All posts by Ron McMillan

Crucial Conversations QA

Seeking a Promotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a cofounder of a company that recently brought in a new CEO who I don’t know well. I want to talk to the CEO about taking an executive role in the company and obtaining his mentorship. The problem is I feel very strongly about this position and my contribution, and tend to get emotional about it. I know I’ve made a very significant contribution to the company’s growth, but I’m also fundamentally insecure about my skills. I also don’t have the resume that investors are looking for. The new CEO is a very level-headed person who doesn’t get emotional about anything, and I don’t want to lose credibility with him as I negotiate my role in this growing company. Can you give me some pointers for preparing for this conversation?

Sincerely,
Looking for a Promotion

Dear Looking,

Of course you get emotional about your role in the company you cofounded! This company is your brainchild; you’ve invested your blood, sweat, and tears. Any conversation about your role going forward is high stakes indeed. And strong emotions are often the biggest barrier to effectively influencing others. As you take stock of the company’s needs, and of the skills you need in order to fulfill an executive role, you are wise to seek the new CEO’s mentorship. So how do you have the crucial conversation with the CEO about taking on an executive role?

Start with heart. As you contemplate having this conversation, ask yourself, “What do I really want? For myself? For the new CEO? For the company?” Of course you want the company to be successful. You also want to support the CEO and help him succeed. In addition, you want to occupy an executive position and be effective in that role. Keep in mind that you are not a beggar or a thief. You are not asking for a position you do not deserve, nor are you expecting a role that benefits you and hurts the company. You want to add value and make a meaningful contribution. These are good motives—helpful motives. As you focus on these thoughts, your brain will be in gear and your emotions will dissipate.

Create mutual purpose. An important beginning to this crucial conversation is to help the CEO understand your intentions—your motives. You might want to say something like, “I want to talk with you about my role in the company. I am absolutely committed to making the company succeed. I also want to do everything within my power to help you be successful in your new role as CEO.” Such a strong declaration will do a lot to make it safe for the CEO to discuss the topic with you openly.

Next, share your meaning. As with bringing up any sensitive topic, I would encourage you to share the facts. Help the CEO understand your history with the company and the many contributions you’ve made. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or shy. You are not bragging or “tooting your own horn.” You are giving the CEO important information he needs to make decisions about how to best utilize your abilities. Then tell your story by sharing with the CEO your honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Our tendency is to ‘spin’ our histories by embellishing our strengths and understating our weaknesses.

I once worked with a colleague who was always trying to ‘sell’ me. When advocating his point of view, he emphasized the reasons to do what he wanted, and left unmentioned the downside. I grew to discount his statements and distrust his motives. You do not want to do this. Identify where you see yourself as the most capable and where you need more development. This kind of honesty, openness, and insight will help your CEO appreciate the kind of person you are and trust your candor. Next, make your proposal. Explain the position you want to fill and its responsibilities. Ask that the CEO mentor you and help you strengthen the areas you’ve identified for improvement.

Finally, ask for the CEO’s input. You’ve put a lot of meaning in the pool; now is the time to get his. Ask questions and listen. How does he see the situation? How does he view the fit between you and the executive position?

This appeal will not necessarily guarantee that you end up with the position you desire. However, this approach will increase the likelihood your emotions will not get in the way, and there will be greater mutual understanding.

Good Luck,
Ron

Crucial Conversations QA

Atoning for Past Mistakes

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve recently taken the Crucial Conversations Training in an effort to improve my communication skills with my coworkers. However, I’ve been cautioned that I already burned a few bridges and that some of my coworkers are hesitant to work with me on projects. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I’ve been described as a strong Type A personality and I sometimes get frustrated when other people on the team don’t share my drive for producing results.

I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people over the years, but I don’t want to go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine to atone for the sins of the past. I feel like I can be pleasant, friendly, and helpful ninety-nine percent of the time, but they are always going to remember the one percent of the time when I wasn’t at my best. What is a professional way to say that I’d like to wipe the slate clean of past transgressions and start fresh?

Sincerely,
Mr. Type A

Dear Mr. Type A,

We are mistaken when we assume relationships are simply the sum total of all of our interactions; they are so much more. The most important component of any relationship is not the behavior that has been enacted between two people; rather, it is the conclusions that have been drawn about each other. The stories we tell ourselves are the basis of our relationships with each other.

