Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
The following article was first published on December 15, 2010.
Thirty years ago, after landing my first consulting job, I could hardly wait to get started. For years, I had studied how to change the world and now it was my turn to roll up my sleeves and actually do something. The goal of this particular project was to take an adversarial, punitive, and authoritarian corporate culture and turn it into a productive, team-oriented place. At least, that’s what the plant manager requested.
“And I want it soon!” the agitated manager told me over the phone. “Or heads are going to roll.”
As I drove to the airport on my way to the anxious manager’s factory, I couldn’t help but notice a bumper sticker sported by several of my neighbors. The popular sticker stated rather immodestly, “Irvine: Another Day in Paradise.” Several hours later, as I exited the Wayne County Airport on my way to visit the client, I noticed Detroit’s version of the home-town promotional slogan on a sweatshirt: “Detroit: Where the Weak Are Killed . . . and Eaten.”
Later that day, as I interviewed hourly employees, I got my first glimpse into the rather un-paradise-like nature of the company I was supposed to help fashion into a paragon of cooperation. When I asked the question “If you ran this place, what changes would you make?” the employees immediately started ridiculing their leaders. At one point, they told of a supervisor throwing a heavy ashtray through a plate-glass window and then chopping up a breaker box with a fire ax—you know, to get his team’s attention. Later, during that same interview, a rather animated employee explained that the ashtray-hurling supervisor’s direct reports eventually grew tired of his shenanigans and one Friday afternoon chased him out to his car. When he climbed on top of it for safety, they lit the car on fire!
Then things turned from scary to complicated. As I interviewed a group of supervisors from whence this ashtray thrower came, they (much to my surprise) seemed reasonable and rational—nothing like the slavering maniacs their direct reports had just described. In fact, they appeared rather pleasant. The supervisors did share one thing in common with their direct reports. They had a bone to pick with their own bosses, the superintendents who, in their words, were authoritarian monsters. Of course, when I met the superintendents, they seemed quite professional, and—you guessed it—they pretty much loathed their bosses, the managers.
As it turns out, everyone at this rather frightening factory blamed everyone else for their problems and everyone—based upon the unprofessional actions of their bosses—felt justified in their own counterproductive behaviors. Why? Because everyone deserved whatever you gave them. And this wasn’t a problem unique to this particular factory, city, or region. As my career has unfolded, I’ve run into similarly violent and reactive places all around the country.
Not everyone lights cars on fire, of course, but the idea of dealing back what you’ve been dealt is still widely shared. It seems one of the values reflected in today’s video games, TV shows, and movies has left its mark. All encourage revenge. For instance, the longest running TV show of my generation, started with the “bad guy” riding into town, getting off his horse, spitting on a nun, and pistol-whipping a schoolmarm. Then, for a full 55 minutes, the good guys sought revenge on that pistol-toting bad guy, who, as we all knew, deserved whatever he got. And to this day, this same troublesome theme continues on the screen.
I recently mentioned our seemingly insatiable thirst for revenge to my next-door neighbor and he chuckled softly and stated, “I have the same problem with my own children. They’ll be in the middle of a squabble, I’ll ask one of them what’s going on, and my oldest son will invariably come back with, ‘It all started when he hit me back!'”
“It all started when he hit me back!” What a clever encapsulation of a contemporary malaise. As long as others mistreat us, we can mistreat them right back. Because, well, they deserve it.
I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time, and as many of you know, it permeates our writing. For example, the principle of working on ourselves first from Crucial Conversations suggests we need to think less about exacting revenge on others and more about our own style under stress. Equally true, maybe we shouldn’t mirror the very behavior we loathe. Transforming others into villains and viewing ourselves as heroes also fuels the fires of getting even. In short, in both our training and books we teach that responding to violence with violence is a bad thing, and I believe we’ve made some progress. In fact, in that first factory where a supervisor wielded an ax, leaders learned to effectively handle high-stakes, emotional conversations, and over the next two years violence decreased significantly.
Today, I hope to take this message to a new audience: children. Actually, I’m hoping you’ll pass the message along for me. I know, asking a favor deviates quite a bit from your standard business newsletter, and writing something for children—why that’s virtually unheard of. But it’s my hope that if we can set kids on the right path while they’re still young, they’ll be better prepared for the unrelenting stream of invitations to violence that will most assuredly assault them as they turn on their TVs, play their video games, go to movies, and eventually show up at work.
So, with the children in mind, and in the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve written a rather Seussian children’s tale that I hope you’ll share with the young ones in your world. It’s not about mistletoe, snowmen, and the like, but apropos to the season of love and tranquility, it shares a message of peace—the kind of peace one creates through a healthy and loving response to how others treat us, even when they’re being naughty, not nice. For this holiday, I plan on reading it aloud to my grandchildren. You might consider doing the same.