Dear Crucial Skills,
Our hospital offers Crucial Conversations Training, so I was greatly disappointed to witness a recent firing that felt very wrong. A manager who had been with the organization for fifteen years was devoted to her job, but at times, seemed overwhelmed with its demands. Many were concerned about her poor follow-up on projects.
She was recently fired and escorted out of the building. The current leadership says that “for confidentiality reasons” they cannot speak about the incident but she does not feel anyone ever voiced concerns about her performance. Moreover, on further inquiry, it appears that firings of this type almost universally occur in this way at our center.
I have been trying to “Master My Story,” but this feels wrong. I want to speak up but I don’t know where to start. Do you have any ideas?
Where to begin,
Dear Where to begin,
I’m happy to help. But before I do, let me offer one more challenge to your “story.” The “facts” in your letter make it entirely possible that your company did everything right. Few companies are public about something as private as performance management. You grant in your letter that this manager, while committed to the company, was not exactly a stellar contributor. And the fact that her dismissal was a surprise to many does not necessarily mean she was not given prior warning and lots of help to make improvements.
With that said, I applaud your desire to have a just and respectful workplace. I believe that, in such a workplace, being dismissed should never be a surprise. Expectations should be so clear, and feedback about performance against those expectations so candid, that everyone will understand the consequences of their current choices. If you believe your organization is not living up to this standard, you can try to have a positive influence by stepping up to some crucial conversations.
Here’s how you can change performance management practices in your workplace.
1. Influence with action. The greatest influence in the world is the influence of norms. When people see visual models of desirable behavior, and when that behavior becomes widespread, it also becomes self-sustaining. However, few people understand that norms change one person at a time. When someone offers a living example of behavior that solves a problem, others can be powerfully influenced by that one person. The behavior often catches on one person at a time.
I once attended a formal meeting in a sweltering hot room. All the men in jackets and ties were absolutely dying from the heat. Everyone wanted to remove the excess clothing, but no one was sure it was “okay.” They kept looking at the big boss with pleading eyes hoping he would make the first move. Finally, one man—not even the most senior person in the room—arrived a bit late, gasped at how hot it was, loosened his tie and removed his jacket. The person next to him looked at him, and slowly removed his jacket. Almost immediately, three or four others did the same. Then the big boss did. Then everyone did. Everyone desired change—they just needed a reasonable person to set the example. Be the reasonable person.
2. Influence with words. While offering a splendid example, you can also accelerate change by speaking up about better ways of managing. But be careful, if you don’t speak up well, you’ll come across as a critic or a bore. Here are some things to keep in mind so you come across as credible and useful, rather than whiny and weak.
Share the facts. It’s sad but true that nothing is more rare in organizations than data-driven arguments. Opinion leaders are often the ones who have done the homework to marshal facts. This doesn’t have to require research teams. It could be that you simply send an informal e-mail to a handful of people you know who left the organization involuntarily and ask a few questions. When you talk to your colleagues and can say, “You know, the last four people we let go report that they did not have any prior warning…” your argument sounds much different from when you simply complain about how your friend was mistreated.
Motivate with natural consequences. After sharing data, share consequences. But be careful to share those that your audience cares about. Don’t be so immersed in your own agenda that you suffer debilitating selfishness. When you’re so absorbed in how the problem affects you, you tend to communicate in ways that make it unlikely others will be motivated to action. You may, for example, influence your colleagues to manage performance better by saying, “I’m aware of five people who updated their resumes when Enid was fired. They saw her dismissal as evidence that no one is safe.”
Under- rather than over-state. When sharing natural consequences and data, never make the mistake of overstating your data. When you do, you undermine your credibility and decrease your influence. In the moment when we’re doing it, we delude ourselves into thinking we’ll achieve the opposite. But people these days are so accustomed to bombastic pundits who use exaggeration as their primary communication tool that we immediately dismiss those who resort to inflammatory excess. Hint: Never start a sentence with “never” or “always”—you’re almost always overstating your data when you do.
Frame criticisms by acknowledging tradeoffs. When you want to offer a critique of what leaders have done, avoid assuming they were simply weak-willed or dumb. In many cases, they already considered some of the concerns you are about to raise but there were other tradeoffs involved. When you’re stepping up to a crucial conversation in which you want to challenge a decision someone made, do your best to imagine potential tradeoffs they faced. Acknowledge those tradeoffs before sharing your additional view of the consequences.
I admire your desire to influence the culture and character of your organization. I hope these ideas help you change your corporate culture for good.