You are wise to notice how mistakes you have made with your coworkers in the past have made them hesitant to work with you on projects. It’s good that you want to make a “fresh start.” The key to your success will be to first work on your stories about your coworker relationships, and then work on their stories about you.

It seems to me that you are one step shy of taking responsibility for your part of the problem when you describe yourself as getting “frustrated when other people on the team don’t share your drive for producing results.” I think it’s more likely that the problem is not that you care about results and they do not. It’s the way you express your frustration that causes them to not want to work with you. I believe the story you are telling yourself puts you in the best possible light (having a strong drive for producing results), instead of describing that when you are frustrated, you act in ways that hurt or offend others.

The fact that this is your story is further evidenced by your statement, “I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people.” Do you have any evidence that people have been hurt or offended by you? For instance, that they don’t want to work with you. By adding the “if,” it seems that you are allowing the possibility it might be true, but not taking responsibility for acting in ways that did in fact hurt and offend others.

My advice is to revise your story in a way that factually identifies what you are doing that is creating the outcomes you want to change. How are you acting out your frustration instead of talking out your frustration? Answer that question and you will be on the path to becoming more effective with your coworkers.

Next, work on your coworkers’ stories. You have been cautioned about having already “burned a few bridges,” yet you feel that ninety-nine percent of the time, you are “pleasant, friendly, and helpful.” That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

I had a man approach me after a workshop on how leaders can rebuild trust. He told me that he had been using these skills with his two children for two years but their trust in him had not improved. I asked him what had happened two years ago. He explained that he came home drunk and had yelled and hit his children.

The next day, when he realized what he had done, he was ashamed. He felt awful. He quit drinking that very day. Since that awful night, he told me he had not raised his voice in anger with his children, nor had he lifted his hand against them. Yet, in spite of his consistent efforts, he still feels a distance between them and reluctance for them to “let him into their hearts.”

I asked him, “What happened the morning after? What did you say to your children?” He told me that there had been no discussion of the incident, but that he had resolved then and there to quit drinking and to truly change. Because he did not discuss the incident with his children, he had not created a context for his future behavior. When he did not say he was sorry, when he did not promise he would never yell at them again and never, ever hit them, he did not create clear expectations about what they should expect from him. As a result, even though he was kind and no longer yelled, this was not evidence to his children that he had changed. In their mind, they were still waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” Instead of seeing the incident as an exception to his usual loving behavior, they saw this behavior as revealing his true nature.

Let’s get back to your question. For you to build effective relationships with your coworkers, you’re right, you do not have to “go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine.” However, don’t repeat this father’s mistake. You must create a context with clear expectations going forward. Explain to your coworkers that you have completed training and realized there are some significant ways you can improve. Identify what they are. You might say, “In the past when I have gotten frustrated, I have lashed out and accused you of not caring. In the future, I will Describe the Gap. I will factually identify what has happened and compare it to what I expected. I will then ask for your view on what has occurred and I will listen to understand.”

By creating clear expectations for your coworkers about what they can expect from you, you give them a context from which they can evaluate your behavior. Instead of dismissing the ninety-nine percent of the time when you are helpful, and waiting for your next explosion, they will start to see your good behavior as evidence that you are doing what you said you would do. Every good encounter will be further evidence that you are really making an effort to change.

When you do make a mistake, immediately acknowledge it, apologize, and start over. Instead of seeing your mistake as proof you have not changed, your co-workers are more likely to hear your apology as a sincere effort to improve and will be more willing to cut you some slack.

By making real improvements, acknowledging mistakes, quickly apologizing and getting back on track, you can rebuild some of those “burned bridges” and become even more effective in producing the results you care so deeply about.

All the best,
Ron

Crucial Accountability QA

Parenting a Strong-willed Teenager

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have the privilege and frustration of being the mother of a strong-willed teenage girl. It seems my child popped out believing she was an adult and in charge. She is very verbal and says it like she sees it—for good or ill. I realize that teenagers are emotionally driven, however I’m struggling to know how to respond to her routinely rude comments. I love my child deeply but she needs a filter; her words can be very hurtful. Unfortunately, I am not the only target of her meanness. I’m concerned that she will burn bridges if she does not take greater care with her words. Any advice?

