Crucial Accountability QA

When It's Time to Let People Go

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I am the president and chairman of a large private school. I recently came on as the president and found the school to be in worse shape than I was previously told. After studying the leadership structure, meeting with teachers and parents one-on-one, and reviewing numerous surveys, I think I need to dismiss the current headmaster. The problem is he has only been here for two years, owns a home in town, and has another home for sale in another state. While I know he needs to be dismissed, I want to be sensitive to his family. How do I sensitively dismiss him while protecting the future of the school? Did I mention it is a Christian school? Sensitivity and perception are important around here. Help!

Sympathetic, yet Certain

A  Dear Sympathetic,

This situation is certainly challenging. You want to do what’s right and you want to make sure you do not impose unintended consequences as a result of your actions. I’m right with you there. At this point, I think you’ve taken every necessary step to show that you are sympathetic and interested in understanding the situation from multiple perspectives. You have made a careful diagnosis. I commend you for this, and I advise others who face similar tough issues to do the same. Diagnosis comes before prescription.

While you know what you should do, you still wonder how you should do it. Let me address your question in two parts.

First, has the headmaster been given the clarity, the support, and the time to improve? Often when there is a pattern of poor performance, one of these components is missing. Sometimes, there is lack of clarity in what was expected or in the feedback about the person’s performance. Any HR professional can attest that too often in the case of poor performance, behaviors are not documented or clearly noted in the employee’s file.

In the rare case that the poor behavior has been clearly discussed and documented, the next most common problem is that the person has not had the time or access to the resources needed to improve—resources such as training, coaching, mentoring, and feedback. That’s because leaders often assume the employee should already have the skills and judgment to perform. In either case, without the components of clarity, support, and time, questions of fairness will undoubtedly arise. That is why the best organizations have clear, written steps for progressive discipline. The steps are clear to everyone and the process is fair. The reason I bring this up is to ask if you have a progressive discipline process and if so, whether or not you have followed it. If you haven’t, you need to take these steps first. If you did follow it and performance has not improved, then it is time to let the headmaster go and you can do so fairly and confidently.

My second piece of advice concerns what to do next as many groups watch and wait for your decision. If you have followed the progressive discipline steps above and performance has not improved, then you are not helping any of the groups, including the headmaster, if you do not let him go and soon. If he is not effective, staff, faculty, parents, and students—and probably community leaders—will wonder why they have to live with lower than expected performance.

This situation will most likely be painful for the headmaster who, I’m almost certain, comes to work every day feeling bad. Aware that he is not meeting expectations, he probably feels like he is swimming in dark, deep water and something dreadful could happen at any moment. I believe we do a disservice to employees when we avoid letting them go and allow them to feel unsettled and frustrated every day. We need to respectfully remove them from that situation, and to the extent possible, we need to help them transition to the next phase in their lives. That may mean providing a good severance package or serving as a reference for a job we think they can handle. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure to do it with respect.

In conclusion, you need to quickly clarify what is not working and provide the headmaster with a path to improve or to exit. These actions have helped many to improve. If he improves, then your problem is solved. If he does not, then you need to help him out of a painful situation by letting him go. As a leader, your job is to take that action so others in your team or department don’t have to create work-arounds or carry the extra load. This is a leadership lesson worth learning early in your career.

I think you have been sympathetic and you’ve certainly been respectful. Now it is time to be candid and help him out.

Best wishes,


Change Anything QA

Crucial Applications: Why Change Seems Impossible

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.


Change Anything

Did you already blow your New Year’s resolution? You’re not alone. It turns out that fewer than one in twenty of us succeed at changing a longstanding habit that has kept us from advancing our career, improving a relationship, getting healthier, or becoming financially fit.

Generally, our change plans fall into one of two traps:

The Willpower Trap—Most of us fail to change because we believe the best predictor of our capacity to change is the quantity of willpower we possess. This common approach to change is all about learning to deny ourselves of a “thrill.” After a few weeks of torture, we succumb to temptation, conclude we lack the fortitude to make it stick, and fall back into bad habits until some life crisis forces us to get back on the cold turkey treadmill.

The Magic Bullet Trap—When we finally give up on willpower, we hope we can kill bad habits with a single new pill, surgery, gadget, or fad. For example, a friend loses weight, and we buy the same diet book. A neighbor gets out of debt with a new iPhone app, so we download it too. It’s only a matter of months before we’re back to bad habits and looking for the next quick fix.

The problem with the magic bullet approach is that it assumes one simple change will get us to overcome deeply intractable patterns of behavior. These change strategies fail because there isn’t one reason we’re doing what we’re doing—there are six sources of influence that shape our choices. Unless we address all six sources, we’re as likely to win at change as a person in a one-against-six tug-of-war.

Luckily, there’s a better way to influence personal change than either willpower or magic bullets. In fact, there’s a way to design personal change that makes you ten times more likely to succeed. This method is based on three simple but powerful ideas that help you understand and engage all of the sources of influence that affect your choices:

Escape the willpower trap. The first step to succeeding at change is realizing the problem is not that you lack will; it’s that you’re blind to the many forces that shape your behavior, and you’re outnumbered six to one by the forces you aren’t taking advantage of.

Become the scientist and the subject. Most of us shop for magic bullets as though someone else might have figured out the key to changing you. They haven’t. No one knows all of the unique dynamics that affect your relationships, career, finances, or health. You’ll have to embark on a scientific study of your own behavior to discover the key to changing you. The science of personal success teaches you an easy way of both understanding and engaging all six of the sources of influence that lead to rapid, profound, and sustainable change.

Turn bad days into good data. When you fail to change, the problem is not you—it’s your plan. When things don’t go well, the science of personal success helps you analyze what was missing from your plan, add it to what you already knew, and move forward to predictable success.

