie mantra of “what you do today won’t affect tomorrow” across dozens of ads and countless shows, it creates a very different view from the common doctrine espoused by “The Greatest Generation.” Given the massive changes in what we read and view, it’s little surprise that you can readily find people who have no sense of their role in their own history—or of history at all for that matter. If you repeatedly tell people to live for the moment and refuse to link behavior with consequence, you create a people who one day are going to have to pay the piper, and it’s not going to be pretty.

My generation of boomers suffers from a case of short-term-ism just as much as the generations that are dutifully following. Only a third of my peers (who are just now turning 63) say they have set aside enough money to continue their lifestyle into retirement. Two-thirds are going to have to make uncomfortable adjustments. Many are clueless as to what they’re going to do. It’s as if my classmates expected that one day (way off in the distant future) when they gave up their salaries, the retirement fairy would step in and take care of them. With tens of thousands of people stepping up to these circumstances every single day, the retirement fairy is going to get a hernia trying to carry their load, and their children are going to feel the pain.

And it’s not merely individuals who are taking this careless tactic. Congress has been writing rubber checks for years and voters have not risen up en masse to throw out the scoundrels for selling out their personal savings or dooming their children to who knows what. The business world has been equally culpable. For years American executives have been stereotyped as having a precariously short-term orientation. And it’s largely true. Numerous executives have done whatever they can to maximize short-term profits in order to bolster their own bonuses and retirement accounts—only to put their companies in grave peril. One company located just up the street from me promised the president a million dollar bonus if he hit a certain sales number. He cut pricing, sold thousands of units at a loss, had customers warehouse the product, banked his fat bonus, retired, and nearly took his company into bankruptcy.

As we continue to fan the flames of a buy-it-now culture, mock all things value based, and lose our sense of history in the process, it’s little surprise that our national savings rate has dropped from 7 percent in the 50s (behind Germany at 12 percent and Japan at 17 percent) to an embarrassing low of 1 percent. And it’s not simply because we don’t have the money. We had the money, but we spent it. The third of my generation that is financially prepared for retirement didn’t earn more than others, they simply spent less. They went without, set aside money, invested well, and became “The Millionaire Next Door.”

I hope today’s harsh financial and social circumstances will help us take a long, hard look at what’s been going on for the last half century. And as we do, we need to acknowledge any role we’ve played in causing both our economic and our social woes. Some can look back with pride. We have plenty of “ants” living among us and I applaud them for their self-discipline and integrity. But the grasshoppers have to come to terms with what they really want.

Parents, business executives, and community leaders alike are going to have to find a way to say “no” to buying everything today. They’re also going to have to get used to teaching the long-term values of self-restraint and making choices with tomorrow in mind. The future desperately needs advocates, cheerleaders, and spokespeople—and we’re all going to have to take a turn. That means we’re going to have to act and feel corny once in a while. We can’t remain critical, glib, cool, and above the fray, and hope to turn things around. Like it or not, if we want a wonderful life (all the way to the end), we’re going to have to embrace Frank Capra.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Avoid Adding Insult to Injury

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our company probably has layoffs coming up. Some employees will lose their jobs, and most remaining employees will have to take on extra work to keep things going. Some of our employees have been in the same position for more than 20 years.

The “you are getting laid off” conversation is stressful, with potential for silence and/or violence, as well as wrongful termination lawsuits. Our attorney advises that the less said during those conversations, the better.

Our administrators are really dreading these conversations. Do you have any advice for them?

Bad News

Dear Bad News,

Let’s be clear—getting laid off is horrible. It fills the laid off person with uncertainty. It throws a family into turmoil. It makes people doubt their worth and capacity. It spreads mistrust and paralysis through an organization.

Leaders tend to consistently underestimate the costs of layoffs and the price they’ll pay to rebuild capacity when things turn around. With that said, there are times the organization’s survival demands it. It’s better to lose 10 percent of the workforce now than lose 100 percent later.

I say all of this simply to acknowledge that no matter how well you follow the advice I offer, there will still be pain. There’s a big difference between being cut by a surgeon who cares about you and being cut by a mugger in an alley. Far too many organizations behave like muggers during layoffs.

I’ll never forget a dear friend describing what it was like to have security guards show up unannounced to his office and stand by him as he filled the four cartons provided to him with the belongings he’d accumulated over years in his position. He thought that arriving to the lofty position of vice president would have earned him a little more consideration. But the lawyers were running this show and cared only for organizational defense and not at all for personal dignity. For months he struggled, not just with the pain of joblessness, but with the insult of the process.

