Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

It was a Saturday morning in the summer of 1980, the front doorbell chimed, and my seven-year-old daughter Rebecca ran to see who was there. It turned out to be her best friend, Candy, who smiled and asked, “Can you come out and play?” Rebecca took a quick look at her pal, curled her lip, said “No,” and then slammed the door.

I watched this exchange and thought to myself, ‘Who slams the door in a friend’s face?’ Apparently my daughter. So, I asked her what had just taken place. She explained that her mom had told her to clean her room before she went anywhere.

“So you wanted to play, but you had to clean your room first,” I carefully paraphrased. “Yes,” she responded. “The sooner I do my chores, the sooner I can play.”

“How do you think Candy felt about your slamming the door in her face?” I asked. “She looks sad,” Rebecca explained as we peered out the window and watched Candy trudge back to her house. “I guess I hurt her feelings.”

“Can you think of something you could have said that would have been kinder?” I inquired.

Rebecca had no answer. That’s because she’s human and we humans aren’t born with much knowledge. We certainly aren’t born with the complicated, and often subtle, skills that make up social awareness and charm.

Unlike some guppies Rebecca and I had watched being born a few days earlier, humans don’t arrive with knowledge about anything. Guppies shoot out of their moms like a mini-torpedo, take a quick look around, swim to the nearest plant, hide in the foliage, and then swim in sync with the moving vegetation. They’re born with first-class hiding skills. That’s because the fish around them (including daddy and uncle guppy) eat baby guppies. To maintain the species, guppies are taught most of what they’ll need to survive—not in schools (pun intended), but in-utero. They’re born teenagers. Most of what they’ll ever know, they know at birth.

Humans, in contrast, are born with a blank slate. Infants know nothing nor are they pre-programmed to do anything. The good news: humans don’t get jerked around by instincts. (Hey, let’s swim up an Alaskan stream until we beat ourselves to death on the rocks!) The bad news: humans have to learn how to survive—skill by skill, situation by situation. Social scripts are no exception. By age seven, Rebecca hadn’t learned the door script and was having a hard time inventing one of her own.

So I continued the instruction. “What if you said, ‘I’d love to come out and play, but I have to clean my room first. When I finish I’ll come over and get you.’?”

Then I stepped outside and knocked on the door. Rebecca answered and I asked her to come out and play. When I share this story, I typically ask audiences what they think Rebecca did at this point. They respond: “She slammed the door in your face!” But they’re wrong. Rebecca politely said, “I’d love to come out and play, but I have to clean my room first. When I’m done I’ll come get you.” In less than three minutes, I had taught Rebecca a social script.

While working as a professor a few months later, I decided to test whether I could apply what I had done with a seven-year-old to grown adults by teaching them a social script. And unlike Rebecca, whom I taught openly and to her knowledge, I wanted to see if I could teach adults a social script without them even noticing.

To find out, I asked a group of graduate students to cut into movie theater lines. Our goal was to count how many people would typically say something to the line cutter. In the laid-back Mountain West where we conducted the experiment, no matter the gender, size, or demeanor of the line cutter, nobody spoke up. Better to stay mum, the subjects concluded, and avoid any potential conflicts.

Next, I asked the students to cut in front of—not a stranger—but a fellow student whom we’d secretly placed in line. The student was instructed to become upset. “Hey, quit cutting in line!” the student would brusquely say to the cutter who would then go to the end of the queue. Next, we waited a minute and cut in front of the person standing behind the student who had just chewed out the line cutter. Would experimental subjects be informed and emboldened from the demonstration they had just witnessed and now speak their minds? Since we hadn’t exhibited a very healthy script, we hypothesized that most people would remain silent. And they did. Not one person spoke harshly after watching someone else do the same.

For our third trial, we cut in front of a student who was instructed to be diplomatic. The student was to smile and say, “Excuse me. Perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been waiting in line for over fifteen minutes.” The cutter would then apologize and go to the end of the line.

Now for the big question. Similar to Rebecca learning the door script, would onlookers learn and use their new and smart sounding line-cutting script? We waited a minute, cut in front of the subject standing behind the positive role model and watched what took place—in fifty different lines. The results were startling. Over 80% of people who observed the effective interaction, spoke up. In fact, they said the exact same words they heard modeled. We did it! By using a positive role model, we taught strangers a social script that they immediately put into action. And we did it without them even knowing.

The implications of this research are obvious. Humans, despite the fact that they’re born without a scrap of useful knowledge, can observe, learn, and put into play, a whole host of skills—including social scripts. For example, you watch an employee argue for his idea in a meeting with far too much force, causing others to resist. You note that the tactic didn’t work. Then you watch someone tentatively present the same idea and ask others what they think—this approach is met with acceptance. “That nonaggressive approach worked!” you think to yourself and, just like Rebecca, you’ve learned a new social tactic.

