Crucial Conversations QA

Rebuilding Family Relationships

Dear Joseph,

I was raised in an abusive home—both physically and emotionally—and after many years of estrangement, my abuser would like to have a relationship with me. Now that I am expanding my own family, she is very interested in doing what it takes to be part of my and my children’s lives. I don’t know if she has truly changed, but if she has, I would love for my children to have a grandparent in their life. I am well versed in Crucial Conversations, but I honestly have no idea where to start. How do you rebuild Safety and Mutual Respect that has degenerated to the point of non-existence?

To Forgive or Protect?

Dear Forgive or Protect,

I am so sorry about the pain of your early life. No one should have to endure that kind of torment. Which is why I am confident you will step up to the advice I have to offer for the sake of your children.

When you were younger, you were completely vulnerable. You needed someone to protect you—and no one was there. Our primary duty to our children is to ensure their physical and emotional safety. Next comes love and nurturing. But basic safety is foundational. Grandparents are great—but safety comes first. You know what it’s like to look to people in your life and be unable to trust them for this most basic of needs. You now have the chance to get that right for your children. Every decision you make needs to put their safety first. If gaining a grandparent introduces even a small chance of preventable harm, the grandparent goes. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how you might approach this situation.

1. If you can’t talk about it, it’s not over. My first question is, have you been able to thoroughly discuss the abuse you experienced with this person? If not, then you can have no confidence that the behavior you saw in the past will not repeat itself. Do not offer your trust until there is acknowledgment. This conversation may open your eyes to emotional trauma this individual struggled with as well. You may feel deep empathy for them as a result. But don’t equate empathy with tolerance. A healthy and open conversation is a good start. In fact, it is a prerequisite for building trust—but it is not the end.

2. Use yourself, not your children, as the guinea pig. Even if you are able to honestly discuss the past, you must still test the present. Don’t allow this person to connect with your children until you have sufficient time to rebuild your own trust with them. This could take a year or more. This investment in time might give you a chance to heal from your trauma as well. If she pressures you for access to the grandchildren sooner, but is unwilling to invest in rebuilding trust with you first, I would be concerned she is still in denial about the scale of her challenge and the reality of your abuse.

3. Set boundaries to test for reform. If the time comes that you feel very confident that she can honor you and your boundaries in your relationship with her, I would slowly introduce her to the grandchildren—and do so under controlled circumstances at first.

In summary, I would begin the process of building a new relationship by:

a) Letting her know you are open to it—in fact, are grateful for her interest in kindling it.
b) Giving her a picture of the kind of time and investment you will need from her in order to create it.

This will likely be a tricky conversation. She may well feel hurt or defensive by your requests. And I’ll emphasize again, you should judge the likelihood of a healthy relationship in the future by her capacity to engage well with you in this first conversation!

I wish you the best as you care for yourself and your precious children.


Community QA

Delivering Bad News

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

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you tell someone that they are no longer a fit for the demands of their current position? I need to tell an employee that they should step down into a lesser role or else they may end up losing their job due to poor performance.

Stuck Manager

Influencer QA

Energizing the Undervalued and Overworked

Have Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a team of three individuals. They are all hard workers and have been with the company for a long time. I have been their manager for almost five years now. Over the last year, we have gone through some organizational changes that have made them feel, as they have stated, “undervalued” and “overworked.” In an effort to boost morale, I have tried to provide them with random perks to show how valued they are and how much I appreciate them. However, it seems like they are now starting to take advantage of my kindness. For example, I gave each of them alternating Fridays throughout the summer to leave at 3:00 p.m. as long as there wasn’t anything major pending. Now I am getting emails like “I am leaving on Thursday at three because I have a something I need to do.” Or, “I am going to work from home today since it is my Friday to leave early anyway.” How can I pull back from some of these “perks” without them spiraling down into their previous feelings?

Perk ‘Em Up

Dear Perk ‘Em Up,

Managing employees who feel “undervalued” and “overworked” is common. In 2011, the American Psychological Association reported that 48 percent of U.S. employees feel “undervalued” at work. Much has been written about what organizations can do to foster a healthy work environment. Yet the question remains—what can a single manager of three people do? Individual managers don’t have all the levers that organizations do. They can’t change the compensation system, the building layout, or whether there is free food in the cafeteria and an onsite masseur. However, most of us intuitively know what research has shown: people quit their managers not their jobs. A manager has a huge impact on employee engagement and retention—even more than a Ping-Pong table in the break room. So, what is a manager to do?

