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Crucial Conversations QA

Manipulating Crucial Skills

Dear Joseph,

My boss is a big fan of yours, but I think he’s misusing his understanding of your material to bully people then patting himself on the back for being a great communicator.

I might approach him and say, “When I said [blank] in that meeting, you cut me off and responded in a tone that sounded sarcastic. I felt that you were not listening to my opinion.”

He’ll respond, “You need to ask yourself how you are perceiving the situation. You need to choose not to get upset. You should look at the situation as an opportunity to communicate. The more you practice, the better you will become.”

How can I approach this with him so that he will at least consider that he might need to change his own behavior?

Signed,
Not Just About Me

Dear Not Just About Me,

I can feel your frustration. You’ve got a boss who has the solution to his own problem in his hands, but appears to be using it on everyone but himself.

I felt a bit of embarrassment as I read your question because I realized I can be that guy sometimes, too. I think most of us are better at diagnosing others than fixing ourselves. So my advice to you is:

1. Look for the truth.
It seems that your focus is on how he is falling short of what he advocates. Don’t make the mistake of declining truth no matter the messenger. A friend used to say, “Even a hypocrite is useful if for nothing other than a bad example.” Your boss is challenging you to examine your own stories and emotions. If you want to gain the moral authority to ask him to listen to your feedback, first listen to his.

2. Challenge your view. Find a way to critique your own critique of the boss. Find others who might have a different view so you can confirm your criticisms of him aren’t exaggerated or self-serving. Be sure you aren’t taking things personally that others tend to brush-off. Confirm you are not making mountains out of what others think are molehills. Ask them for feedback about you as well so you can put your own house in order before attempting to address his.

3. Offer feedback. If you do a quality job on #1 and #2, you’re ready to talk. Begin by checking to see if he is ready. Acknowledge your concerns, but assure him your goal is dialogue not monologue. For example, “Boss, I’d like a few minutes to share some concerns and to invite your feedback as well. There are some things that are getting in my way. I realize some of them might be about me. Could we schedule some time when I could share my view and listen to yours, too?”

4. Give him a reason to listen. As you ask for this appointment, be sure to offer a Mutual Purpose. Asking, “Can I point out your flaws for fifteen solid minutes?” might not be very motivating to him. So help him frame this as a sincere opportunity to help him get something that is important to him—while also acknowledging its importance to you, too. For example: “After some of our staff meetings, I find myself feeling discouraged and disconnected. I don’t want to bring that to your team. I want to do my best work for you and for our customers. I want to feel 100% engaged in a way that you are thrilled about. That’s what this conversation is about. Can we talk?”

5. Share facts, not judgments. This is the tricky part. I worry from the tone of your question that you’ve got a lot of judgments about your boss. If so, you need to shed them as best you can. Otherwise, they will creep into your tone and word choice. You’ve got to see him as a reasonable, rational, decent person. You must come to see his weaknesses as human not villainous. I don’t mean to suggest you should put up with the weaknesses—just don’t turn him from a human into a villain because of them. As you offer your feedback, be sure to share facts and behaviors not judgments and emotions. For example, don’t say, “You misuse Crucial Conversations principles to bully people.” That’s a judgment. Rather, you might say, “When I try to share concerns about how you handled something in a meeting, you point out what I did wrong. This has happened four times.”

6. If he shows no interest, let it go and make a decision. No matter how scrupulous you are about examining yourself, creating safety, and offering facts, some people won’t listen. If, after making your best attempt, he appears impervious to feedback, you’ve got a choice to make. You must accept that this is who he is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Then you have to decide if you’re quality of life is enough at risk to make a change, or if this is trivial enough that you can cope. If you choose to cope, then acknowledge that you are making a decision to stay. Don’t play the victim by staying and blaming him. From this point forward, it is your choice to accept him as he is. If you can’t, then you have three options: 1. Stay, but find a way to distance yourself from his weaknesses; 2. Stay in the company but change bosses; or 3. Change companies. Some might complain at this advice, thinking, “That’s not fair! Why should his weaknesses mean that I have to change?” The answer is: “Because that’s how life works.” The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence. If influence fails, controlling yourself is all you’ve got.

I hope influence works. It will be good for both you and him. And if not, I hope you can find a path to peace that works for you.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

17 thoughts on “Manipulating Crucial Skills”

  1. To Joseph & Not Just About Me: What do you think about asking the boss open-ended questions, with the intention of discovery. Questions such as: How do you think the meeting went? How would you like others to contribute in the meeting? What are the desired outcomes for the meeting? (like does he want people to freely share their opinion?) Based on what Not Just About Me said, it doesn’t sound like the manager is creating a safe environment in which others can participate … which affects engagement and results. And while I agree we can only take responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors, I wonder if open-ended questions or help from a peer of the boss could also help the situation and increase awareness. Best wishes to you Not Just About Me!

    1. Thanks Morgan, this is good advice. I don’t think it is necessary to feel respect for a coworker (including a “boss”) in order to show them respect. However, I think Joeseph’s advise goes to far to patronize the “boss”. I think actually addressing someone as “Boss” is a mistake in the US. Slavery has been abolished.

