Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Above and Beyond? How to Deal with a Strong-willed Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,

I manage a small technical team. One particular member of my team is a seasoned high performer who is very strong-willed. This person enjoys being the “hero” in the customer’s eyes by sometimes intentionally making commitments that lead to unnecessary and excessive overtime. Because of exempt status, this person is not eligible for overtime compensation and the company has no comp time policy. The employee has expressed an opinion of entitlement to compensation for this overtime, especially since the work brings in significant revenue directly to the company. This has put me, as his manager, in an uncomfortable and awkward position when I have had to address the issue. Despite repeated requests to stop this behavior, the employee persists in making commitments “for the good of the customer” even though we have told the employee we cannot provide compensation for overtime work. How should I deal with this?



Dear Manager,

What we have here is an archetypal crucial conversation! Clearly the stakes are high, you and your seasoned high performer see it differently, and the emotions have kicked in. As I have read and reread your question, my mind has been flooded with options. I have tried to sort through the flood to find a few bits of advice that I think are most cogent, noting that because I don’t know the context or history, some of this advice may be less cogent than I would hope. Nonetheless, here is some advice in chronological order.

Consider your options. All people facing crucial conversations have at least three options. You can remain silent, turn to violence, or hold a crucial conversation. If you choose silence, you are essentially giving the employee your permission to continue acting this way. However, most people don’t really remain silent—they gossip. And that generally unravels and hurts the relationship. Or you can choose violence—you can bottle up your emotions until you explode with accusations, sarcasm, or worse. Neither of these first two options, which are very common, will help. So the first bit of advice concerning how to deal with this is to speak up with candor and courtesy.

Get your head and your heart ready before you open your mouth. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?” Do you really understand the reasons this seasoned, high-performing employee is acting this way? Have you asked him? Does this employee feel like you care and that you are trying to understand? Are his reasons limited to serving customers and compensation? Could the employee be identifying a big problem that you, as a supervisor, need to help solve? What is your purpose? What is his purpose? What is the Mutual Purpose? When we have an issue with someone, we are often too quick to generate conclusions that oversimplify. So make sure you have done your best to understand.

It’s likely you’ve noticed that the first two bits of advice deal with you and not the other person. Each of us needs to make sure we work on us first. We don’t want to charge into a conversation with incomplete and clever stories, with our faces showing that we have held court in our heads and found the other person guilty. Once you have carefully engaged in the first two pieces of advice, you can then proceed.

Talk about the real issue. Over the years we’ve talked and written about determining what conversation to hold using CPR—Content, Pattern, and Relationship. The problem that many of us suffer from is that we talk ourselves blue in the face about the wrong issue. We choose simple over complex, easy over hard, and incident over pattern. I’m not sure what the real issue is with your employee. Maybe the issue is a pattern of making inappropriate commitments to customers. Maybe the issue is a sense of entitlement about the lack of overtime pay or perhaps compensation in general. Maybe the issue is that you have made repeated requests and he has not made a firm commitment. These are things to think about. I will say that clearly you must address a pattern and probably a relationship issue. Again, without knowing the context, let me suggest a couple of approaches for when you open your mouth.

Speak up about what really matters. Of course, you want to make it safe to talk. Safety would include privacy (not having spectators), timing (choosing a time when you won’t be rushed or stressed), and purpose (clarify up front what you are trying to accomplish and ask if now is a good time for the two of you to talk).

You might begin by saying, “We’ve chatted at least three times about making commitments to customers that require overtime and your feeling that it’s not fair that you not be compensated for this. I’ve asked you numerous times not to make these commitments and you know the compensation policy. I’d like to understand and I would also like to talk about this so that we don’t have this issue recur. Is my purpose clear?”

What you have done here is clarify an outcome. You are not merely trying to solve the problem of his making commitments to customers; you are trying to eliminate a pattern and to build a relationship so that you can trust him when he makes a commitment. What the solution is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a motivation problem and when you share the consequences of the employee’s actions, he or she may understand them and comply. Maybe it’s an ability problem, and when the two of you identify how your employee can say no to customers, you’ll have a solution. Maybe you’ll learn something that will cause you to support a salary increase for the employee or a change in a process or policy. When you start the conversation, the outcome is not predetermined; but when you finish the conversation, the next steps and commitments should be very clear—as in Who Does What by When, and Follow up.

There is no magic solution to challenges like the one you are facing. There are some tested principles and I’ve based my advice on them. All of these tactics and principles stem from the Law of Crucial Conversations: If you’re stuck in some aspect of your life, at work or at home, there is a crucial conversation you’re not holding or not holding well. Get better at crucial conversations and get better at everything.