Change literally becomes inevitable when all of the sources of influence that provoke you into bad habits are turned in your favor. It’s time to leave behind failed dependence on willpower or magic-bullet solutions. The dismal record of those approaches speaks for itself. By learning the new science of personal success, it becomes possible to change anything.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Hole in Our Backyard

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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Sometimes when I wake up it’s 1957 and I’m eleven years old. The genesis of this repeated misgiving is rooted in a time from my early childhood when my dad held a job at the local plywood plant and collected payments on magazine subscriptions at night. Between his two jobs, Dad earned enough money to put us just below the poverty line. We lived down a long, lonely, dirt road in a house so small Kareem Abdul Jabbar could have stretched out his arms and spanned the entire structure. But Mom had dreams. She would help us work our way to greater prosperity.

After trying a variety of failed home businesses, Mom read an ad in the local paper placed by an elderly couple who wanted to sell their college boarding house. The massive structure they were selling sat across the street from the local college and housed a gaggle of college girls. Mom immediately borrowed our neighbor’s car, drove to the domicile, met with the aging couple, and talked them into loaning her money so she and Dad could then make a down payment on the home.

“It’s easy,” Mom enthused. “All I have to do is cook breakfast and dinner for seventeen people seven days a week. How hard could that be?” The day after inking the deal, Mom was up at 6:00 a.m. making breakfast—which included throwing bacon on the grill at 6:20 a.m. Eventually, the smell of this frying bacon would awaken me just in time to complete my task of setting the table for the crowd. To this day, when someone arises early at our home and cooks bacon, I wake up to the familiar smell and think it’s 1957.

Thanks to Mom’s dream, our little family had climbed out of a shack in the woods and into a large and comfortable boarding house, but there was never any money left over for things such as vacations and college funds and I was now a teenager with an eye set on a higher education. So Mom put me to work painting the entire boarding house—four hours a day, every day, for three summers. “I’ll pay you when you graduate high school and I send you off to college,” Mom explained one day when I had the audacity to ask for money for the work I was doing.

But how would Mom earn the college money she had promised me? At first, she made wedding cakes. But that was a lot of work for a small profit. She needed to dream bigger. And then, it hit her. She lived across the street from a college, why not attend? So, in 1964 when I graduated from high school, Mom graduated from college and took a full-time job as a teacher—generating, as promised, whatever college funds I lacked.

And Mom’s dreams didn’t end there. After I married and graduated from college, Mom dreamed her way across the country to live near my growing family. After she and dad retired, she dreamed the two of them to Guadalajara, Mexico where they set up affordable living in a small American retirement community.

But not all of Mom’s dreams panned out. “What’s the hole in the backyard?” I asked Mom one day after returning from college to a new home Mom and Dad had moved to while I was away.

“I’m digging a swimming pool,” she explained with a straight face. She and Dad didn’t have the money to build a pool, but if Mom dug a hole, then maybe they’d find a way. Always the dreamer.

A few days later, I overheard a woman at church asking who my mother was. Another woman from the congregation explained, “She’s the lady with the hole in her backyard.” Apparently the word had spread of her harebrained scheme. What middle-aged woman digs her own swimming pool with a hand shovel? And it turns out the detractors were right. Mom never did finish the pool—just the hole.

Throughout her life, Mom had many detractors. “You’ll never be able to buy a boarding house. You have no money.” “You’ll never be able to settle in Mexico. How will you get there?” “You’ll never, you’ll never, you’ll never . . .”

And sometimes they were right. Years of cooking for seventeen people yielded no profits. Dozens of wedding cakes resulted in little money. And then there was always that hole in the backyard. People who only saw that hole and knew nothing of Mom’s other more successful endeavors thought she was zany—even irresponsible. Friends and family who heard of Mom and Dad’s misadventures as they pulled a trailer down the Baja to find affordable housing in Mexico shook their heads in disbelief. “She comes up with these crazy schemes, and then he has to live them,” Dad’s side of the family would lament. Everyone was always taking shots at the dreamer.

But Mom wasn’t your typical, high-profile dreamer. She wasn’t a Cinderella. Cinderella, as did most fairy princesses of her time, dreamed of the day she would be rescued from her plight and taken away to live in a sumptuous castle where she would live happily ever after. Just because she was nice and pretty, she would be rescued.

Unlike Cinderella, Mom never asked for or expected handouts. All she wanted was a chance to work her way to a new station in life. Her dreams always ended with her and Dad (and often me) working our way to the next rung up the ladder.

I share this with you today because with the recent economic downturn and the accompanying malaise, I see far too many people who have the courage to dream, fail. After enduring ridicule from the people around them, they give up. Many simply settle. They take a job they absolutely despise because they need the work and then stay on for years. Or they close their eyes and imagine better times, but in order to reach them they do little more than buy a lottery ticket. They hold out for the mathematically impossible.

Or, perhaps worst of all, they stop dreaming. Instead, they come up with unimaginative plans that lead to marginal improvements. They assume that setting mini-goals will take them to their Valhalla, when, in truth, they need bigger hopes, bigger plans, and a bigger harness. Equally important, when they run into problems (and they will), they need to see setbacks not as evidence that dreaming is futile and silly, but as helpful feedback on what needs to change. In short, they need to dream, try, fail, make adjustments, and then dream again.

And so today (on my mother’s birthday) I honor her and all others who fight for their dreams, despite the naysayers and setbacks. I honor those who not only have the courage to dream, but also the energy to fight for it. I honor those who, despite the occasional loss, dare to create one more dream because, unlike most of us, they open their eyes wide enough to see the fruits of their past efforts—not just the hole in their backyard.