And yet, most of us spend little time observing, learning, and teaching social scripts. We exert more effort learning French (or even Klingon) than studying human interaction. But this can change simply by watching people in tough social interactions, spotting what works and what doesn’t, and then practicing the skills yourself. Eventually, you can teach the skills to others.

Don’t rely on chance—certainly not with your children, friends, and coworkers. Expecting people to invent tactics for working through complex social issues is akin to handing a child a pencil and paper and expecting him to invent calculus. Instead, take what you’ve learned through observing others, break it into component skills, and teach these social snippets to those around you. Teaching others social skills is one of the best gifts you can give them. Plus, if you get really good at handling high-stakes conversations, you no longer have to put up with line cutters.

Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with New Job Expectations

Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been doing a job for 14 years, making improvements and reevaluating each year to make it more efficient and produce better results. The two teams I have been dealing with have always expressed satisfaction with my work. We now have a different management team with a different philosophy; they want me to do my job in less than half the time, assisting 50% more clients than I had previously. They want me to just “get the job done” and are not concerned about quality. How do I deal with this without sacrificing personal integrity?

Regards,
Frustrated with Management

Dear Frustrated,
When managers make this kind of demand, it feels like a kick in the guts. It’s as if the new management team is discrediting your experience and the improvements you’ve worked so hard to achieve. You’ve put a lot of yourself into your job, so it’s hard not to take it personally. And, when they increase your workload as much as they have, it feels as if they are devaluing the job itself—“Since your job isn’t worth doing at all, it’s certainly not worth doing well.”

And yet, taking this demand personally would be a mistake. It’s very unlikely the new management team was thinking about you and your personal performance when they made this change in priorities. I’ll suggest a few, more dispassionate, ways to respond.

Explore Others’ Paths. Begin by seeking to understand the facts and logic behind the new direction. Hold off on evaluating the feasibility of the specific changes until you understand why the new management team believes new priorities are needed.

For example, I worked with a management team that discovered they could double their sales and triple their profits if they switched from producing top-quality external siding to lower-quality interior siding. Employees felt lousy about producing lower-quality material, until they understood it was what the marketplace wanted. The lower-quality material would be used inside walls, where its flaws would be hidden. In this case the change was a success. The operation expanded, and everyone benefited.

Reinvent the Process. Try to reinvent how you manage this new volume of clients. Tweaking the existing process probably won’t be enough. It will likely require a disruptive innovation. For example, instead of increasing the speed with which you work with clients over the phone, maybe the solution is to ditch the phone, and use a website where clients solve their own problems.

Learn from Positive Deviants. A positive deviant is a person who faces the same challenges as everyone else, but has somehow achieved breakthrough results. Check to see if there are any of your peers who are meeting the new numbers without sacrificing essential quality elements. If there are any, go and observe them. Ask them to observe you as well. You may discover insights that will radically change your results.

I saw this a few years ago when I was working with a team that transcribed physician’s notes. The department had just introduced voice-recognition software, but hadn’t seen the productivity increases they’d expected. The team looked for positive deviants, and discovered three members of their team who had become four times more productive than the rest—but no one knew why. They observed each other, and quickly figured it out. These exceptional three had independently programmed Microsoft shortcuts that sped up their work. Once they shared these shortcuts with the team, everyone’s productivity quadrupled.

Track a Balanced Scorecard of Outcomes. My guess is that you and the management team are focused on somewhat different outcomes. They are looking at volume and margins, while you are looking at quality and complaints. The mistake would be to track one set of outcomes without also tracking the others. You’ll want to track both the desired outcomes and the potential risks.

Notice that I’m emphasizing tracking and measuring. Verbal warnings about potential risks never carry as much weight as actual data. Maybe the results will confirm your warnings, or maybe they will confirm the management team’s hopes. Or maybe the data will land in the middle, and everyone will see the need for more work. Remember, it’s not about winning or losing an argument; it’s about getting facts and data on the table, where they can serve as common ground.

Yeah But . . . What if these tips don’t work? What if, after giving it your best shot, you conclude that the new management team doesn’t value the work you do? If this is the case, I believe you have three options.

1. Stay in your current job, but feel as if you are sacrificing your integrity. This won’t work—at least, not in the long run. You will hate your job, and your feelings will show on your face and in your actions.
2. Change to a job they do value.
3. Or find another organization that values the kind of work you want to do.