I wish you well in stepping up to this conversation,


Crucial Accountability QA

Q&A: Keeping Your Workers Safe

Ron McMillan

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

Our company has worked long and hard to improve workplace safety and we’ve made some great strides. I have good employees that work for me and I’m sure none of them come to work with the thought that they will have an accident that day, but unfortunately it sometimes happens. Why would employees continue to take risks or shortcuts that lead to accidents?

What Can Be Done

A Dear What,

I congratulate you and your company on your success. Recently in the U.S., many of the most obvious workplace threats have been reduced or eliminated, making American workers far safer.

However, in 2007 more than 5,600 people were killed on the job and more than 4 million were injured.¹ In addition to this tragic human toll, these injuries cost firms more than $48.6 billion.² Clearly, there is much more that needs to be done.

Most of the gains in workplace safety can be attributed to improvements in equipment, policies, systems, and training. However, the issues left to address are the informal, cultural challenges.

Here at VitalSmarts, we conducted interviews and surveys among more than 1,500 employees from more than 20 firms. Our research revealed that the ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone is aware of the threat well in advance, but is either unwilling or unable to speak up.

Specifically, we uncovered five crucial conversations that exist in most organizations that are politically incorrect or uncomfortable to surface. Ninety-three percent of employees say their workgroup is currently at risk from one or more of these five “accidents waiting to happen.” In fact, nearly half are aware of an injury or death caused by these workplace dangers.

The five crucial conversations of a safety culture are:

1. Get It Done. These are unsafe practices justified by tight timelines. According to the results, 78 percent of respondents see their coworkers take unsafe shortcuts. These common and risky shortcuts are undiscussable for 75 percent of the workforce.

2. Undiscussable Incompetence. These are unsafe practices that stem from skill deficits that can’t be discussed. Sixty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers create unsafe conditions due to incompetence, and 74 percent of workers say safety risks sustained by incompetence are undiscussable.

3. Just This Once. These are unsafe practices justified as exceptions to the rule. Fifty-five percent of respondents see their coworkers make unsafe exceptions. Only one in four speak up and share their real concerns with the person who is putting safety at risk.

4. This Is Overboard. These are unsafe practices that bypass precautions already considered excessive. The majority of respondents—66 percent—see their coworkers violate safety precautions they’ve discounted. Almost three out of four either say nothing or fall short of speaking up candidly to share their real concerns.

5. Are You a Team Player? These are unsafe practices that are justified for the good of the team, company, or customer. Sixty-three percent of respondents see their coworkers violate safety precautions for this cause. Only 28 percent say they speak up and share their concerns with the person.

The missing ingredient in a safety culture is the willingness and ability to effectively hold those who are engaging in unsafe behavior and practices accountable.

In order to create a culture of safety, everyone must have the skills to hold others accountable. These are the skills we train in Crucial Accountability workshops. The other essential component is to use the Six Sources of Influence to motivate and enable the team members to be accountable.

I witnessed a dramatically successful strategy work for a team on an oil rig working to reduce accidents and injuries and a team at a hospital improving patient safety. They both implemented a 200 percent accountability initiative.

After being trained in Crucial Accountability skills, as part of an Influencer plan, the workers agreed that they were 100 percent accountable to abide by the safety protocols. They also committed to be 100 percent accountable to speak up when they saw someone else violating safe practices. Each signed a “200 percent accountability” poster and gave others permission to confront them if there was any question about their own compliance. With amazing speed, workers reported a change in their culture and an improvement in the vital behaviors that lead to a safer workplace for workers and patients.

Accountability is the implicit assumption that underlies every safety program. Yet as our research shows, this assumption is more fiction than fact. Consequently, accountability is the critical weakness of most approaches to safety. If people don’t hold each other accountable for acting on observed threats, then more training to help them recognize threats will be of limited value. Silence, not blindness, is the problem.

This research also points to an exceptionally high-leverage strategy for improving workplace safety. If leaders focus on the five undiscussables and transform them from undiscussables into approachable accountability conversations, they can expect dramatic improvements in workplace safety.

All the best in your worthy effort to keep your people safe.


¹Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, July 2009.

²”2008 Workplace Safety Index,” Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, 2008.

Change Anything QA

Help—My Child is Addicted to Electronics!

Dear Crucial Skills,

My fourteen-year-old son seems to be addicted to electronics. If we let him, he will spend ten hours a day on his tablet, computer, or XBOX. I want him to choose to do other things, and to do something worthwhile over the summer. Is there a better approach than “cold turkey”?