As a leader, I have faced these challenges. Let me share what I think turns leaders into surgeons rather than muggers. But first let me begin with a strong ethical assertion: Nothing reveals a leader’s soul more than the way he or she handles necessary dismissals. Unless you are willing to sacrifice time, money and personal pain in the service of those you are dismissing, you deserve no loyalty from those who remain.

With that as a backdrop, here are some things that can help you avoid adding insult to the injury of layoffs:

1. Be immediately transparent about possibilities and certainties. I know all the arguments for being sparing and thoughtful about sharing sensitive information—but I also believe that most of these assume employees can’t be treated like adults. Leaders sometimes fear that if they suggest layoffs are possible in the future, they’ll spur voluntary turnover of key employees. Furthermore, they argue that you take employees’ eye off the ball when you hint at downsizing. I find the opposite to be true. When you establish a track record of early communication you avoid the crippling loss of attention caused by mistrust. In the absence of prompt leadership communication, you don’t get focus, you get rumors. And rumors cost far more in the long run than any downside of prompt transparency.

2. Feel pain when you deliver pain. If you have bad news to deliver, give it face-to-face. Don’t try to protect yourself from discomfort by delivering e-pink slips or other mass messages. You expected these people to be loyal to you, now is your chance to show loyalty in return by demonstrating your willingness to suffer with them. Don’t be afraid to tell them how agonizing it is for you while sympathizing with their plight. If you feel sick to your stomach, say so. If you feel like crying, a tear can help them know they’re not in this alone—someone truly cares. However, before doing anything, make sure your actions are completely sincere.

3. Respond to anger with compassion. If someone becomes upset, angry, or accusatory, you need not respond to the content of their statements. Your HR professionals will obviously tell you (appropriately) that this is not the time to make authoritative statements which could be discovered later. But by all means, respond sincerely to the emotion. For example, if someone says, “This is a croc, you’re just using this downsizing to get rid of anyone who’s not one of the good old boys.” You should be aware of and compliant with what you are authorized to share about the decision-making process involved in the downsizing. But in any event you can say, “I’ve done my best to follow the policies I was given in the downsizing. And I am sick at heart that it is coming down badly on you. I am sorry for the turmoil this will cause you and assure you I will help in your transition any way I can.” While this statement won’t take away the pain, it at least helps you avoid causing more pain by seeming clinical, political or defensive.

4. Be as generous as possible. As I stated earlier, your willingness to sacrifice for those leaving is THE determinant of how much trust you’ll have with those remaining. Always side on generosity when you attend to the needs of those you’re laying off.

5. Replace general insincerity with specific commitments. No matter how stingy or generous your company chooses to be in the layoffs, you can offer your own support—which is often more personal and meaningful when you’re sharing the bad news. Have a list of things you can personally offer, depending on the needs of those you’re letting go. For example, you might say, “I know you will need to put together a portfolio of your graphic design skills when you float your resume. In the next few days I’m going to ask our legal department to authorize your use of some of the best ones you’ve made here.” A specific offer of two or three things you can do for the individuals you are laying off will tell them a lot more about your sincerity than general, “If there’s anything I can do…” statements.

If your managers demonstrate vulnerability, empathy, and sacrifice in the coming days, you’ll get through it without allowing awful necessity to turn into unnecessary alienation. I wish you the best.


Crucial Accountability QA

Crucial Conversations With a Disrespectful Leader

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been in two situations which completely took me by surprise where a person in leadership unloaded on me and berated me for something I didn’t do. Both times, the leader did not even pause long enough to let me explain my side. Receiving this unproductive criticism from an individual in a leadership role was a huge shock and left me speechless.

I have not been able to set the record straight or even discuss the issue because the leader declared disinterest. From my perspective, this is not true leadership. What can I do if I’m the recipient of feedback that’s unproductive and even mean-spirited?

Dazed and Confused

Dear Dazed and Confused,

What a tough situation. To have someone in power mistakenly blame the wrong person is not that unusual; to do it in a disrespectful way and then not make an attempt to understand the complete story is deplorable. Blame, accusations, and finger-pointing are hurtful—even more so when they are false.

It might be helpful to think of your situation as an issue of two conversations and two different moments in time. The first conversation is about the issue you are being blamed for (the what); the second conversation is about the way the issue is being handled (the how). The first time period to consider is the moment the blame is being laid on you; the second time period is after the incident.

