All posts by David Maxfield

Influencer QA

What Should We Do and How Do We Get Everyone To Do It?

Dear David,

How does the Influencer model relate to processes such as: PDCA/DMAIC Cycles, Quality Circles, Statistical Process Control, Continuous Improvement/Kaizen, Lean/Six Sigma, and other Quality-Related approaches to Process Improvement?

Signed,
Curious

Dear Curious,

Welcome to the history of the Quality Movement! I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of the organizations at the forefront of this movement—Toyota, Ford, Mazda, Motorola, Xerox, and others—since the late 70s. My work has been mostly related to interpersonal skills, but it turns out these processes are also integral to quality improvement.

I think these processes help teams answer two important questions:

1. What should we do?
2. How do we get everyone to do it?

The first question focuses on process improvement; the second on influence.

PDCA/DMAIC Cycles: For those not already “in the know,” these initials stand for:

• PDCA = Plan, Do, Check, Act
• DMAIC = Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control

These processes are pretty similar. Each suggests a logical order to performance improvement initiatives, and each is intended to describe ongoing, continuous cycles of improvement. If you follow the steps in order, you should arrive at the answer to “What should we do?”

Quality Circles: Quality Circles were an early attempt to add Influence to the PDCA/DMAIC processes. The idea was to involve the people who were doing the work. If they were the ones who came up with the improvement idea, then they’d be more committed to “getting everyone to do it.”

These quality circles became the management fad of the early 80’s. Unfortunately, they were often imported into autocratic cultures that weren’t open to employees’ ideas, and so backfired.

Statistical Process Control (SPC): This is the approach that helped Japan conquer automobile manufacturing in the 90s. SPC focuses on how stable, predictable, and uniform a process can be and shows teams how to measure their consistency.

Before SPC, teams would achieve quality specs by producing 100 fuel injectors, and then throwing out the 20 that were out of spec. With SPC, teams could figure out how to make all 100 fit within the specs.

However, SPC required more arithmetic and math than many front-line employees would tolerate. SPC is great at answering, “What should we do?” but its use is often limited because it’s so hard to “Get everyone to do it.”

Kaizen, Lean, and Six Sigma: These three approaches are the basis for most quality programs today. Each tries to answer our first question, “What should we do?”

  • Kaizen focuses on short-term, small-scale improvement projects. It is often used at a team or even individual task level. The tools it employs are fairly simple and low cost: process mapping and cause-and-effect diagrams.
  • Lean focuses on intermediate-term, larger scale projects. These projects often span functions and departments, and include a wider variety of outcomes—quality, waste, speed, etc. It employs more tools and more sophisticated tools: visual controls, kanban, pull systems, etc.
  • Six Sigma focuses on long-term, large-scale, and complex projects. These projects involve multiple stakeholders, complex variables, and multiple outcomes. It employs the largest number, variety, and sophisticated tools: statistical tools, value-stream mapping, and a host of others.

Influencer: When we created the Influencer model, we began with the second question: “How do we get everyone to do it?” Presupposing that the quality team had already discovered what the “it” was. For example, it doesn’t take a lot of sophisticated quality tools to discover that hand washing is important in a hospital. But it often takes Influencer, with its Six Sources of Influence™, to get people to do it.

This emphasis makes Influencer the perfect complement to many process improvement initiatives. Teams use Kaizen, Lean, or Six Sigma tools to find better processes and then use Influencer to motivate and enable their adoption.

The greatest overlap between Influencer and process improvement is in two areas: Vital Behaviors and Structural Ability. Influencer focuses on the few Vital Behaviors that drive Results. Often, we use quality tools, such as process-flow maps, to find them. In addition, we use Kaizen, Lean, and Six Sigma to change the environment to make the Vital Behaviors easier and more likely.

I hope this helps. Many, if not most, of our customers use a variety of process-improvement systems. And they find that Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, and Influencer play a role in furthering their success.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Resolving a Sibling Rivalry

Dear David,

My father passed away last summer after a six-month battle from mesothelioma. I was named as financial power and my sister as medical power of attorney in my parents’ will. My older brother went ballistic. Since then, he’s tried taking control of everything surrounding my Dad, my parent’s house, and now my mom. My mom was recently hospitalized and had back surgery. He tried to persuade the doctors to communicate only to him. He’s blown up at my sister, my mom, and me multiple times. His response is always, “No one listens to me!” or, “You’re not understanding me!” How can your books and ideas help this situation?