Parent of an e-addict

Dear Parent,

I like the way you framed your objective: “I want him to choose to do other things.” That’s a completely different influence problem from “I want him to stop.” As a father of six children, I have often been tempted to go for the quick fix of the latter rather than the steady influence of the former.
The latter could be accomplished by simply spilling iced tea on the problematic devices, then feigning remorse as they short out in a puff of smoke. The former will require not only more thought, but more patience and character on your part.

1. Is the problem the problem? Before you decide that electronic games are the problem, do your best to determine whether games are a way of medicating against or isolating from some other problem—like bullying, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other social or emotional problems.

2. “Addiction” isn’t a metaphor. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry . . . . This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Some evidences that a behavior has become “addictive” include: “inability to consistently abstain, feelings of craving, and diminished recognition of negative consequences of one’s behaviors.” You don’t need to ingest a substance to develop addiction. Behaviors alone can similarly contribute to brain reward circuitry impairment. My personal belief is that many of us (including myself) have unhealthy relationships with technology that create negative emotional and relationship consequences. So let me applaud you for your sensitivity to the potential developmental damage technology can do to your son.

3. Interview, don’t lecture. Don’t begin the conversation with your son using conclusions and wisdom (e.g. “I think you’ve got a problem” or “Reading is better for your brain”). Instead, come in with curiosity and a desire to connect. Trust is permission to influence—and he controls the granting or withholding of trust. Show an interest in his interests. Spend time with him. Affirm him. And when sufficient safety exists, broach the topic. “Hugh,” you might say, “on a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with the way you spend your time? How confident are you that it is taking you where you want to be and creating the life you want right now?” He might be defensive when you first ask this. He may suspect it is a manipulative tactic to open the way for your judgment or lecture. If so, reassure him it isn’t. Be honest that you have feelings on the topic, but push your agenda aside, and sincerely open yourself to his feelings. If he answers, “Well, okay, I guess. Maybe a six,” you now have some common ground to discuss. “Wow. Really? I would have thought you’d say a ten. What makes you less than perfectly satisfied with how you’re spending time?” Your only hope of helping him make different choices is to honor his feelings and autonomy from the first conversation. Interview, don’t lecture. This does not mean you can’t express opinions at times, but keep your airtime in careful balance with his interests.

4. Wake him, don’t make him. In order to sustain bad habits we must maintain ignorance of their consequences. If you want to help him “choose” differently, you’ll have to help him experience the downside of his habit as viscerally as he now experiences the upside. What he knows today is that grabbing a controller and logging into a game is associated with feelings of engagement, enjoyment, social connection (if he plays online games), mastery, and perhaps safe solitude. If he is to choose something different he will need to feel that other choices will create better consequences. This is tricky. But it’s also a fundamental problem you need to solve. The first step is to help him engage in experiences that will awaken him to either the negative consequences of his current choices, or the positive consequences of other choices. For example, you could ask him to conduct an experiment to help him become more mindful of his experience.

Emotion tracking. See if he would be willing to keep a simple journal of how he feels before and after playing games for long periods. Be prepared in advance that some of his journal entries will confirm the positive emotions he feels while playing. Have him similarly experiment with other activities (some enjoyable family activity, an outing with friends, etc.) and report how he feels during and after. Talk openly with each other about this data as a way of helping him make more conscious choices.

Abstinence Test. Share the definition of addiction. Invite him to experiment in discovering his own way to discern healthy gaming and unhealthy gaming by attempting a brief abstention experiment and recording his feelings during it. Discuss openly how it felt and what that means to him.

What could be better? Invite him to think of activities that might create more enjoyment and health that could be far more fun for him than gaming. Encourage and support him in experimenting with a single attempt at an activity, then discuss his experience.

5. There’s a difference between forcing him to change and refusing to enable. Realize that you are an accomplice in his choices. You are subsidizing his choices by maintaining home duties for him, providing the equipment, providing the comfortable environment, etc. You need to accept responsibility for how you are providing a structural influence that makes gaming easy by providing devices. You don’t have to do this. In fact, you shouldn’t. You should have boundaries with everything you offer. Just because you provide a bed doesn’t mean you have to consent to him lying in it twenty-four hours a day. Providing food doesn’t mean you have to serve up Twinkies every time he wants them. You get to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to offer—and no more.” Now, since your objective is to influence his choices, not control his behavior, I’d suggest you strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. You might say, for example, “I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide. However, I am willing to provide the opportunity for you to play up to three hours per day—and five on weekends—provided your grades are good and your homework is finished.” I offer this as an illustration, not as a sound position to take.

I admire your desire to think about long-term influence rather than short-term compliance. My worst moments as a parent have been when I was more interested in behavior than growth. I believe that if you reflect on some of what I shared, and keep an eye on what you really want, you’ll find a way to help him grow in the way only a loving and discerning parent can.