All posts by Al Switzler

Crucial Accountability QA

Responding to False Accusations

Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my coworkers said I didn’t involve him in a decision I made, but I did. I told him I relayed his input—he is the expert in this area—to another person, as he asked me to do. He said I made the decision to meet with this person without inviting him. When I try to explain what really happened, it just gets worse.

What do you do when you feel you are falsely accused?
Falsely Accused

Dear Accused,

The situation you described certainly qualifies as a crucial conversation. High stakes are involved—potentially the project and certainly the working relationship are at risk—emotions are high, and you see things differently. As I try to answer the question you have posed, I want to do so by looking at a couple of options.

Option 1 – Prioritize the incident. Your first option is to find enough Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect to create safety and talk this incident through. I’m referring to your misunderstanding as an incident because it seems this is a one-time situation. The core problem is that you don’t agree on the facts. You see the same incident so differently that you have arrived at different conclusions and emotions.

In teams and relationships (and even organizations) where there is little trust or where processes involve many steps and many people over a long period of time, individuals are required to write commitments down. Doing so makes the facts clear, or at least clearer. Also, people don’t have to rely on memory—which is not very reliable and thus not very safe.

If you and your colleague had done that, some of the facts would have been clearer. However, some facts might still be unclear. Perhaps neither of you would have articulated that he expected to be invited to the meeting, so you would be at the same point—arguing about the facts.

I bring this up to suggest that, while helpful, writing down all commitments is not a completely effective strategy. I will add emphatically, however, that when the two of you had the initial conversation about what you and he would do, if you had made sure you touched all the bases of WWWF (Who does What by When and how you’ll Follow up) you perhaps could have minimized the assumptions and the frustrations. Because it doesn’t sound like you were able to discuss all of these factors, I suggest you prioritize the incident by solving it quickly if you can or moving past it if you can’t.

Option 2 – Clarify how you’ll work together in the future. To begin this conversation, you might want to say, “It’s clear that we see the incident about the meeting with Sarah very differently and we’ve not been able to agree on the facts. I’m wondering if we could talk about what we learned from it and how we can work better in the future so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again?” If the two of you can focus on going forward rather than dwelling on an incident in the past, you can find Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect that will allow for dialogue. The purpose of dialogue is to learn, clarify agreements, make better decisions, and take committed action. By using the incident as a learning point, you can make agreements that will make future work better.

In such a conversation, you might agree that when you make commitments together you’ll also consider what you’ll do if you run into conflicts, changes, or barriers. How will you touch base? How will you modify the plan you created? How will you assume the best until you can talk to your colleague if you hear of changes? So rather than trying to “solve” every incident, you agree on a process that will help you anticipate problems and act in ways that either resolve them or prevent them.

I want to touch on your statement, “When I tried to explain what happened, it just got worse.” If you hold this conversation about working together in the future well, you should be able to talk about what to do if future conflicts arise. Then, rather than disagreeing about what has already happened, you can have a conversation about how you plan to move forward.

When colleagues or couples have had difficulties in the past, a good option is to learn from these misunderstandings and let those insights influence future behavior rather than simply clinging to the past.

I wish you well,

Crucial Conversations QA

Owning Up To a Crucial Conversation

The following article was first published on March 12, 2008.

Dear Al,

A relatively new male hire in my wife’s company invited the other men out to a “male bonding lunch.” He asked a female coworker at equal level for advice on where to go and to call in their reservation.

While the men were gone the women discussed this occurrence and felt it was rude and sexist. Some of the men were embarrassed as well when they realized none of the women were invited. Now, there is a sexual discrimination feeling that did not exist before.

What crucial conversations need to happen and who needs to be involved? How can these conversations be handled sensitively?

What To Do?

Dear What To Do,

Knowing when to speak up and how? And who needs to be involved? Ah, those are the tough, life-changing questions. Let me address a couple of points.

First, who owns a crucial conversation? And, how do you know when you should own it? Over the years, I have found two principles that help answer these questions:

1. That little voice in your head either screams or won’t go away. When the “new male hire” asked the question, the “female coworker” probably had a little voice that said, “Male bonding lunch? Is this a good thing?” or “Me call in the reservation? This is not a good thing!” She could have brought up one or both issues right then. She could have also caught herself getting ticked and asked the humanizing question (“Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human ask this?”), concluded he was new, and then simply asked if they could talk about both issues.

Or, the male hire could have noted his female coworker’s subtle non-verbal signals (rolled eyes and white knuckles wrenching a budget document) and noted that she seemed upset and asked why. Either person could have owned the conversation in real time, which is the ideal situation.

2. We start acting it out, instead of talking it out. This is another indicator that we are failing to own up to a crucial conversation. When this happens, we talk about people instead of to people.

The two biggest ways we act it out instead of talk it out are 1) gossip and 2) non-verbal signals like avoidance, frowning, sarcasm, etc. Bystanders can defuse the situation by helping others realize that their gossip or non-verbals are a sign that they are avoiding a crucial conversation.

In this case, instead of keeping her conclusions to herself and talking to her male cowoker, she talked to others about the issue. She opened that proverbial can of worms and now everyone is dealing with numerous trust and respect issues. Any colleague could have stopped her by saying, “Whoa. He’s new. Let’s help him understand when he comes back,” but that also didn’t happen.

Second, how do you start such a conversation? Since both of the coworkers failed to catch the mistake before lunch, it needs to be addressed as soon as it is safe. To create safety, she must first master her story by reminding herself that she doesn’t really know why he did what he did. This will help her control her emotions and conclusions.

The first crucial conversation needs to be a private conversation between the female coworker and her male coworker. She must lead with observations and questions, rather than emotions and conclusions. This one step alone can make a huge difference.

The second crucial conversation should be with the entire company. To help defuse the tension that has been introduced into the culture, gather the entire company together and set clear expectations around what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Make sure you reach complete agreement between everyone before concluding the meeting. This conversation is the first step to avoiding future instances, creating guidelines to hold others accountable to, and ensuring that everyone operates under common expectations. Make sure to communicate these expectations to new employees upon hire.

I have only scratched the surface. But what I have covered is powerful. Anyone can own a crucial conversation—whether it’s real time (the best) or next time (which is still good).

Best wishes,

Crucial Accountability QA

How to Hold Employees Accountable Without Micromanaging

The following article was first published on November 2, 2004.

Dear Crucial Skills,

As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. If I’ve ever had to have a crucial conversation, I feel I can only do so with extreme delicacy. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Dr. Delicate

Dear Dr. Delicate,

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimizes collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement—from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person.

The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as, “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”—a choice where we see only two options—both of them bad. For example, “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.” In reality, there is often a third, better alternative; you can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?”

Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship . . . you can get both.

Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation.

When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened—I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best Wishes,