Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Revenge on the Vanishing Vacation

Summer vacation time is on its way out and the doldrums of winter are settling in. Have you taken your much-needed vacation yet? If not, you’re not alone. It seems corporate America is experiencing a vanishing vacation pandemic. In an effort to get ahead and secure finance and job security in a volatile economy, managers and employees are demonstrating an unconventional devotion to their jobs and sacrificing vacation with the family for time in the office.

Due to social pressures and economic conditions, people are afraid to speak up for their vacation privileges. According to a VitalSmarts survey, only half of survey respondents actually speak up and ask for support and permission to take a vacation. And, alarmingly, past research shows employees who harbor these kinds of concerns and feel unable to speak up about them eventually quit.

But it’s not too late to speak up now and get the time off you deserve. If you’re suffering from the vanishing vacation, use these communication tips to reclaim your vacation without relinquishing job security or allowing work to overtake your life.

  1. Hold the right conversation. Don’t just talk about the time off you want, talk about what it truly means to take time off. If you are required to take the office with you in the form of e-mails and conference calls, you never truly leave the office.
  2. Ask for what you really want. We tend to significantly understate the importance of our vacation, so who can blame a boss and other coworkers for giving a lukewarm response? If you fail to express your wants candidly, you are part of the problem.
  3. Be inflexibly supportive. When asking for time off, be clear about what is negotiable and what is not. If the timing of your vacation is flexible, say so. But if the amount of uninterrupted time you want off is not, make that clear as well. This approach will not make employees appear belligerent if they clearly state they are willing to do all they can for the boss and the company short of compromising vacation goals.
  4. Maintain boundaries. After getting agreement to your vacation plans, be prepared for niggling encroachments. At the first sign of infringement, go back to tip number one and hold the “right conversation.” Hold others accountable to the commitments they made, while being “inflexibly supportive” of their needs and concerns.
Crucial Accountability QA

Coworker’s Personal Life

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I would like to know how you would handle this situation. I work with two others in a front office, and although I have no formal authority, I do have more responsibility. One of the ladies is constantly talking about the minutia of her life, e.g., what groceries she bought, what she had for dinner, what doctor’s appointments she has, what her sugar and cholesterol levels are . . . She is also recently divorced, and in the process of purchasing a house for the first time. She is constantly (six times this morning) taking or making calls for personal business, and then telling us what her calls are for. She has been asked not to use her cell phone in the office due to distraction, and to just take personal calls during her lunch–so has gone outside the building to use the phone. I have tried a crucial conversation, but met with a defensive reaction.

What can I do?

Frustrated at Work

A Dear Frustrated,

This particular challenge—the other person violating expectations of what you do and don’t do at work—falls into the category of a crucial confrontation. This, as you might guess, we deal with in some detail in the book “Crucial Confrontations.” Let me share a few ideas from that book.

The first issue you face is choosing “What” and “If.” What is the problem you want to deal with, and should you actually bring it up? You stated that you have no authority over this person, but I will assume that the behaviors are troublesome enough that, independent of your formal authority, you want to talk about the issue. You’ve decided the “If”—you know you want to say something.

You’re still left with the “What” question. You’ve identified several different problems and you’ll need to decide which problem you want to confront. You can’t confront all of them at once without confusing the issues and looking like you’re piling it on. You also have to decide how touchy an issue you want to address. For instance, taking personal calls during business isn’t very touchy if there’s a policy in place already. Pointing out that the person is constantly bringing up irrelevant and possibly boring topics—well, that’s not such an easy issue to bring up.

To choose from among all your options, ask yourself what you really want. Which of the issues bugs you the most and do you end up talking about with your friends or loved ones? This is probably what you’ll need to discuss.

Start by asking for permission to discuss an issue that has you concerned. Explain your good intentions. Suggest that you want to work through an issue to both of your satisfaction. (And you have to mean this.) Use Contrasting. Suggest that you’re not trying to boss her around or anything, you simply want to jointly come to a resolution that you’ll both like. Then describe the gap. That is, explain what you’re observing versus what you expected. Describe what she’s doing, focusing on behaviors and leaving out your conclusions. Keep your tone pleasant. Pause and ask if she understands the issue or if she sees it differently.

