Crucial Conversations QA

Turned Down for a Promotion. Now What?

Dear Steve,

Recently, I was turned down for a promotion to director. My boss said the decision was made by the others involved in the interview process. She said that had they recommended me for the position, she would have promoted me. I later initiated a crucial conversation with her. I felt she didn’t take accountability for the decision, and that I couldn’t trust her to be honest with me. When the position first became available, she encouraged me to apply. I reminded her that a year earlier she told me I was a great manager but not ready to be a director. She said that was a year ago and that I had proven myself—AND I received the highest possible rating on my performance review. Now she tells me I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing for another year. Since our crucial conversation, she has barely talked to me. How should I handle this?

I. M. Stuck

Dear Stuck,

You are stuck. And I suspect that many others become and remain stuck in very similar ways. Reading about your situation, it seems that you felt stuck, spoke up, and now you feel even more stuck—but in a totally different way. You’ve discovered one of the biggest challenges with checking out potential undiscussables: right in the middle of discussing an undiscussable, new undiscussables emerge. This is why these types of interactions can become really tricky, really quickly. After all, the biggest contribution to a person’s overall satisfaction at work is their relationship with their boss. So, when you find yourself in this type of situation, here are some ideas from Crucial Conversations that can help.

Consider CPR. CPR stands for Content, Pattern, and Relationship, and represents different types of issues that can be addressed in any conversation. Content is a single instance of a problem or concern and is best addressed when the issue first comes up. A Pattern issue is a continuation of the Content concern over a longer period of time. And Relationship is an issue that has changed the way you’re relating to another person. Often, Relationship issues result from Pattern issues left unchecked.

Most of the chronic problems that people experience are not, I repeat, not Content in nature. They are Pattern or Relationship issues, usually with a heavy lean toward Relationship. Take your situation, for example. What’s the Content? If you said the promotion, you’re right. That’s the easy part. It gets more difficult from this point on.

While not getting the promotion is a legitimate concern that ought to be addressed, you went for a more significant and risky topic—lack of trust in your manager’s ability to be honest with you, which is a Relationship issue. This was a nice use of CPR. You moved from Content to Relationship because you felt stuck, which should have gotten you unstuck. But instead you feel more stuck. It’s almost as if you’re being punished for speaking up—at least that’s how it can feel.

You are now dealing with a new Relationship issue. Most people at this point try to wait it out in hopes that the situation will improve with time. And while the “wait it out” strategy may work at times, I find that it usually doesn’t. Instead, I’d suggest using either the STATE skills or the Explore skills.

We use STATE skills to express concerns we have, and Explore skills to uncover concerns we suspect others might have. Which skill set you use will depend on how you want to approach the situation. If you want to share your concern, use the STATE skills. If you believe your boss might have drawn an erroneous conclusion about your intent, go with Explore. In this case let’s consider a blended approach to get a sense of how both work.

You might want to start with Share Your Facts from the STATE skills. “Since we last talked about the promotion, it seems that we haven’t been connecting like we used to. Before the conversation, we talked two to three times a day. Now it seems we only talk when a project or task requires us to do so (STATE). This seems to have coincided with our conversation about my trust level with you. Are you feeling uncomfortable with how that conversation went (Explore)?”

In case you’re wondering, these two skills were meant to be blended. When we use the STATE skills correctly, they lead us naturally into Exploring. And likewise, if you’re good at the Explore skills, you’ll create the conditions in which you can effectively STATE your path.

Now, you might find different phrasing more to your liking and style, but hopefully this offers a way for you to address this issue with your boss. I also suggest that you share your positive intent for bringing up the issue in the first place. Helping your boss understand your motivations for having the conversation can go a long way in preventing negative assumptions.

