Crucial Conversations QA

Addressing Inappropriate Work Attire

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Joseph Grenny is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I need advice on how to have a conversation with a subordinate about her provocative attire. It’s tricky because her clothes are clean and very nice—just more revealing than is appropriate for our office. To make it more complicated, I’m a man and I’m wondering if that should make the conversation any different than if she had a female supervisor. Her attire is holding her back from progressing and limiting how management can use and develop her skills. I’m nervous about discrimination and harassment accusations that could result if I handle this wrong. And yet, I know I need to have a conversation with her.

Revealing Conversation

A Dear Revealing,

Since you’re in a legally sensitive area, I asked Jaclyn, our HR Manager, for some advice. Between Jaclyn and myself, we’ll give you our best thoughts.

1. This is about policy not preference. The first thing you have to do is ensure your company has a clear dress and grooming standard in place. If they don’t, you are on shaky legal ground if you approach a specific employee and make this an issue of personal judgment. If the policy was implemented correctly, it should already have been communicated to all employees, and even signed by them to acknowledge their understanding and commitment. If this step is done right, your conversation will be much easier to hold. So, address any gaps in the policy deployment before opening your mouth with your employee.

2. Just the facts. When you sit down with her to explain where she’s out of compliance, be sure you scrupulously avoid mixing any of your judgments or “stories” into your description of the problem. For example, if you said, “Some of your clothes are a bit more provocative than appropriate for an office setting” you would cross the line into judgments. Rather, refer factually to the gap between what she wears at times and what the policy says. For example, “Our policy says ‘clothing should not be form-fitting or revealing of large portions of the legs, chest . . .” After sharing the relevant excerpts, you could ask how she thought her outfit yesterday, for example, compared to the requirements. Once again, the focus is not on judgments but on facts.

3. Make It Motivating. Mention that part of your interest in holding this conversation is a concern for her potential in the organization. Be sure to mention that. Let her know that a key reason for her to comply is to keep doors of advancement open. Using her career as motivation could help her to keep her commitment while also ensuring she understands your goodwill toward her.

4. Make It Safe. You’re likely to feel uncomfortable in the conversation because it is an area of sensitivity and you’ll be worried she’ll be offended or hold a grudge against you. That’s where make it safe skills come in. I’d encourage you to use contrasting after having shared your concerns to help her understand your motives and respect for her.

For example, you might say, “You and I have worked well together in the past and I want you to know that I do not want that to change. I have a great regard for the quality of your work and have no concerns in any area other than this. This is an uncomfortable conversation for me just as it is for you. I was nervous that you would misunderstand my reasons for holding it and hope you know it is only to ensure I’m doing right by the company while contributing to your development as well.” Using contrasting in this way can help her understand you are not simply doing this to be a prude or to make life hard for her.

You also asked about whether the conversation should be any different given that you are a man speaking with a woman. Jaclyn and I agree that it should not. Your mindset in this conversation is that you have an employee who is out of compliance with a clear policy. Period. You should describe the gap between her current practice and the existing policy factually and respectfully. Then conclude by both confirming her understanding and asking for her commitment to comply in the future.

On a personal note, as I wrote this to you, I reflected back on my first really sensitive conversation with an employee. I was an entrepreneur in a small company and had a half dozen people working for me. One had a tremendous hygiene problem that was offending customers. Sal was 25 years old. I was 17. He was a good friend. I hardly slept for a week as I obsessed over whether and how to deal with the problem. When I finally had the crucial conversation, my stomach was in knots, so I know how easy it is to turn inward when these challenges face us.

And that’s the idea I want to leave you with. The reason we do so poorly in so many of our crucial conversations is that we’re more concerned with how the problem and conversation affect us than we are with how they affect the other person. My selfishness in the situation with my employee made me more worried and less effective than if I had kept my attention on what I really wanted to do for Sal, my customers, and my colleagues.