Signed,
House Divided

Dear Divided,

It’s sad when a family tragedy divides family members. This is a time when your mother needs support and the strife you describe is probably very hard on her. I’ll begin with a caution you’ve heard from us before: You can’t control your brother’s behavior or his feelings. What you can control are your own thoughts and actions.

Determine what you really want.
What are your hopes for the long term? Do you want a close relationship with your brother? Or will it be enough if you can get him to cooperate in your mother’s care and her affairs? I’m not suggesting you will be able to achieve either of these outcomes. You can’t control the way your brother feels and acts. But knowing what you really want will help you determine your own actions.

Understand the story that drives the feelings. Your brother went ballistic when he wasn’t given a greater role in your parents’ will. It’s important that you understand why that action provoked such a strong reaction. He probably saw it as a slap in the face—a sign of disrespect. When he says, “No one listens to me,” it makes me think he’s telling himself a story of ongoing disrespect.

Establish Mutual Respect. In Crucial Conversations, we say that, “Respect is like air.” When it’s there, you don’t even notice it. But when it’s not, it’s all you can think about. Does this sound like your brother? Is there a way to prove to your brother that you and your family respect him?

Let me imagine a tough scenario: Suppose your brother has a history of drug abuse, stealing from family members, and lying, and this is why your parents didn’t make him their executor. Does your brother still deserve respect? Of course he does! Every human deserves respect. But notice that the facts of the situation will determine how you will demonstrate that respect.

Demonstrate respect. There is no best way to demonstrate respect, so I’ll suggest a few that might be relevant to your situation. I’ll start by describing an idea that requires a great deal of trust and end with a few that require less.

    • If your role allows it, give your brother an accountability he can own. This action would demonstrate your trust. Of course, don’t delegate a responsibility unless you believe he can, and will, master it.
    • Involve him in your decisions. Ask for his help in establishing decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions, etc.
    • Give him information in advance about decisions you will make. Clarify decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions you are taking, etc.

Establish ground rules based on Mutual Purpose. In your question, you described several negative behaviors—taking control, excluding family members, and blowing up. You need to establish ground rules that prevent these from recurring. These ground rules will work best if your brother buys in to them. In fact, you’d ideally like him to play a role in creating them.

These ground rules should stem from your Mutual Purpose, which I believe is “Doing what’s best for your mother.” I think that you, your brother, and your sister would all agree on that as your key purpose.

If you find that this is your common ground, then ask the next question: “How should we act toward each other and toward mom to make sure we do what is best for her? What actions should we START doing to improve her experience? What actions should we STOP doing? And what actions should we CONTINUE doing?”

This START, STOP, and CONTINUE exercise should be inclusive. I’m sure your brother will suggest actions you should START or STOP doing as well. Again, make this a respect-building exercise by listening and including his ideas.

I hope some of these suggestions will work for you and your family.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Tips to Battle Unconscious Bias

Dear David,

Five months ago, I started a job at an all-girls private, Catholic, school. I work as a technician and accepted the job because it combines my interest in instructional education and computer hardware and software troubleshooting. It also pays well above what I’ve earned in the past.

I’m a woman, and my teammates are all men. I’m feeling uncomfortable, but not because of the guy-to-girl ratio (4:1). It’s because I feel like all of my actions are being scrutinized under a microscope. I understand that this is a high-demand field. I’ve worked in schools before, but never as part of a team. So I’ve been introduced to things like team meetings and monthly feedback reports.

Lately, whenever I get feedback, I feel like my teammates are “fishing” for things I’ve done wrong. For example, the latest feedback was about what the expression on my face conveys. Help?

Sincerely,
Feeling Judged

Dear Judged,

Thanks for an interesting question. It combines a thought-provoking mix of issues: succeeding as a new employee, responding to feedback, and dealing with unconscious bias. I’ll suggest a few approaches.

Succeeding as a New Employee. Congratulations on your new job. It’s also a great opportunity for laying the grassroots of a successful career. Here is my advice:

Create your Personal Brand. Your brand is your reputation—the image you project. You need to take charge to make it the right brand. Our research for Change Anything uncovered three elements that are essential to your brand:

  • You know your stuff. In your case, this means that you are seen as a master of the different technologies you support. If you aren’t already a master, then put in the time and effort it takes to quickly rise to the challenge.
  • You work on the right stuff. This means that you focus on high-priority, mission-critical tasks, rather than staying in your comfort zone.
  • You have a reputation for being helpful. People need to see you as generous with your time and expertise.