All the best,

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Crucial Conversations QA

What to Do When Someone Undermines Your Role

Dear David,

I am a long-time volunteer and employee for a small, nonprofit organization. Recently, we got a new Executive Director and his management style is very challenging. I am the director of Learning and Education and previously planned all learning events. The new ED has created learning events of his own, but does not consult with me. He publicizes his own events, but not the ones I plan. I have forged partnerships with a number of outside organizations. The ED set up get-acquainted meetings with them, but doesn’t include me. Recently, he invited key volunteer leaders to a visioning retreat led by an outside consultant, and did not include me. When I’ve tried to discuss these omissions with him, he gets terribly defensive and angry. I feel like communication with him has completely broken down. My work has been curtailed. I hesitate now to plan some learning events, as I don’t know what he is planning on his own. What should I do?

Feeling Undermined

Dear Feeling Undermined,

While this may sound like a one-of-a-kind situation, it’s not. In fact, anyone reading this could be next in your shoes. I’ll set the scene: You joined an organization, starting at the very bottom, in this case as a volunteer, and worked your way up into an influential role. Suddenly, you have a new boss and everything changes for the worse. What can you do? I’ll suggest some general approaches.

Look for Organizational Issues

Begin with a broad diagnosis of the situation. While it would be easy to label this problem a “relationship issue,” check for deeper organizational concerns.

Has your organization experienced recent setbacks, or does it face significant risks? I look for financial stability, balanced fundraising streams, an effective board, a clear strategic plan, programs that are aligned and effective, etc. When a board loses or chooses to replace an executive director, it often needs to address problems in one or more of these areas.

Remember that your boss has bosses, too, and this issue might be more about them than you. You can bet the board has given him a set of priorities, and it’s possible they’ve told him not to share these with staff. In other words, this problem might not be personal—or at least not about you.

Understand the ED’s Priorities

You describe the ED as “defensive” and that sounds accurate. What is it that he’s defending? How might he see you as standing between him and his priorities? I don’t have enough information to do more than guess, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Maybe the board has hired him to take the organization in a new direction, and you represent the “old way.”
  • Maybe the board has asked him to take the lead on a set of changes, and this means that you can’t be seen as leading out.
  • Maybe the ED’s background is in learning/education, and it’s a place where he feels comfortable and able to have an impact. He wants to make his own mark there, and not have you share the limelight.

Some of these possibilities aren’t flattering to the ED. I’m not trying to defend him but to understand him. The more you know about his priorities, the better able you’ll be to find Mutual Purpose, or at least avoid getting in his way.

Determine What You Really Want

Ask yourself what you really want long-term for yourself, for the ED, and for the organization. You joined the organization as a volunteer, so you must be committed to its mission. You’ve worked there for a long time, so I’m guessing you have coworkers who are friends. And you like your role as the director of learning/education. Which of these (and other) values are most important to you?

It sounds as if the ED has taken over your learning/education role. Is the organization large enough to have other roles you might enjoy—roles that would let you continue to focus on the mission with colleagues you care for? Or is there another organization that serves a similar mission, and needs your experience in learning/education? Consider your alternatives, so that you’ll have options in case your role needs to change.

Look for Mutual Purpose

From what you’ve shared, my guess is that the ED sees you as standing between him and his purpose—maybe even as a competitor. Ask yourself whether he is right. Does your support for the organization include support for him? Do you disagree with his direction for the organization? Have you raised concerns in a way that could cause him to believe you are not on his side?

If you feel you can support your ED, then you need to find a way to demonstrate your support—to convince him that you have his back. If you can convince him that you are on his side, he will stop treating you as an opponent. But it will likely take more than words.

The most convincing way to show support is to make a sacrifice. The most common sacrifices are time, money, other priorities, and ego. Think about what you would be willing to sacrifice, and what would convince him that you are really on his side.

Influence With Your Ears

Ask the ED for a chance to just listen and learn. Be clear that you are open and supportive. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you see as the organization’s biggest challenges?” “How does the organization need to change over the next year or two?” “How can I best support you?” Use follow-up questions that keep him talking and explaining: “That’s interesting, tell me more.” And “Can you give me an example?” Don’t drill down to answers or even suggestions. Practice your listening skills.

What are you listening for? You want to learn more about his priorities, how he views you and your role, and whether you think there is hope for the working relationship. Be open and take time to consider what you learn in the meeting.