At last I had the conversation. I don’t recall well enough what I said to be a judge of whether or not I was skillful. But I do remember what happened. Sal began bathing. He bought some new clothes. He got some badly needed dental care. His circle of friends increased. In the next year he got married—something he had longed to do for some time. Now, I don’t take credit for all of that. But in my quiet moments when I deliberate about whether or not to talk to someone I care about, I try to get outside of myself and focus on what I really want for those I care about.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Stay Away from the Churning Waters

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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When my best friends and I were kids growing up along the shores of the Puget Sound, the water was our favorite playground. It’s a good thing, because we certainly had a lot of it. It fell from the sky in unrelenting sheets of cold misery until it eventually gathered about us in a giant recreational hodgepodge of lakes, streams, and inlets. Hardly a summer day passed that we didn’t find a way to float in it.

By age fourteen, we had widened our tastes from floating safely in placid lagoons to using the water as a thrill park—particularly the water found underneath the docks. This was back in the early sixties when fish canneries still spewed a red stream of cast-off salmon heads and slimy innards straight into the bay. Sharks gathered at the entry point of the disgusting flow in a feeding frenzy of pink froth, teeth, and terror.

Few people have ever seen a sight such as the one found outside those canneries. Few people would want to see such a sight. Unless, of course, you were fourteen years old and pretty much lived for the chance of throwing yourself smack dab in the middle of just such a biological curiosity. Which is exactly what we did. My buddies and I took one look at the tangle of teeth and fins and knew we had to find a way to study it up close.

After scrounging logs and really thick string for a couple of days, our intrepid gang cobbled together a raft for just such idiotic purposes. We christened our highly unstable craft “Death on a Log” and then promptly paddled straight to the heart of the toothy treasure. It’s hard to describe the sheer visceral pleasure of gliding into a foaming pool of frenzied sharks. There we were, virtually surrounded by a pulsating mass of fins, teeth, and eyeballs—completely swallowed up by the roar of gushing entrails. It was fourteen-year-old heaven.

At first, we just stood there, triumphantly ensconced in the epicenter of this ecological nightmare, drawing strength from the electric energy of the moment. And then, one part adrenaline, two parts testosterone, and ten parts boy took over. First, we smacked the throbbing mass with our paddles. Take that you nasty sharks! Smack! Smack! Smack! Then we poked at the tangle with assorted sticks. Poke. Poke. Poke. We capped off the experience with a series of whoops and grins—shouting and gyrating on the very edge of sanity. It was a perfect teenage moment. And then Frank stepped over the edge and tumbled into the churning waters.

Movies generally show such life-threatening moments in slow motion. That’s because in real life they happen in slow motion. When Frank fell, it was as if time had slowed to one-tenth its normal pace. The tumble took forever. First, Frank’s left leg slipped off the edge. Then his body hung in space between the raft and death for about an hour—until death took the upper hand. As we stood, frozen to the raft, Frank plunged into the roiling sea. Only he didn’t really plunge. He hung in a grotesque, cartoon-like position above the danger below until he finally lurched toward the outstretched hands of his friends. He exerted just enough strength to propel his body to a spot six inches from the raft—except for the back of his head, which found the outside log with a sickening thud. He was out like a light, floating in a boil of ichthyoidal rage.

Tom, closest to the edge of the raft, jumped into the frenetic foam without so much as a second’s hesitation. It was stunning to watch him leap straight into the jaws of death (no metaphor here, these were the jaws of death). Okay, maybe the Puget Sound sharks weren’t thirty-foot great whites. Maybe they were only four to six feet long, but their rows of teeth were deadly enough and the danger was heart stopping. Somehow Tom managed to pull himself and Frank back onto the raft, but not before both had received several nasty bites. For five minutes we huddled together in a mist of foam, blood, fear, and gratitude. Then we slowly made our way back to shore.

For those of you who have never been a fourteen-year-old boy who has just escaped death by a whisker, you might think that we then gleefully returned home. We didn’t. Instead, we did what we always did under such ridiculous circumstances. We struggled to come up with a cover story. We couldn’t tell our moms that Frank and Tom had fallen into a whirlpool of sharks. They would have asked questions about where the sharks came from and how we happened to be so close to them in the first place. So we made up a whopper, sneaked into Frank’s house, and administered to the wounded.