Build Relationships. Reach out to build relationships beyond your immediate team. Schedule two to three appointments per week with your customers—teachers and administrators—across the school. Ask them about their priorities related to the technology services your team provides. Listen for improvements they’d like to see, and take notes. Try to find at least one concrete action you can take to respond to their suggestions.

At the same time, work to build stronger relationships within your team. This is where you need to build your reputation for being helpful. Volunteer for the tough jobs, pitch in when you see a teammate putting in extra time or effort, and ask others how you can help.

Get a Mentor. Find a person who is willing to both challenge you and advocate for you. This could be a teacher or administrator, or it could be your manager. The essential ingredients in the relationship are safety and trust. You need someone who can help you navigate the political complexities of your new job.

Responding to Feedback.
You are getting a lot more feedback than you’re used to, and it feels as if people are using a microscope to search for negative things to say. How should you deal with their criticisms? Here are a few suggestions.

Avoid Defending. It’s hard not to defend, especially when criticisms seem picky, unfair, or inaccurate. But do your best to become curious, instead of defensive. Respond with, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Can you give me an example, so I can understand it better?”

Seek Clarity. Often, when feedback feels unfair, the real problem is that it’s vague. A person says, “You’re not very customer-focused,” when what they mean is, “After yesterday’s service call, you didn’t check back to see if your solution solved all of their problems.” Getting down to specifics will take the heat out of the feedback, and will also make it easier to act on.

Go Public. Here is a secret: People will continue to send you feedback until they are sure you’ve gotten the message. So, once you’ve decided how to respond to a piece of feedback, make your plans public. Going public communicates that you’ve taken the feedback seriously, have made changes, and that the person who gave you the feedback can move on.

Dealing with Unconscious Bias. As a woman in a team of men, you stand out. You get noticed. And, because we humans have our assumptions, your successes may seem a bit surprising to some, and your failures may seem a bit confirming. In addition, you may find that the work environment has been optimized for its prior residents—all men. How should you deal with these kinds of bias?

We recently studied the damaging effects of bias and found that subtle biases like what you describe are pervasive and soul-destroying. I am sorry you find yourself in this kind of environment. Luckily, there are skills you can use to confront what is likely an unconscious bias. I’ll suggest three from our Crucial Conversations book and training.

Speak Up. Don’t just grin and bear it. When you experience an interaction that leaves you wondering—like feedback about what the expression on your face conveys—step out of the content and have a conversation about your concerns. “Can I talk about what we’re talking about? I’ve noticed a pattern. Sometimes you give me feedback that seems more personal than the feedback you give each other. For example, feedback about my clothes, my glasses, and now my expressions. As men, do you ever receive feedback from each other on these things?” The goal is to begin an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that builds understanding and respect.

Make it Safe. Avoid labeling or accusing others. Instead, assume that people have positive intentions unless proven otherwise. Achieving a better outcome for the future requires that we help others and ourselves feel safe while addressing uncomfortable issues. For example, you might begin with, “I don’t think you realize how that came across . . .”

State My Path. Skilled individuals are careful to describe their concerns absent the judgments and accusations the rest of us hold when we speak up. For example, replace, “What you said was sexist and abusive,” with, “Last Friday, you said, ‘That’s the last time I send a woman to do a man’s job.’” Describe what really just happened—no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations, and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you, then invite others to a dialogue where you both can learn. For a recap of these skills, watch our latest Crucial Skills Live video below.

I know this is a lot to process, but that’s what you get when you ask a really good question! I hope you find a few nuggets in my response that will help.

Best,
David

Influencer QA

How to Connect with an Aging Parent

Dear David,

My husband struggles with how to engage in conversation with his mother. Mom doesn’t get out much and spends a lot of time with what we consider negative news. When we are together, she shares her opinions as facts. Often sweeping generalizations, “Kids today don’t learn anything in school,” or, “No one . . . ” or, “All those people . . . “. He has tried to gently engage, “Interesting that you think that. What I’ve seen for my kids is they are working very hard and learning a lot in school.” She’ll say something like, “Well of course I don’t mean YOUR kids. But all the other ones who don’t have parents who care . . . ” If he disagrees with her, she acts personally attacked, and as if he doesn’t love her.