Consider Leaving

I think you should also consider finding a new job. But remember, it’s always easiest to find a job while you still have one. And you’ll want a glowing recommendation from this ED. Don’t burn bridges, don’t lose your temper, and don’t criticize him after the fact. You live in a small, connected world.

I hope some of this is helpful. I wish you the best of luck. Have other readers faced similar challenges? What experiences, insights, and suggestions can you share?


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Crucial Conversations QA

When Money Gets Between Family Members

Dear Joseph,

Four years ago, I gave my savings to my brother, so he could open a business. I was hesitant because he has a temper and communicating with him can be tricky, but I went ahead. My mother-in-law also invested. Recently, I wanted my brother to repay some of the money, but asking for money has become very uncomfortable. He would ask me to accept small payments, then would take forever to get them to me. So I lied and said my mother-in-law wanted some of her money back, knowing he would respond to her more quickly. I got caught in my lie. Now my brother refuses to speak to me. I have apologized for lying. But I also feel it’s not all my fault. I lied to get access to my own money because communicating with him is so hard. My brother has told me to “have a nice life.” I want a chance to explain why I lied. Now he won’t let me. What should I do?

Bad Debt

Dear Bad Debt,

You’ll want to sit down when you read this. I’m going to talk to you the same way I talk to myself: with a heart so full of love that I’m not going to hold back on what I think you need to hear.

The problem here is not your brother, it is you. And your path to progress is to simply accept the reality you’ve created. Here is the truth as I see it:

  1. You kissed your money goodbye when you gave it to your brother. You’re now blaming him for behaving in exactly the way you knew he would when you gave it to him.
  2. Yes, you read that right. I used the word “gave” not “lent.” You didn’t loan it, you gave it. Resentment is a sign you are not setting or maintaining boundaries. You knew before you handed over the cash that you should have a financial boundary with your brother. But you sold out. You knew he would try to manipulate you with his anger if you said no, so you gave in and loaned it to him anyway. Your resentment is guilt turned outward. It won’t get resolved when your brother repays you. It will get resolved when you listen to its message: you are responsible for saying no when you feel like saying no. And if you say yes anyway, you are responsible for the consequences.
  3. If he pays it back, it will be on his terms. Since you failed to set clear expectations when you handed over the money, you are at his mercy for how he chooses to repay it. If you are unwilling to talk to him to establish terms now, you surrender the right to feel resentful. It is pure self-deception to hold expectations that he did not agree to.
  4. Your lie is all your fault. It is not a shared transgression. It is a solitary one. You decided to deceptively hide behind your mother-in-law rather than speak your own truth. He has every right in the world to mistrust you now. Is it possible that he is using your lie to assuage his own guilt? Of course. But that doesn’t change the simple moral story: You lied. End of story. No justification. No turning it back on him. No mitigating circumstances. So give up hoping he will co-sign your rationalization.

If you want to get right with yourself and right with him, here’s the path forward. You have two conversations you need to have with your brother. You can do them at the same time—but be clear that they are separate issues. One does not soften or strengthen the other.

Conversation 1: I lied. “I’m sorry.” This one is short and sweet. “Brother, I was a coward. I was trying to get my money back from you and I lied because I didn’t have the courage to be direct. I don’t blame you for being angry at me about that and for not trusting me as a result. I hope one day to demonstrate that I am no longer that person and that I deserve to be trusted again.”

Conversation 2: What promise are you willing to make about repaying my money? “Do you agree you owe me the money? If so, what are you willing to commit about repayment? And what consequences are you willing to accept (e.g. late fees, etc.) if you don’t abide by those terms?”

Even if he agrees he owes the money and commits (in writing) to repayment terms and consequences for noncompliance, you should still heed my final advice: let it go. Chalk this up as a lesson learned: family and lending rarely mix. And they NEVER mix when the relationship is already unhealthy. His relationship with you may have been unhealthy, and yours with him definitely was.

If you’re truly daring, use this alternate Conversation 2: “I forgive you of the debt. I don’t want you to pay me back. I should not have loaned it. And I handled the process badly in many ways. That is my lesson to learn. If you choose to pay it back, give it to a charity not to me.”

Your money is gone. I hope you get your brother back.


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