Crucial Conversations QA

Avoiding Angel Stories

Kerry Patterson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for many years and have both observed and participated in the telling of angel stories—essentially the opposite of villain stories. I see a pattern of supervisors excusing problematic behavior because the employee in question has a really good heart and, therefore, good intentions. It seems to be a similar phenomenon to the helpless stories mentioned in Crucial Conversations, but I’m wondering if you have any additional insight into this particular kind of story.

Stumped by an Angel

A  Dear Stumped,

Thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking question. You’re right, not all stories we tell ourselves about other people are negative. Instead of immediately imputing bad motive or evil intentions to others (the most common form of storytelling) sometimes we invent a cover-all positive motive. Then, as you’re suggesting, we excuse the problem because the person has a good heart.

Now, when you say that you “excuse” the other person, I’m guessing that you mean one of two things. Either you talk to the person, solve the problem, but don’t impose any sanctions or, and this is the more likely choice, you turn a blind eye to the problematic behavior. After all, this is a well-intended person. And within the walls of a not-for-profit organization, the person in question might even be a volunteer. Who’s going to confront a well-intended volunteer?

Let me address the second response—you chose not to say anything to the “angel” because, by golly, they’re just so nice, gracious, and always wanting to do the right thing. This is a mistake. As tempting as it is to say nothing to others about problems they create, remaining mum can be quite dangerous. It allows the problem to continue, it deprives the other person of what could be helpful feedback, and it adds to a culture of poor or missing accountability. Plus, and this is a slightly more obscure (but equally true) consequence, it burdens the other person with a label (albeit a nice one) that is simplistic and hard to live up to.

Just how serious is categorizing individuals as good hearted, and then letting their bad behavior go unaddressed? Well, when it comes to the person holding the good thoughts, certainly it’s better to think well of others than it is to always assume the worst. Nevertheless, when it comes to the consequences to the organization, thinking good thoughts and allowing incompetence to continue can be devastating.

Over the years, I’ve made the following observations about the varied (and potentially dangerous) blends of likability and competence. People who are incompetent and unlikeable—well, they’re obviously history, usually they’re the first out the door. Not only do they screw up, but nobody wants to work with them. People who are likable and competent tend to have long, rich careers wherever they choose to work. And, people who are unlikable and competent are generally cordoned off and left alone.

And let’s not forget the final and most dangerous combination—folks who are incompetent but likable—the “angel” you’ve referred to. On bad days they’re referred to as “dead wood.” Whatever their label, they can kill your company. They don’t contribute, but manage to hang on for years anyway.

Underlying the strategy of being kind to people with a good heart you’ll find an erroneous assumption. We’re hesitant to hold pleasant people accountable—because we think doing so is in some way harsh, mean, or insensitive. We don’t want to hurt nice people and the mere act of pointing out a problem is hurtful. Isn’t it?

Underlying this assumption you’ll find a predictable pattern. We hold back on saying something to a poor performer (for the reasons just outlined), become increasingly annoyed with their substandard output, and then eventually say something—but with at least a harsh tone, and maybe even in a hurtful way—confirming our suspicion that talking about problems is a hurtful thing.

The solution to all of this is to rid ourselves of the notion that talking to people about problems is inherently harsh or insensitive. It isn’t. It’s often the most helpful and kind thing we can do—that is, if we don’t allow ourselves to put it off until we’re angry and ineffective. Describing the problem in clear, un-inflammatory terms, and then simply asking the other person for his or her point of view provides a wonderful start to what can then be an important problem-solving conversation. The other person is now aware of your point of view and the two of you can openly discuss what, if anything, needs to improve.

My coauthors and I cover this interaction in detail in our book Crucial Conversations, so there’s more to be done than simply getting off on a good foot, but for now, at least, I’d like to keep my focus on the underlying cause.

Let’s not burden people with unhelpful labels. It keeps us from simply talking to them as fellow human beings. Let’s also not continue to hold the belief that talking about problems is inherently hurtful. Talking openly, honestly, and professionally is generally the most humane response.


From the Road

From the Road: Insight from REACH 2010

Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

I’m on the road training almost every week—training here, training there, training, training everywhere. So, it’s a rare and nice occasion when I can be in my home state of Utah for three or more consecutive days. And, it’s even nicer when those consecutive days involve the annual REACH Conference.

REACH 2010 was held August 4-5 in Salt Lake City. It was great to see so many familiar faces from sessions I’ve conducted over the years and to meet so many new certified trainers. I loved catching up with people and especially loved the new ideas and insights they shared about how they are using VitalSmarts training materials. One new insight came from David Zinger, a Certified Trainer from Manitoba, Canada.

David has a great way to prepare his participants to engage in exercises. While I’ll highlight how he uses it to set up the Angry Accountant exercise in Crucial Conversations, I want to emphasize that this approach is not limited to this specific exercise or program.

After he introduces the first skill of Master My Stories, David asks participants to turn to page 140 in their manuals and take a couple of minutes to read and discuss the definitions of facts and stories with a statement like this, “Take a couple of minutes to review the definitions on page 140 because we’re going to use them in the next exercise.” He gives them a chance to review and talk about the definitions and then launches them right into an exercise that allows them to put those definitions to use. This exercise puts the responsibility for learning squarely on the participant and puts you in a position to coach and clarify.

I encourage you to try this out in one of your own upcoming sessions (In fact, I used this approach today during an Influencer class) and I think you’ll agree with me that David is definitely on to something here—Thanks again, David!