How you start the confrontation sets the tone for the remainder of the interaction. To help with your tone, assume that your coworker is well intended but unaware and that your feedback might help the two of you work together. If you assume the worst of her, your negative conclusions will come out in your delivery. So start with good intentions, share them, focus on behavior and not conclusions, and then seek her view. All of this goes a long way in reducing defensiveness.

Best of luck and thanks for writing,

Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Who Wants to Be Weird?

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Kerrying On

“He’s here!” someone shouted as I walked across campus. Solomon Asch, the renowned social scientist, was going to give a speech. Excited about the prospect of listening to one of the true pioneers of the field, I skipped class for a chance to hear what he had to say. Ray Price, a fellow doctoral student at Stanford, arranged for a baby-sitter so he could attend. Another student called in late for his lab job. People all around campus and across disciplines dropped whatever they were doing and like groupies hearing about an impromptu sighting of a rock star, they all rushed to hear from the master.

“He’s gotta be around a hundred!” I suggested to Ray.

“What do you think he’s going to talk about?” Ray wondered aloud.

“Surely it has something to do with the line study,” I responded. After all, that famous study was his thing. In the study, he drew three lines of different lengths for his research subjects to see. He then drew a fourth line that was exactly the same length as the second line and asked a group of people seated around a table, “Which line is this fourth most like—one, two, or three?” Obviously it was the same as the second line. Anyone could tell.

But then something really weird happened. The first person suggested that the line in question was the same as the first line. What a moron! Maybe this person had a vision problem. And then the second person said the same. What?! How could two people be that wrong? Of course, the answer to this question is now part of social science history. They were both dupes who worked for Dr. Asch. They purposefully gave the wrong answer to see if they could get a genuine subject to agree with them.

To help nudge the findings, Dr. Asch had a total of eight people (all dupes) give the same wrong answer. Then the ninth person, the only actual subject, would be asked the question. As you might suspect, nearly three-fourths of the subjects gave the same wrong answer. When they were interviewed after the study was completed, all the subjects said that they knew they had given the wrong answer, but they didn’t want to go against the crowd.

This particular compliance study has been shared in every introductory psych class ever since. It laid the groundwork for a whole series of conformity studies, including the famous Milgram studies.

Wanting to hear the latest word about these fascinating conformity studies, we sat in a crowded classroom eagerly waiting for Dr. Asch to appear. Ray and I were in the front row. Eventually, Dr. Asch was escorted to the front of the room. He was indeed old and as it turned out, he wanted to set the record straight. He tottered to the front of the room, paused to steady himself, and then spoke but one word.


We sat there in silence as Dr. Asch waited for the dramatic pause to work its effect. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes, he explained. “When I conducted the original studies, I wasn’t studying conformity, I was studying independence. I was interested in the one in four subjects who spoke their minds even when confronted with eight other people who disagreed with them. I was interested in those who had the guts to stand up and speak their mind in the face of adversity. And yet to this day my work is known as the first in a long series of ‘conformity’ studies.”

That was really all the esteemed scholar had to say that fall morning in 1977, and to be honest, it didn’t have much of an effect on me. Who cares if the research topic is independence or conformity? To-MAY-to, to-MAW-to; half-empty, half-full—it’s all the same.

Of course, how this transformation from independence to conformity took place is easy to understand. Implying that humans are easily turned into sniveling yes-men and yes-women is far more interesting that focusing on a handful of independent cusses. Suggesting that humans are like lemming and would willing plunge with the masses off a cliff just because everyone else is doing it—now that’s interesting.

In a nutshell, conformity is fascinating; independence—not so much. So Asch returned to Stanford in 1977 to set the record straight. He wanted the next generation of researchers to study the less fascinating folks, the independent ones. And true to form, I didn’t care.

Years later I found myself conducting a series of one-on-one interviews with employees who worked for a company that was in a lot of trouble. Profits were down, quality was failing, customer satisfaction was plummeting, and if things continued, they’d all be out of work. As I talked with people, most complained about a poor work ethic. Nobody said anything to anyone, but they hated the fact that so many people got away with not doing much. They were about to lose their jobs, but nobody had the courage to speak up.

