Crucial Accountability QA

Getting Your Employees Up to Snuff

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Accountability

QDear Crucial Skills,

With recent organizational changes, I acquired additional people reporting to me as their first-line manager. This particular group supports older legacy software products that are slowly becoming obsolete. Our organization is transforming in ways that require employees to learn and use new tools so they can eventually join teams that are developing our new products. All team members have learned the new tools except one older individual. He is content with the status quo, vocalized that he does not want to do anything new, and intentionally does not take training or opportunities when offered.
The problem is that prior managers allowed this behavior to exist and I inherited it. How can I influence this person to change?


Managing Obsolescence

A Dear Managing,

Congratulations on your success in helping so many stay prepared for future responsibilities. The fact that you’ve got only one outlier is a credit both to your team’s initiative and your influence.

Now, let’s talk about the “older individual.” I’ll share a variety of thoughts that I hope spur a productive path forward for both of you.

1. Question the question. Is it really a problem that he doesn’t learn the new tools? For example, if the legacy systems will need another year’s support and he intends to retire in a year or so, perhaps he’s making a perfectly rational decision not to invest in new skills. My first challenge is for you to broaden your definition of a good outcome and consider whether his aspirations and the organization’s needs can both be served by keeping him where he is. If not, continue to #2.

2. Diagnose carefully. It’s often the case that ability problems appear to be motivation problems. For example, when I was five years old, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to swim. My mother signed me up for swim lessons and I feigned a lack of interest—not because I truly didn’t want to know how to swim, but because I was certain my lack of body fat would make me sink to the bottom of the pool. Could it be that he is interested in new ideas, but worries he couldn’t handle the complexity? If so, you need to find a way to make it safe to surface this issue and develop solutions to the ability problem—or at least his perception that there is an ability problem.

3. Explore natural consequences. Too many managers think it’s their job to motivate people to change. It isn’t. Your job is to help them understand the natural consequences of their choices. For example, you might explain, “You are highly competent at our legacy systems. Our new systems require abracadabra certification. In about eighteen months we will sunset our legacy systems. The only jobs we’ll have available then will require the new certification. There will not be a position you qualify for at that time based on your current skill set.” Having explained the world as you see it, it is his choice to either motivate himself to learn abracadabra—or not. You can surrender the need to manage his choices.

4. Agree on next steps. Let’s say you explore the natural consequences and he says, “Geez, I think I need to get up to speed on abracadabra.” If his past behavior shows that he makes commitments but does not follow through, you must clarify who will do what and by when and how you will follow up. You must also confirm the consequences of noncompliance. For example, you might ask, “Great, so what’s your plan? When will you take the training? When will you be available to take on tasks with abracadabra certification?” Having received his commitment, be sure to add the following: “Let’s talk in three months to confirm that the certification is complete. If it is complete after that time, I will slot you into some new projects. If it is not, I hope you understand that our ability to use you will have a limited life.”

Let me conclude with one final invitation. Make sure you check your own motives. Be sure you are not writing someone off because he is not everything you think he should be. If he is resistant to new skills, but his presence is still a “win-win” for the organization, don’t be myopic and miss that bigger picture.

These are tough calls to make. Management is tough. I wish you the best as you do the right thing for those you serve.



Community QA

Community Q&A: Influencing a Toddler

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, accountability discussions, and behavior change challenges, we recently introduced the Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I just heard Mr. Grenny speak and I couldn’t help but wonder how could I use influence and persuasion to potty train my toddler? We have been working at it from a reward/consequence standpoint but perhaps I am not giving him enough credit. Maybe a simple behavior modifier that doesn’t involve sweet treats (which I refuse to give) or punishment would work?


Pondering Potty Training

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get What you Deserve

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been at my organization for more than thirty years and am the most experienced colleague in my department. I have mentored others and taught them the job functions. I am able to function in various roles when needed and my opinions and suggestions are often sought by others. I consistently receive “exceeds expectations” in my job evaluations. However, I recently discovered a misplaced document that identified all of our salaries; I make less than everyone! I reported this to my manager and she acknowledged that I am a valuable asset to our department that the salary discrepancy was wrong. There are several “novices” who make more than me; a few males in particular. She notified HR and Employee Services and the response was “we will put her on the list.” I would like to meet with HR to discuss this issue personally. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this?