Crucial Conversations QA

Working With a Negative Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I need help with an ongoing issue. My manager is very negative and nothing ever seems to be good enough for him. He doesn’t think anyone can “exceed expectations” in a performance review and gives me a very mediocre review whereas past managers gave stellar reviews. I try to discuss this issue with him, but he is intimidating and loves to argue. I fear for my job. What do I do with this type of “leadership”?

Fighting Negativity

Dear Fighting,

I had an advanced placement English teacher in High School who was, I’m convinced, a frustrated University professor stuck in the only teaching job he could get. The first day of class he explained that he held “the highest standards of scholarship” and would only give an A grade for A work. He proudly announced that in the last three years none of his students had ever earned an A.

This was fine by me. I pulled in all B’s without doing much homework and was betting on a wrestling scholarship, but this did not sit well with some of the serious scholars who were trying to maintain their straight A run. They got their parents involved, who had several meetings with the teacher and the principal and eventually the school district officers. School officials ruled the teacher was using a ten step grading system instead of a twelve step—having for all practical purposes eliminated A’s and A-‘s. He was told to use the bell curve and told how many A’s to issue in each class of twenty students.

Performance review systems and rating and ranking systems are tough enough to understand and to administer. When you complicate the process with a boss who doesn’t follow protocol then it can be nearly impossible to receive fair evaluations.

Now, it could be that, like the school teacher, your boss doesn’t believe in high ratings and has impossible standards. But, there are also other possibilities. It could be your boss isn’t sure what would constitute a job well done, but will “know it when he sees it.” Another possibility is that the boss has a clear picture of what he wants, but has not seen you deliver it.

What these possibilities have in common is that you are left without clear expectations as to what you can do to earn a high rating.

I believe, at a minimum, all leaders owe those they lead a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. Without clear expectations and the ability to accomplish them, bosses are just playing a game called “Guess what I want?” This is manipulation and is both dysfunctional and hurtful. It’s certainly not leadership.

I would suggest your first efforts to improve your relationship with your boss should be to clarify expectations. It is reasonable to request that he explain what he wants you to do and how you will be evaluated.

Start by creating mutual purpose. Do this by sharing your aspirations. For example, you might say, “Mr. Vague, I want to talk with you about my performance in the coming quarter. My goal is to do an excellent job, achieve the desired results, and help you and the team succeed. I also want to earn an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating in my next performance review.”

This beginning statement clarifies your desires and assures him that your purposes and his are mutual—at least around the success of the team. This will also create safety and reduce defensiveness.

Next, ask for what you need to succeed. “In order to do this, I would like you to help me understand what exactly I need to do in order to make an excellent contribution and earn an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating.”

If your boss has in mind what he wants you to do, this approach will invite him to share it with you. If your boss doesn’t know exactly what he wants you to do in order to earn an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating, then your questions could help him think it through.

Ask questions which clarify and encourage specific detail. Such questions could include, “Is there something you’d like me to do more of? Is there something you’d like me to do less of? Is there something I’m not doing that I should start doing? Is there something I’m currently doing that I should stop doing?”

Ask questions that help to quantify your job. Ask about deadlines. Ask about results. Ask about components. For example, if the boss wants you to prepare a report, you might ask “Would you like my report to cover A, B, and C? Will it be helpful to send the report to you weekly? Would it help to have a paragraph that summarizes the data or would you prefer to have several pages of raw data? Would you like a section on analysis? Would you like a section on recommendations? Would you like a section on options?”

By asking clarifying questions you help draw out some of the details and specifics you need in order to know how your boss defines a job well done.

If your boss is not sure what he wants but believes he’ll recognize it when he sees it, then request more frequent accountability. For example, “Could we meet once a week and review my progress? That way, you can help me make course corrections so I meet your expectations.”

More frequent accountability will enable you to make quick course corrections and to check the boss’s satisfaction levels before it’s too late to recover.

These are some strategies for creating a greater understanding and clarity for both you and your boss.

It might also be helpful to include feedback, evaluations, and ratings from key stakeholders who receive the output of your work. In this way you escape the my opinion vs. your opinion argument and can present the boss with ongoing data showing that others are pleased with your work. This will demonstrate the high quality of your work.

The final step should be an effort to get your boss’s commitment to the plan and might sound like this: “If I accomplish the things we’ve discussed by the end of the quarter, would I then receive an ‘exceeds expectations’ rating?” If his answer is wishy-washy, then you need more dialogue to define and clarify expectations. If the answer is “Yes,” then you are set. Do your very best work, make your very best effort, and check with your boss regularly to see if any mid-course corrections are needed.

In the worst case, such as dealing with a boss who refuses to be satisfied or begrudges his direct reports for their successes (perhaps he was weaned on dill pickles and can’t help himself), and after trying some of these strategies without success, it may be time to escalate the evaluation of your performance up the chain of command, or involve Human Resources. Know that this would be a last-ditch effort and would severely damage your relationship with your boss. Sometimes, however, this is the only way to fairly document your good work and receive a fair performance evaluation.

Short of using this nuclear option, if you make it safe for your boss to have a performance conversation with you and help him to clarify and express his thinking, you should be able to reach agreement about what constitutes good performance and good ratings.

I wish you the best in creating clear expectations with your boss. Don’t be reluctant, you are after all, merely helping him perform the minimum requirement of a good leader.