Good luck,

David

Crucial Conversations QA

Communicating with the Unresponsive

This column will be Al Switzler’s last. He is transitioning to a more advisory role and will be supporting some of our non-profit efforts. We will be introducing new thought leaders in coming issues of Crucial Skills.

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do I do about a supervisor who doesn’t respond to or acknowledge e-mails and other correspondence from me? I even use the “read receipt” which indicates that it was read, but still no response.

Sincerely,
Awaiting a Response

Dear Awaiting,

When I read questions like this, I sense frustration, self-doubt, and difficulty in restraining your anger. But before I respond to your question, let me start with a caveat. Every situation varies. Since I know so little of the specifics, history, and stressors, I’m shooting in the dark a bit. But, hopefully you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt if I have guessed incorrectly.

With this in mind, I’d like to insert your question into a bucket that contains other similar questions and challenges:
• “What do I do when my supervisor makes a commitment to involve me in decisions and then doesn’t? I feel uncomfortable chasing her down all the time.”
• “How do I respond if someone I work with goes to radio silence—someone from whom I need information, help, or approval?”

And so I will offer three tactics for responding to these kinds of challenges.

1. Start with Heart. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. You have some history with the other person. You know how long this has been going on. You could explain how many times you’ve tried to talk with your supervisor about his or her unwillingness to respond. I’d say that, in one way, regardless of the background, you should start by asking the “humanizing question” with a twist. The humanizing question is this: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This is an invitation for your brain and emotions to engage in an empathy exercise. What could be going on with your supervisor? What stress is s/he experiencing? In what ways could you be part of the problem? And here is the twist: In what ways could you be part of the solution?

Allow me to speculate here. Could it be that your supervisor is facing tons of stress from above and is acting as a buffer between you and the stress? Could it be that your supervisor gets 547 e-mails per day and is simply swamped? Insert all the empathetic responses you can think of here. Then create a plan to be helpful. You might go to him or her and ask if it would be possible for you to send fewer e-mails by setting a weekly (or daily) five-minute meeting to keep your projects speeding along and to keep him or her informed. Together, you will need to work out the specifics. But I think the principle is sound. Begin with empathy, find the key barriers, and then try to be part of a solution—rather than maintaining the stance that your supervisor is the problem.

2. Clarify the workflow. Often when there is a struggle in a relationship, it’s because the people involved are dependent on one another for many actions—sometimes too many. For example, what do you need from your supervisor and what does your supervisor need from you? Do you need updates or approvals? Delays cause you grief and radio silence has you sitting on your hands. Does your supervisor need trust and predictability? Is this a complicated project that has your supervisor juggling seventeen balls with little time left over to answer e-mails? The conversation you might have is about empowerment—getting more on your plate and less on your supervisor’s. Go to your supervisor with a plan for how you might streamline your work in a way that continues to give the supervisor increased trust and predictability.

Years ago, we worked with an organization that had hundreds of forms requiring anywhere from four to fourteen signatures for approval. Our analysis found that any signatures above the first four were redundant—people signed the form simply because the person before them signed it. They reduced the number of signatures dramatically and thus reduced the waiting time between approvals. You might go in with a proposal, in question form, about moving more of the approvals to you. Additionally, show how you would keep the supervisor informed and when and how you would deal with exceptions. Such a discussion would make you part of the solution.

3. Talk about the real issue. I saved this for last with good reason. Sometimes we don’t feel we can talk about the real issue without trying other tactics first, so I’ve led with them. However, I stress that this may be the first tactic. The real issue with your supervisor is not that s/he is not responsive. The real issue is that there is a pattern adversely affecting the quantity and quality of your work. Sometimes the assumptions we make about our supervisor and our relationship keeps us from the real discussion. Generally, I’d suggest that reframe your assumptions and find a way to talk about this pattern. Select a good time and a private location. It might go something like this: “I’m finding a consistent need to get information or approvals from you but then have to wait on the messages I send. I’d like to talk about what we might do to make this process more efficient so the projects can proceed smoothly. Would that be okay?” The two of you can share ideas and make a plan. If that doesn’t happen, I would also have a script prepared where you could talk about your Mutual Purpose—you aren’t trying to cause more stress but trying to find solutions that would make it easier for your supervisor while allowing you to get your work done more quickly and efficiently. I would then suggest tactics like the two detailed above. I like going into any crucial conversation not only prepared for the topic at hand, but also with several other strategies to use if the first plan doesn’t work.

Will it work? I don’t know. Will the situation improve if you do nothing? I doubt it; it seldom does. Do you have enough tactics and scripts and enough Mutual Purpose and respect to engage in the conversation and feel confident that some progress will be made? Absolutely.

I wish you the best,
Al