My husband has tried being silent and not engaging, but fears he is seen as agreeing and therefore contributing to stereotyping and prejudice in our society. He has tried to bring it up, “When you state your opinions so strongly, I don’t know how to share a different opinion without you feeling hurt that I disagree,” but without luck. Please help!

Signed,
Sidelined by Mom

Dear Sidelined,

What a sad question! Hurt feelings in families are especially painful. And yet, when you hear a loved one make an offensive comment, you don’t want your silence to endorse it. In Crucial Conversations we teach how to disagree in the moment without hurting feelings, but I want to draw on our book, Influencer, to take a longer-term view.

I think the fundamental problem to solve is that mom doesn’t get out much, but wants to contribute to your conversations. I don’t know her so I’m going to imagine she is a bit like my mother or my wife’s mother when they were in their 70’s and 80’s.

Your Data Stream Determines Your Mental Agenda.
As my mom entered her 70’s and 80’s, she retired from being a math professor, health problems kept her mostly indoors, she stopped driving, and she moved away from friends to be close to family. This meant that her world shrank into a fairly small bubble. Is this the same for your mom?

Imagine her small world. Where does she get her information? She probably watches a fair amount of television, mostly cable news with a sprinkling of a few favorite shows. Her friends are probably a lot like her, similar in age and TV viewing habits. As a result, her data stream is limited and repetitive. And it’s likely to be skewed towards the negative, because that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

Mom is Still Mom. A mom’s role in the family is a sacred one, and your mom should never give it up. A part of that role is to give advice, share opinions, and protect you from the world out there. I believe that is what she is doing when she makes her “sweeping generalizations.”

Conversations Stall Out. Does the following happen? You and your husband are with mom making conversation. You hit on a topic where she thinks she can contribute, because she heard about it on TV. But, when she speaks up, her comment strikes you as a negative opinion, not a fact. You either go silent or speak up to disagree. The conversation dies and mom feels hurt.

If this is what’s happening, then the question shouldn’t be, “What can I say in the moment?” but, “What can I do to broaden mom’s data stream and deepen our relationship?” Here are a few strategies that worked for my wife and me.

Include Her in Your Data Stream. My wife and I got some excellent advice from a friend. She told us, “When your mom gets into her 70’s, you need to call her every day.” We took that advice and it made a world of difference. It gave us personal topics to talk about, topics that were more important to us than whatever the latest news might be. Weekly calls don’t give mom enough context to contribute, but daily calls make her a part of your life.

We also began taking more photos. We’d send our mom two or three photos a day, just to let her know what we were up to. Then, when we talked at the end of the day, mom could comment on the photos and feel as if she were with us.

Think of ways to connect on a daily basis and to give her more details about your goings on. This will give you more positive and personal topics to discuss.

Create Common Experiences. My mom was a reader, so we started a book club with her—just me, my wife, and my mom. We quickly learned what she liked: John McPhee was an early favorite. As she grew older, we moved to shorter essays and stories. Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book, and Bern Heinrich’s, One Wild Bird at a Time, became our new favorites. Once again, our goal was to create common experiences and shared experiences that gave us more to discuss than the weather, current events, and politics.

My wife’s mom loved music, so we started watching TV music shows together. This was a bit awkward since we lived three states apart. But the three of us became fans of American Idol, The Voice, and Dancing With The Stars. My wife would call her mom just before the show began to awaken her and make sure her TV was tuned to the right channel. Then, we’d call during commercial breaks to get her opinions on the performances, judges, and competitors. Again, our goal was to have shared experiences that were more relevant and personal than the weather, current events, or politics.

A last piece of advice is to ask mom about herself. Moms have so much history and wisdom to share. Below are a few questions I’ve pulled off the Internet. My wife and I tried some of these with our moms. They can stimulate some rich conversations, but not all of them work with every mom and you may need some patience to get the conversation going.

• How did you meet Dad and how did you know he was “The One”?
• What’s one thing you wish you did differently before you got married or had kids?
• What question do you wish you could ask your mom?
• What’s the hardest thing about being a mom? What’s the best thing?
• What was your dream job when you were younger?
• How many jobs have you had in your life? What did you learn from them?
• Who was your favorite person to spend time with when you were a teenager? Why?
• What kind of car did you learn to drive in? Who taught you?