I eventually told the heroic version of the shark story some twenty years later, while standing around a campfire at a father-and-son outing. By the time I was through, the crowd was ready to erect a statue in honor of Tom’s valor. In fact, I made all of us kids out to be a fanciful combination of swarthy adventurers and swashbuckling daredevils. Then, as I noted my own boys’ reactions (they hung on my every word), I reversed course. With time and the advantage of perspective, I took to adding the following editorial comments whenever I told the story anew.

Many acts of modern-day heroism are immediately preceded by acts of utter insanity—requiring the very acts of heroism that we’re bragging about in the first place. If we hadn’t been so completely insane as to paddle straight into the middle of death and then jump and hoot and slip around until one of us fell in, we wouldn’t have needed a hero. Hero stories persist because it’s not nearly as fun to avoid death by five hundred yards as it is to climb into the mouth of the grim reaper himself and then, at the very last second, scamper out in a flamboyant feat of heroism. Now that’s entertainment.

Fortunately, when you’re talking to your own children, reason prevails. You encourage your own precious offspring to avoid danger by a safe margin. With them, you give crystal clear directions: You can go into the water. No problem there. Just don’t swim into the churning waters. In fact, don’t go near the churning waters. Stay a full five hundred yards away from the churning waters.

What Does It Mean to Us?

I tell this story because it reminds me of what typically happens during training sessions when the topic turns to diversity and harassment. As class members discuss the always amazing and sometimes moronic things employees have been known to do to one another, a certain percentage always asks what they can get away with. They want to know how far they can go. Mostly it’s because they’re trying to understand the boundaries. Nobody wants to cut off human interaction in its entirety. A huge part of their life unfolds at work every day. Everyone wants to go into the water. They are going to talk with others. That’s a given. They are going to tell jokes, flirt, and tease. They just want to know where the safe waters end.

After the tenth person has asked if she can still tell blonde jokes (after all, blondes aren’t protected by law), or if he can tell a woman at work how good she looks in a sweater (because it’s about the sweater and not her body), I’m reminded of the sharks. There are some topics and actions that are obviously dangerous. They’re a veritable whirlpool of potential hazards. We all know what they are.

For example, if you start telling jokes that make fun of someone’s race or belief, you’re in dangerous water. If you’re attracted to someone who you’d like to date but who has shown you no interest (save for an occasional “bug off”), and you think to yourself, “Maybe she’s just teasing. I think I’ll keep after her until I wear her down and she finally agrees to go out with me,” you’re in dangerous water. If a coworker has annoyed you and you’re trying to come up with clever ways to get even, you’re in dangerous water.

What did we learn from the shark experience? To stay five hundred yards away from all things dangerous. So here’s what I tell anyone who asks: Don’t engage in socially risky activity. It’s that simple. Don’t tell blonde jokes. Sure, you might get the occasional laugh, but there’s a goo
d chance that you’ll offend someone too. Don’t start a sentence with, “You know the trouble with women . . .” or “You know the trouble with men. . .” You may think that women or men have certain characteristics in common. However, throwing all of them into one big gender bundle (and a negative one at that) is bound to offend people who prefer to be viewed as individuals (i.e., most sentient beings). If you start a discussion with, “I know this might offend someone, but . . .” you’re in dangerous water. Warning people up front doesn’t lessen the risk. Quite the opposite. Warning others is akin to announcing, “Hey everybody, I’m about to say something really offensive, insensitive, and stupid, so listen up.”

Experience has taught me that when we start making exceptions to safety rules, we eventually run risks—and why run a risk when it comes to our lives? It’s just not worth it. Social issues are no different. The stakes are similarly high, so why take risks when there’s so little to be gained? Here’s the punch line: If you know what you’re about to do is risky, then don’t do it. Stay five hundred yards away from all things dangerous. Stay away from the churning waters.