Sincerely,
Struggling

Dear Struggling,

A business associate of mine told me about his son going off to a distant university. The father became very emotional. He told me how difficult his son was to raise; his son was rude to others and had angry, emotional outbursts. His father responded with anger and punishments.

When the son left for college, he told his Dad, “I hate you and hope I never see you again.”

Later that semester, a school counselor assigned to new students called to tell the father that his son had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. As the father learned more, he discovered that the behaviors that his son exhibited and irritated him the most were common symptoms of Asperger’s. My friend started crying as he told me that if he had known his son had a physical/emotional problem, he would have treated him differently. He would have tried to help him, not punish him. My brokenhearted friend wondered if he would ever be able to heal the badly damaged relationship he had with his son.

In sharing this sad story with you, I’m not presuming that your daughter has this or a similar issue; I am urging you to consider whether or not there is an ability component to her behavior. This is a preliminary diagnosis before beginning the problem-solving process.

Being a teenager with a still-developing brain that is overdosing on hormones and adrenaline, is almost the definition of an ability problem. But, compare her to her peers. You mentioned that your daughter is “routinely rude” and needs a filter. Is she unable to think about what she is saying, or just unwilling to? If her behavior is more belligerent or extreme than other teens, or if she seems unable to empathize with those she insults, seeking counseling or professional expertise might be the solution. You may avoid a lot of unnecessary pain for both you and your daughter by taking this path.

On the other hand, if her actions seem within the bounds of normal teenager behavior, then I would recommend some Crucial Accountability strategies.

First, get your heart right; Start with Heart. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Don’t think in terms of character traits; think of specific behaviors, actions, and words. Maybe something like, “I want my daughter to refrain from saying rude, hurtful remarks. I want her to express herself in respectful ways, even when she disagrees with something being said or done.”

Now, get your head right; Master your Stories. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational decent person say those things?” If that seems like a bit of a stretch for a teenager, you might ask, “Why would a decent kid say those things?” Maybe she’s frustrated and angry. Maybe she’s rebellious and lashing-out because she wants to be her own person and test the limits. Maybe she wants to hurt others to keep them from getting too close. Maybe she got up on the wrong side of the bed and her stars are out of alignment. Having considered many possibilities, ask the hard question. Which of these is true? Realize the hard answer is, you don’t know. So don’t assume you do. Maybe you ought to talk to her and find out, so you can address the real problem and not the symptoms.

Begin the conversation by Describing the Gap. Factually describe her behavior and compare it to what you expect. Make sure you address the pattern of behavior you have witnessed.

You might say “At dinner tonight, when we were discussing the new bussing schedule, you told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I am ‘so lame’ I shouldn’t be saying anything at all. Earlier this week in the car you called your sister an idiot. And on Saturday, you said you didn’t want to go to her boring soccer game and that she was the worst one on her team. I’m seeing a pattern of hurtful remarks. I expect you to be respectful to others, even if you disagree with something.”

Next, ask a diagnostic question to understand why she is behaving this way. “What’s going on? Help me understand. Why are you saying these things?” Be intentional as you Make it Safe and create dialogue with your daughter.

Taking these steps will help you avoid the costly mistake of assuming your daughter’s pattern of hurtful behavior is a motivation problem.

If you decide the problem you face is a matter of motivating your daughter to change her behavior, then use the Crucial Accountability process to get compliance. Share with her the consequences of her rude remarks. By focusing on the negative natural consequences of her behavior, you not only educate her but you motivate her to change as well.

If these efforts don’t create a willingness to improve, calmly and respectfully explain the consequences you will impose on her when she speaks rudely to others. Be specific. “The next time you are disrespectful to me, like saying I’m lame or I don’t know what I’m talking about, you will lose your phone privileges for twenty-four hours. This also applies to others, like when you call your sister ‘stupid’ or say that she’s the worst player on the team.” Set a follow-up time within the next twenty-four hours to review her behavior. In your interaction with her, always model the respectful behavior you expect from her.

Praise her good behavior and hold her accountable for unacceptable behavior. Don’t ever ignore her hurtful behavior. Be consistent—every time, all the time. I wish you all the best as you succeed in doing the hardest job on the whole planet—being a loving parent.

Ron