I hope these ideas help you find more common ground with your aging mother and create common shared experiences that can generate positive conversation. I believe you are seeking for that kind of rich relationship that will benefit you both and I hope you can find it.

Best of Luck,
David

Influencer QA

Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters

Dear David,

I think many are familiar with the Marshmallow experiment to demonstrate the benefits of delayed rewards. Is there any corollary data that demonstrates that those challenged with delaying rewards (i.e. those who ate the marshmallow) also struggled with avoiding penalties? In other words, do those so inclined ALSO engage in little behaviors to avoid consequences? I think of my daughter who is a marshmallow eater (unlike her brother who would wait). She also would lie a little to cover up a small infraction. But the lie eventually grows to become something with much bigger consequences. The son who understands the value of waiting for rewards is also much more likely to confess a little mistake and “take his stripes” but avoids the major repercussions of a compounding issue. Does data back this up and how can we help those who would eat the marshmallow understand the value of waiting and the penalties of compounding mistakes?

Thanks,
Marshmallow Parent

Dear Marshmallow Parent,

Wow, you’ve put some great thought into this question. Yes, I think the marshmallow study may tie in to what you are observing. But that’s not where I want to start. I’d like to start with how you handle the little lies your daughter is telling.

When Children Lie: Lying is tough because it undermines trust and shows disrespect. It’s hard not to take it personally and get angry. Part of what I like about your question is that you approach the lie with concern and curiosity, rather than moral outrage. I think that’s the best approach you can take as a parent.

For children, lying is often a faulty form of problem-solving. Your daughter has gotten herself into a fix and a lie seems like the solution—albeit a very poor-quality solution. So, treat the lie as a lack of skill and help her work on her ability to problem solve.

Of course, you also have to hold her accountable. Think of a reasonable consequence related to the lie and the problem she was trying to cover up.

For example: Suppose your daughter said she was doing her term paper at a girlfriend’s house when actually she was visiting a young man.

Begin with: “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. When you lie to me about where you are and what you’re doing, it makes it harder to trust you. So, you’re grounded for the rest of this week and you can’t see Tanner this weekend.”

Then, explore why she felt she had to lie: “Help me understand why you felt you had to lie about this?” You aren’t looking for an excuse for the lie. Instead, you are trying to understand the reason for the lie.

Finally suggest a better solution: “I would prefer you say, ‘Mom, I know you want me to work on my term paper this evening, but I really want to see Tanner.’ I would listen, and we could talk about it. Of course, there is a good chance I’d say ‘No,’ and you’d be disappointed. But that’s not as bad as lying, and hurting the trust we have.”

Teach Self-Control: In Walter Mischel’s classic studies, he followed four-year-olds who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in order to get a second marshmallow. Years later, these strong-willed children scored hundreds of points higher on their college entrance exams, had stronger marriages, earned more in salary, and got promoted more often. He showed that the ability to delay immediate gratification in service of longer-term goals is an important skill.

What people often forget is that Walter, together with Albert Bandura, also showed that self-control is a skill that children must learn, not a capacity they inherit. I remember watching my next-door neighbor teach this skill to his four-year-old. We were at a pool that had a waterslide. The rule for the slide was to wait at the base of the ladder until the child in front of you had landed in the water and reached the side of the pool. Little Ryan had trouble remembering this rule. His father and I were in the water having a conversation, but every few seconds, he’d have to remind Ryan, “Wait, wait, watch the girl in front of you. Okay, now you can go!” Ryan must have gone down the slide fifty times, and, by the end, knew how to hold himself back without reminders.

Of course, Joe, my neighbor doesn’t just teach self-control at the pool. It is a part of his positive parenting every day. He seeks out these teaching moments when he can help his children develop character skills.

Teach Influence: As I suggested earlier, lying is often a child’s last-ditch effort to get their way, when they feel they have no ability to influence their parent. Helping a child mature is all about gradually, sensibly, and safely giving over control. Children who believe they can get their parents to change their minds are more likely to try dialogue and less likely to lie.

But this loosening of reins is easier to advocate than it is to practice. One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.

Do as I Say, not as I Do: Whenever I answer a question about parenting, I feel I need to add that I’m not a parent. My wife and I have 24 nieces and nephews, so we’ve gotten to witness some wonderful parenting, but I don’t practice what I preach. For example, over the years, we’ve had nephews and nieces join us for dozens of “Camp Davids”—hiking Bryce Canyon or the Olympic National Park, unicycling in Moab, and surf lessons in Southern Cal. But these fun adventures don’t really involve much parenting. In fact, Camp David only has one rule: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” So, my advice comes from skilled friends and relatives, not from hard-won experience.