Crucial Accountability QA

Working with a Difficult Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,
When I recently assumed my current job, I “inherited” an employee who has a long history of bad behavior such as being rude, stirring up trouble, and refusing to work with coworkers as a team player. How do I confront this person when the whole department has played into his behavior for years?

Inherited Employee

Dear Inherited,

“Inheriting” an employee with a history of bad behavior is a concern for any leader. I strongly recommend your first conversation with this employee not be a “shake-down” or a “you’d better be careful cuz I’m watching you!” speech. Rather, you ought to extend a sincere handshake followed by friendly introductions.

The next step is orienting your employees to your leadership style and expectations. Even before exploring specific duties or concerns, explain the operating values and principles of your team and your expectations of team members. It’s best if this is a collaborative process involving the entire team, but at a minimum, everyone needs to be clear about the team values and operating principles. Explain that employees are not only responsible to produce results but are also responsible to produce results in a way that strengthens the team in the process. Give specific examples of what is acceptable behavior and what is out of bounds. This kind of orientation with your team sets clear expectations and gives everyone a chance for a new start—independent from past patterns and personality conflicts.

Your next leader-role with the team is teacher and coach. This requires gathering data through contact and observation, especially with the employee you have concerns about. Over the next few days, catch the employee, in the moment, doing things right. Acknowledge when his behavior approximates an important team value or principle and thank him. For example, you might say:

“Hey, Brent, I noticed in the team meeting when Alice asked for ideas about her project, you gave several helpful suggestions. That is a great example of our team value of collaboration. Your input helped Alice and helped to build a stronger team. Thank you.”

Similarly, when you see behavior that violates the team’s values, confront it as soon as is reasonably possible. Do this by first describing the gap by factually detailing what happened compared with what is expected. Next, ask why it happened this way. You could say:

“Brent, I noticed that when Jerry presented his proposal, you said his plan was ‘idiotic’ and asked him if he had ever heard of ‘professional standards’ before. One of our team principles is to treat each other with respect. Your comment was clearly disrespectful. Why did you say that?”

If he responds that he didn’t realize his comment was disrespectful, take the opportunity to define more precisely what is meant by the value of respect.

If he replies that it’s no big deal, then you have the opportunity to teach consequences and make the invisible visible. It could be that one reason for his past friction with employees is that no one helped him understand the negative, natural consequences his behavior had on others.

If he replies that he knows he shouldn’t do that, but can’t help himself, it becomes an opportunity to teach him the skills to start with heart or master his stories.

After each conversation, move to action. Get a clear and specific commitment from him about who will do what by when, and then follow-up on that commitment.

Clear expectations, as well as frequent and immediate praise and confrontation, are your best chance to help someone work well with others in a new setting.

Of course, this approach requires patience and persistence, and you must always give people the opportunity and the help they may need to improve. However, if over time, he does not comply and his poor behavior continues, make sure he understands that following the team principles and values is not a suggestion, it’s a requirement of his job.

At this point, it’s time to move from helping him understand the natural consequences of bad behavior to the consequences you will impose on him if he doesn’t comply. Clarify that the consequences of not working within the team standards are the steps of discipline identified by the organization, even including termination. Make sure he understands that failure to comply with your requirements around teamwork will result in you applying the steps of discipline. Moving this far is very serious and will most likely damage your working relationship with him, but at some point, his failure to abide by the team’s standards is a detriment both to the results you’re after as a leader and your other team members’ quality of life. Choosing what’s best for the team is more important than trying to preserve a troubled relationship.

My experience has been that this approach helps most employees—even those with a history of bad behavior—to improve their behavior and relationships with others. It also improves the team’s results. Please keep in mind this approach does not guarantee the changes in others you desire; it’s not a way of controlling others; it’s not a trick for manipulating others. This is a way to respectfully help individuals choose to be successful. Ultimately, it’s the individual’s choice whether or not to be a part of the enterprise you lead, and that’s as it should be.

All the Best,