  2. As always, great insight. Assuming the boss’s behavior is as stated, a couple of comments/suggestions:
    Most people see themselves as a success BECAUSE of their behaviors, not in spite of them. You boss got to that position behaving this way; even though those might not have been the reason (he might be so technically proficient that his interpersonal skills are overlooked, he might not behave this way to his superiors, or he might even work for people who reward that behavior).
    Because that is often true, you have to find a reason for him to listen to you. You feeling dispirited and unmotivated will sound more like your problem than his; many managers simply don’t see it as their job to motivate staff, but instead to get business outcomes.
    Therefore, I suggest a better approach would be: “Boss, a couple of times in meetings I have noticed that you are not getting the buy-in you need to get the results we are looking for. I have some suggestions that might get the team going faster.”
    I also want to back up an important point. When you have taken offense, feel abused or hurt, your emotional response is real and needs to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, that feeling often leads you to want a result that won’t help you in the long run – you want an apology, you want justice, you want revenge. Unfortunately, if these are your goals, you will never make the situation better for both of you. It almost never helps you get the results you SHOULD be looking for – changed behavior.
    Taking control of the situation – in this case – means finding a way to speak to your boss so that he begins to behave differently. In my experience, when dealing with a results-oriented leader, leaning on the message that he can be more effective has the greatest chance for success.

  3. Good stuff Joseph. I’m a fan. My favorite messages are “come to see his weaknesses as human not villainous” and “don’t play the victim by staying and blaming him”

  4. Love learning how to better my skills to help others feel comfortable in sharing. This was a great example for both sides. Don’t you think that most leaders that read this will, hopefully, see themselves as well. So, if reading this as a leader or boss, what is your next step to prevent those under you from feeling manipulated?

    I would say to pay more attention to body language when making crucial statements and if you notice an ongoing theme set up some individual meetings. Any feed back?

  5. Wow, this is a gem:

    “You must accept that this is who he is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Then you have to decide if you’re quality of life is enough at risk to make a change, or if this is trivial enough that you can cope. If you choose to cope, then acknowledge that you are making a decision to stay. Don’t play the victim by staying and blaming him. From this point forward, it is your choice to accept him as he is. If you can’t, then you have three options: 1. Stay, but find a way to distance yourself from his weaknesses; 2. Stay in the company but change bosses; or 3. Change companies.”

    My workplace issues are different from those the column addresses, but that is solid advice for any work problem–Do what is in your power to change it or mitigate the effect, and if that doesn’t work, don’t go around hating the person for his/her weakness and playing the martyr. Accept responsibility for your choice if you choose to stay.

    Very helpful. Thanks!

  6. “Because that’s how life works.” The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence. If influence fails, controlling yourself is all you’ve got.

    Thank you for stating that so clearly. This is such a critical thing in life. We can’t control things outside of our own heads. We can influence.

  7. Really helpful, thank you. Particularly the advice about not letting your perceptions creep into the tone of your feedback – hard though.

  8. I want to echo the positive comments stated above. Great stuff, Joseph! Of course, I would expect nothing less from you based other experiences I have had reading or viewing your work. And the paragraph Ian quoted above is pure gold. Thank you for the reminder(s)!

  9. I found it very interesting that Not just about me’s safety was not addressed. I have heard some say crucial skills is borderline manipulation and that it could easily be misused. My own answer to that is to focus on safety, both mine and the other person. Without true safety – it is too easy for me to confuse contributing with manipulation or bullying as he/she called it.
    The conversation would sound something like “I have been working on sharing my opinion and contributing to the team, but I am having a hard time because _______.” Filling in the blank is needed with the great given advice, ie… Not villainous accusations or any reflection on what the boss is doing or saying, just the truth around Not just about me’s safety. Facts that attest to the needs around safety, the story that is making him/her feel unsafe would give clues as to how best to address the situation as a whole.
    My first conversation would look like this….
    “I was interrupted and didn’t get to share what I felt was a valuable contribution. Was I on a different point or did my information seem appropriate to contribute during the meeting? It was my best guess that you wanted my opinion, but when I shared it with the team it didn’t seem well received. I am wondering why that is and what I can do to keep things moving forward in productivity.”
    The scariest thing about this statement is that you might not like the honest answer back. I have had to look at myself in harsh light and see that the words, gestures, facial expressions or tone betrayed my true intentions. If I wanted to be received well, I had to adjust things to get the outcome that I wanted – an outcome that was closer to the truth of my intentions.
    True intentions get lost in the pity party, or the ego trip we have when we think someone has slighted us. And it is extra hard to find out that I conjured the whole story on perceptions of my own rather than the true facts. But sometimes it’s a relief to find out that actually, I was cut off mid sentence because of time constraints, or a concern that things were getting away from the facilitator, or that he had a stomach ache and had to finish up quickly. so IMHO – it’s worth it to ask.

  10. #1 “Look for the Truth” really resonated with me. I find myself coaching others with M&M – not the candy variety. Message and Method are the M&Ms. When someone delivers a truthful message but uses a poor method of delivery, it is very distracting. Listening to the message is important no matter how it is delivered. Providing feedback on the delivery method can grow someone’s ability to be influential and increase safety.

  11. Your last paragraph was meaningful to me – I tend to get negative attitudes about perceived “flaws” in people in authority, and that really isn’t helpful, is it?

  12. I am somewhat puzzled over the last bit : “Because that’s how life works.” The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence. If influence fails, controlling yourself is all you’ve got.”

    It has been the ways manipulators used on their victims : ( Take it or leave it, if you don’t take it , other will. / I am not the only one doing it, others do it too. so accept it / this is how life works , just accept it / that is life. live with it …. )

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