Thanks again for your probing question. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on how to handle your situation.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Save a Sinking Ship

Dear David,

I am one of several department chairs at a proprietary college. Since I have been here, we have had four people rotate in and out of the dean’s position; the most recent having been marched from the building yesterday. We have had every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy. When considering applicants for this position, the department chairs are not given the opportunity for input, in spite of the havoc the poor leadership and constant change wreaks in our working environment. Some of the department chairs feel that we should approach the college president in a united group about having a more active role in the hiring process of the next applicant, but others are afraid to speak up, or don’t feel that we would be heard even if we did. In addition, the company is in overall disarray due to poor corporate leadership, compliance issues, and significant budget problems—which translated into a campus wide turnover rate of 45% in the last year alone. In addition to myself, I suspect most of my peers are actively looking for other jobs, but until we are able to make good on our escapes, do we continue to suffer or should we try and find a way to approach our college president who is at this point feeling insecure and frustrated himself?

Signed,
Desperate

Dear Desperate,

Yowza! It sounds as if you’re earning your doctorate in disaster at Catastrophe College. I can only imagine the stress and pain this cycle has created in your life. You have my full sympathy.

Over the years, I’ve worked with several colleges and educators facing similar challenges. I think many of our crucial conversations skills can help to frame your choices.

Start with heart.
Healthy dialogue starts with your own motives. We all have multiple motives. Three you mention are: have an active role in the hiring process, reduce the havoc and poor leadership, and make good on your escape. Start With Heart means stepping back and taking a long-term and inclusive look at your priorities. Ask, “What do I really want for myself, for the college president, and for our school?” Your answer to these questions will become the North Star you navigate towards.

Weigh the risks and rewards. Speaking up will be risky. That’s clear. But not speaking up is risky too. In fact, you’ve tried not speaking up, and it has resulted in “every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy.” Hmmm.

A common mistake is to focus exclusively on the short-term personal risks of speaking up, while ignoring the long-term, community-wide risks of not speaking up. Paradoxically, the times when we are least likely to speak up are also the times when speaking up will make the biggest difference. I can’t tell you whether you should risk speaking up. You will need to balance the risks for yourself.

Practice empathy. If you decide to speak up, begin by looking at the world from your college president’s perspective. Practice your empathy skills. He’s probably feeling embattled. My guess is he has many bosses who are second-guessing his decisions. His job and the college’s survival are on the line. If the college fails, he may have to find a whole new career. If I were him, the last thing I’d want would be one more group that thinks it can make demands of me.

Ask permission. Don’t approach your college president with demands. You aren’t his manager, you don’t know what his board is asking of him, and you don’t have access to the information he has. Instead, begin with a statement that demonstrates Respect and Mutual Purpose. When I’m in this situation, I often begin with Mutual Purpose, and then show Respect by asking for permission to share my ideas. For example, “I want you to know you have my full support. I know you’re working extremely hard to get our college back on track, and I’d like to help. Would it be okay if I asked a few questions and shared some ideas?”

Begin with his priorities. It’s tempting to begin by sharing all the problems the turmoil has caused for you and other faculty members. But you, the faculty, and even the students are just one of the many priorities on his long list. For example, what if his board has asked him to cut costs by laying off the salaried faculty, and replacing them with contractors and adjunct faculty? If that’s the case, then sharing the faculty’s problems won’t be relevant.

Of course, the college president may not be able to share his priorities with you, because of confidentiality concerns. But it will be hard for you to be helpful, unless he can be frank about the challenges he faces.

Make a specific request. If I understand you correctly, your specific request is to have a subset of the faculty be involved in selecting the next dean. Explain the positive consequences that will stem from this involvement. Suggest how this process will help the college and help the college president. Don’t focus on how this will help you and the faculty. Take a broader, college-wide perspective.

Have a backup plan. It sounds as if you are already looking for another job. That’s good. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in this current basket. Be prepared for the college president to say he doesn’t want or need your help, and has no plans to involve you or other faculty. If that is his response, retreat gracefully, and put your backup plan into effect. Don’t burn your bridges, but plan to move on.