Conversation about “What”
The first conversation is about setting the record straight. The best time to conduct your crucial conversation with the disrespectful leader is in the moment it happens. If the leader makes the accusation and then moves on to the next topic or admittedly cuts you off and doesn’t want to hear from you, then your best option is to pick another time to initiate the crucial conversation.

If you decide to choose another time to have your crucial conversation, make sure you don’t have an audience. Privacy will help make it safe and will eliminate the temptation to posture for others. To be respectful you might ask for permission. You could say “I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes. Is now a good time?” Perhaps the leader would respond “What’s this about?”

Now you share your good intention and establish mutual purpose. “I want to make sure you have all the facts about topic X so the problem can be solved in the most effective way.” If the leader doesn’t want to hear it and says “I have all the facts I need,” you might want to share a consequence related to a purpose the leader cares about. “My concern is that, without all of the facts, a big mistake is being made that will hurt our efforts to…” In this way, you respectfully motivate the leader to hear you out. Don’t start with a counter-punch, or a cross-examination. Don’t be defensive or go on the attack. Rather, begin with a statement of your good intentions, preferably in a way that establishes mutual purpose. By revealing that your intention is to help, not hurt, you reduce the notion that you are picking a fight or trying to quarrel. When you establish mutual purpose, the leader will see that it is in his or her best interest to hear you out. You might try saying something like this: “Before we continue, I want to make sure that we have all the facts on the table so we can solve this problem in the most effective way.”

Next share the facts. Be direct, specific, and respectful. Don’t apologize for the facts and don’t exaggerate them or their impact (a technique often used in an argument). You might contrast the facts with what was said. Never impute motive or assume you know why others did what they did. If clarifying the facts requires that you share your interpretation or perspective, be tentative. Don’t dress up your opinion as a fact. You might say “It seems to me that…” or “From the facts, I’ve concluded…” or “Others could see this differently, but in my opinion…” By separating the facts from your opinion you clarify what is true, how you see things, and you invite people to reveal their interpretation based on the facts not conjecture. This reduces arguments and makes discussions more objective.

Conversation about “How”
The second conversation is about how your leader handled the situation. It’s basically a conversation about respect and requires you to exercise good judgment. In most cases, bad behavior must be confronted or it will continue. Generally, my advice is to confront disrespect and not let it pass unaddressed. But here’s where the good judgment comes in. Perhaps on a specific issue, getting the solution you want matters more to you than the way you’re being treated. In unusual situations, you might decide to wave off the bad behavior and get on with your victory. You have to consider all of the factors and decide whether to confront the boss immediately while others are present, or re-engage later in private. The advantage of confronting bad behavior in the moment is that it helps set norms and expectations for what is allowed and what is out of bounds. This can be critical to building an effective team. The downside is that an audience makes it more difficult for the leader to save face. Your good judgment is required to pick the appropriate time.

So when you’re selecting the time that serves your purposes, how do you begin? You start with heart. If you aggressively drill into the leader like a prosecutor in a murder case, I guarantee the conversation will not go well. Ask yourself “What do I really want? What results do I want? What relationship do I want with this leader when this conversation is over?” Do you want to humiliate the leader? Teach the leader a lesson? Scold the leader? Or do you want the leader to treat you with respect and have a good working relationship? If it’s the latter, focus on this result as you confront the leader. This becomes the motive that will drive what you do and how you do it.

Begin the crucial conversation with your leader by factually describing the leader’s behavior. Don’t accuse or label, just state the facts. “In our meeting last Friday, you called me a yellow-bellied sap sucker and said the loss of the client was my fault.” Then share your interpretation of what happened. “I felt insulted, disrespected, and falsely accused.” Invite the leader to explain or clarify the behavior. “Was that your intention?” Now listen. Based on the leader’s response, you might clarify expectations and get a commitment, or agree to disagree about what constitutes respect, or even escalate the problem and involve others in the crucial conversation.

Of course these skills and this approach are not a substitute for a realistic assessment of your situation, nor do they take the place of your responsibility to exercise good judgment and decide the best course to take. However, I’m convinced that these skills, used in this way, will increase the likelihood of your success and are much better than settling into silence or allowing your strong emotions to cause a reaction that is hurtful to others and the results you care about. I’m hopeful that doing these things will help turn your confusion into clarity and resolve.

Best of luck,