First, get really, really clear on what you want and why you want it. As a manager myself, I have been highly influenced by the work of Clayton Christensen. I will always remember reading an article by Dr. Christensen in which he described what the core of management is—giving people the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. What is absent from this list? Free sodas in the break room.

I believe that one of the most important things I do as a manager is making sure my people go home feeling good at the end of each day. I want them to feel as if they have accomplished something, been recognized for it, and contributed positively to others. I want to send them home that way because the most important work we do is not in our organizations—it is in our homes, our families, and our communities. Sending someone home to her six-year-old daughter feeling overworked and undervalued creates an unproductive home dynamic.

So, that is what I really, really want—for work to get done in a productive manner under conditions in which employees thrive. Our friend and colleague Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, would sum this up more succinctly: “I want to create joy in the workplace.” The benefit of getting clear on this is that it allows you to put into perspective all the things that don’t matter. If work is getting done productively and people are taking joy home to their families, why does it matter if someone leaves early? Why would I feel taken advantage of if someone assumes they can work from home? It only matters if I think my role as a manager is to make sure people are in their offices from 9 to 5 each day. That is not the role I choose as a manager.

Second, understand what really creates joy, satisfaction, and value in the workplace. In all honesty, it is probably not what you think it is. It is a very human tendency to look first to perks, rewards, and incentives to motivate, recognize, and engage people. I do this in my own life. When I have a hard task that I am tempted to put off, I promise myself a reward: finish this newsletter article on time and I can treat myself to that chocolate-dipped Oreo I have been craving. When it comes to dealing with others, we do this as well. Need to motivate your teenager to clean his room? Withhold his allowance until it is cleaned to your satisfaction. Want your employees to feel valued? Let them have “early-out” on summer Fridays.

Don’t mistake me—rewards, incentives, and perks are important influence tools in our manager toolbox. But they can backfire, especially when used in isolation. If all you do is offer a reward, you miss out on other more powerful sources of motivation and engagement. As you think about ways to engage “overworked and undervalued” employees, consider these other sources of motivation.

1. Get things done. Again, I learned this from Rich Sheridan. People love to get things done. There is incredible satisfaction that comes from checking off an item on the list of things to do—the ability to look at a finished result and say, “Yep, I did that today.” As Sheridan says, “Done releases endorphins, the body’s natural opiate, and it’s addictive.” People want to come to work and finish something. But too often, process and people get in the way of getting things done. So how can you as a manager make sure you are taking down barriers and allowing your people to actually accomplish work?

2. Connect to what they value. This is especially important in times of organizational change. It is imperative that managers find ways to connect the work that is being done to the things that people value most. Not only do people want to get work done, they want to get meaningful work done. Make sure you find ways to regularly and powerfully connect the work people are doing to the value that work provides.

3. Recognize achievement. When you do give a reward of some kind, make sure to link it to a specific behavior or achievement. This is different than just giving someone a perk—it is frequent, specific, and timely. It requires a manager to have a great deal of insight into what is important to an employee and how best to recognize someone. And it is not recognition for recognition’s sake. It is not saying, “Good job for showing up to work today.” Managers should link recognition to specific behaviors, e.g., “I really appreciated how much time to you took to address that client’s need. You demonstrated a lot of empathy.”

Third, have a conversation. If you believe that employees are behaving in ways that are dragging down the organization or your relationship, talk to them about it. Be transparent and treat your employees as your equals. It is absolutely fine to approach them as a group and say, “You three have done wonderful work this past year as we have navigated through these organizational changes. I know there were times when you felt overworked and undervalued. I attempted to mitigate some of those feelings by introducing the policy of leaving at 3:00 p.m. on alternate Fridays during the summer. Now, I notice, there are times where you are taking off early on Thursdays or working from home on Fridays. I don’t want to curtail a perk that is meaningful to you and helps you know how much you are valued. At the same time, I am starting to feel like you are taking advantage of the initial perk by stretching it past the original boundaries. Can we talk about things I can do to help you feel valued and recognized for the great work we do, while also not feeling like things are being taken too far?”

When you involve them candidly in the discussion, you can surface the issues and come to a joint resolution that everyone will be committed to.

Best of luck!