Again, my heart goes out to you. The proprietary college industry is in turmoil. I’m so sorry you’ve been caught up in this maelstrom.

Best of luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Responding to Racism While On the Job

Dear David,

I work in a community hospital with culturally diverse patients and staff. Recently, a nurse told me about an upsetting experience. The nurse is African-American and was caring for a patient in a double room. He overheard a conversation between his patient’s roommate and a visitor. In a loud, strident voice, the visitor expressed his views about a situation concerning race that has been widely reported in the media. The visitor criticized the African-Americans involved and made several borderline and blatant racist comments. The nurse heard the comments and left the room without comment, but was angry. He later asked me, “What could I have said?” Several people thought that as a “professional” he acted correctly by not saying anything. I am troubled by the notion that silence is the professional approach to racism. What do you advise?

Sincerely,
Troubled
Dear Troubled,

Usually, I would say that silence is not the professional approach to racism. There is a reason we teach people to have crucial conversations—you can help put an end to evils like racism by sharing your opinion candidly and respectfully. And yet, given the setting and his role, I think your colleague handled himself in the most professional way possible.

I’ll begin with the problems that come from not speaking up. First, when you don’t speak up, you allow the bad behavior to continue. Others see your silence as acquiescence, permission, or even encouragement. We saw this when we studied parents who failed to talk to their children about alcohol and drugs. Their children assumed they had permission to drink and use.

Second, in Crucial Conversations we say, “If you don’t talk it out, you will act it out.” What we mean is that your concerns will be expressed in your behavior—often as bad behavior toward the offending person.

A few years ago, I collaborated on a research study with Dr. Joan Reede, the Dean for Diversity & Community Outreach at Harvard Medical School. We were interested in what happens when people experience an ethnic or sexist slight, but say nothing.

We identified seven categories of common slights, small offenses that most women and minority members experience at least monthly. We called these slights undiscussables because few of the women or minority members spoke up when they experienced them.

We discovered that these undiscussables destroy relationships. Even though the slight was never discussed, 96 percent of our subjects left the interaction believing the other person was a bigot. We called this study Silent Judgment to highlight this dynamic.

So, why do I think your colleague was right to keep his mouth shut despite the obvious injustice he was subjected to? Because he isn’t just a passer-by on the street. In this specific circumstance, as a nurse, he is operating in the patient-caregiver dynamic and that relationship is both unique and sacred.

First, the relationship is lopsidedly unequal. Patients feel powerless, both because they are ill and because they’ve ceded personal control to the hospital and its caregivers. As a caregiver, you awaken them in the middle of the night, you invade their personal space, and you cause them pain. Your patients are at your mercy and only hope to receive it. How bad is it? It’s so bad that most patients and family members won’t even remind a nurse to wash up, for fear of making a bad impression and exposing themselves to retaliation.

Second, because of their illnesses, patients aren’t at their best. I know that when I’m sick, I become grouchy, self-centered, and short-tempered. I hope others will give me a break!

Third, patients are involuntary visitors. They would rather be home, on a cruise ship, at a beach resort, in a ski lodge, or even back at work. They are only in the hospital because their health requires it. They may even feel like prisoners.

Fourth, patients don’t have the privacy they are used to. Instead, they share their rooms and caregivers walk in whenever they want. As a result, comments they intend and expect to be private, aren’t. And it’s not as if they can move to a private location for more sensitive conversations. They’re stuck in their beds.

For these many reasons, I think your colleague was right to stay silent when he overheard the hateful comments. By speaking up, he would likely violate the patient-caregiver boundaries—for both his patient and his patient’s roommate. And though silence may be perceived as tolerance for racism, he should place his patient above his own frustrations while on the job. Should he overhear those comments in a restaurant later that day, I would encourage him and everyone to speak up and put an end to bigotry—but unfortunately, that is not the case in the situation you describe.

And not speaking up also means he will have to deal with his frustration and anger. Remember, “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” Acting it out would be unprofessional. It would be what patients fear most.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we’ve decided against speaking up and had to master our frustrations. The key in these situations is to step back, take a longer more inclusive view, and get your heart right.

We recommend asking yourself, “What do I really want long term for myself, for others, and for the relationship?” When your friend asks himself this question, it will help him put this incident into a broader perspective. And it will help him act on his values, rather than responding to others’ slights while serving his patients.

I hope this helps,
David