Best Regards,


Dear Underpaid,

Thirty years of loyalty, mentoring, exceeding expectations, being an opinion leader, and getting paid less than some of the male novices…ouch! I can certainly understand the sense of unfairness you are experiencing as well as the frustration of not being able to get the situation rectified immediately. You wrote that you would like to discuss this with HR personally and asked for suggestions on your approach. I have a few that might be helpful.

1. Master your Stories. First, do your inner work. Get your head right. In cases of unfairness and injustice, it’s almost automatic to assume the worst about people’s motives and the causes of the unfairness. It’s easy to see yourself as a victim of evil bosses who make their budgets and bonuses by holding your salary flat. Remember to Master Your Stories by asking “Why would reasonable, rational, and decent people not increase my pay—especially relative to lower performers or newer employees?”

It could be that the powers that be are evil and selfish. That’s one possibility. Are there others? Based on your manager’s response, it seems they were unaware of the unfairness and when alerted, your manager called it “wrong” and contacted HR. Perhaps you are not fighting evil people, but rather an unfair system. Edwards Deming famously said, “Good people and bad systems produce bad results.” It’s likely the pay system in your organization does not make adequate adjustments for pay inequalities and the people who manage the system are not making the appropriate fixes. It is in these instances that interpersonal conversations become so crucial. People who encounter problems must make those who are responsible for managing the system aware of the problems as well as of the consequences.

2. Start With Heart. Having got your head right, now work on getting your heart right. Start With Heart by asking yourself “What do I really want?” Do you want: revenge, justice, back pay, an appropriate increase going forward? Unanalyzed motives can derail you and defuse your energies. Get clear on the results you want. For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to assume that you want to receive a fair increase in your pay beginning now. I will also assume that you want an appointment with the most helpful person in HR right away.

3. Next, gather the facts. Gathering the facts is the homework required to have a crucial conversation. Use the information in the document for comparison purposes. Include your performance appraisals, ratings, and the comments of your manager as to how valuable you have been to your department. Remember: no exaggerations, no embellishments, just the facts.

Ask your manager for help in getting an appointment with the most appropriate person in HR. It concerns me that you will be put on “the list.” Apparently there are so many people seeking help that they cannot be handled by regular scheduling; or, the HR group is understaffed. Either way, ask around and have your manager make inquires. Rather than being lumped in with everyone who has a reason to talk with HR, find out who is the right person to help you with a pay inequity problem. This can often save your time and theirs.

In requesting a meeting, follow appropriate protocol to demonstrate Mutual Respect. Make sure to include information about the purpose of your meeting. Identify the pay inequities between you and several “novices.” Also, be sure to emphasize that there are men in your department being paid more for doing the same work that you, a woman, are doing. This is important information to include in your request because it would be easy for someone in Human Resources to assume that you have a gripe about not being paid enough and relegate your request for an appointment to the “business as usual” file. You need to help them understand that yours is an issue that’s important to the organization’s values, pay, and benefit system, and falls into the category of “needs attention now!” By doing this, you are establishing Mutual Purpose because you want the pay inequities and unfairness addressed; they want to make sure the pay and benefit system has no bias based on gender and that it rewards good performance. You are providing important feedback to help the managers of the pay system to identify defects and fix them.

An important caution—in arranging this appointment, don’t preach. Don’t express righteous indignation. Don’t berate or belittle. Don’t threaten or give ultimatums. The Human Resource Specialists are not your enemy. They are there to help you. Make it easy for them to do their job. Be respectful and helpful to them.

Another caution—don’t get sidetracked with questions about the salary document you were not supposed to see. The issue is not about you inappropriately poking into privileged information. Don’t let that become the issue. Upon finding the document, you did not show it around or post it on the Internet. You reported it to your manager, as you should have. You handled the situation correctly. Keep the conversation focused on the pay inequities problem.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. You are right to help solve this problem for your sake and the sake of others. As you are successful, the whole organization will be well served.