And then I ran into someone who frequently spoke up. Maybe he was one of those guys Dr. Asch was so interested in. To start things off, he looked weird. His socks didn’t match, his hair was out of control, and he bore an untamed and spaced out expression. This social deviate quickly pointed out to me that he was surrounded by a bunch of slackers and losers and that he was constantly prodding them to get back to work. His reminders often resulted in screaming matches, but according to him, he was the only person with any integrity.

And now for the bad news. While it was true that this offbeat fellow was speaking his mind when others weren’t, he was really bad at it. In fact, he had no discernable social skills at all. He was a low self-monitor—one of those people who don’t care if they fit into a social niche and who often speak their minds in a way that offends others.

I didn’t know what to think. I did have a question though. If you’re the kind of person who speaks up after eight people share a different and obviously wrong opinion, do you have to be a low self-monitoring weirdo with an ax to grind? Which brings me to Solomon’s original question: Who were the 25 percent who had the courage to disagree, and what made them tick? And if you’re going to be the kind of person who speaks out against the vocal majority, do you have to wear mismatched socks and sit at the lunch table by yourself for the rest of your life?

Now let me put this issue in perspective. I ask this question because the cost of not being able to speak up in the presence of opposing views can be horrendous. Let’s jump to the present. Last week at the World Business Forum, Tom Peters suggested that companies are too old and stodgy and vulnerable to new ideas that are coming at us at a breakneck pace. He’s been saying this for years. In his words, we need to nurture and promote the “weird.” My thoughts turned to the wild guy with the mismatched socks. Although he didn’t say it in so many words, Dr. Peters also wants to hear from the 25 percent who have the courage to speak when others toe the party line. Dr. Asch would have wanted to kiss Tom Peters.

Tom got it right. Speaking up means a whole lot to most companies. Colin Powell, who spoke later that day, said that anyone who didn’t have the courage to disagree with the boss when he or she thinks the boss is wrong doesn’t deserve to be a leader. This statement was followed by thunderous applause.

Let’s put this all in Solomon Asch’s language. What does it take to say, “I think it’s the second line, not the first one”? Now, let’s put this in my words. Can a person whose socks actually match and who often takes the road more traveled speak up and be heard and encourage others to do the same? Or are the 25 percent who muster the courage to say “I disagree” to a whole crowd the “weird” people that Tom Peters lauds and the rest of the world makes fun of and ostracizes? Because if it’s true that the vocal few are mostly geeks, I’ll clam up and stick with the majority thank you very much.

It turns out there’s hope. Not everyone who speaks up is weird. I learned this encouraging fact a few years back when I left the wild guy with the mismatched socks and started studying influence masters. These were people who were picked by their peers as the most influential people in the company. We followed employees who had been identified by as many as seventy people as those people were most likely to listen to. We watched them on the phone, in meetings, and in the heat of a debate. We didn’t learn all that much until we found ourselves in a real-life Asch experiment.

People were sitting quietly in a meeting when the big boss made a really stupid suggestion. “What do you think?” the boss asked, and everyone sat there mum—except for the influence master. He opened his mouth and spoke his mind. Better still, he spoke in a way that didn’t insult or cause offense. Others quickly chimed in and the issue got resolved in a healthy way.

The fact that a skilled and influential person spoke up was quite heartening because until this point I had seen only two kinds of outspoken folks. The geek I referred to earlier and normal people who had become so upset that they could stand it no longer and moved from silence to violence. They spoke up alright, but were either out of control or angry or both. And then we discovered the influence masters. Unlike many of the 25 percent who speak out against the majority or the authority, they don’t act whacked-out or toggle from silence to violence. Influence masters deal in healthy dialogue.

Here are four things they do that make it safe to speak out against the majority. First, they don’t become righteously indignant and call everyone else idiots. Instead, they maintain a more humble stance. They say something like: “Hmm, I guess I see things differently—and in this case I’m the only one.” Two, they often ask for permission to speak their opinions. “Would it be okay if I shared a different view?” Three, they speak in tentative language, leaving room for disagreement. “I wonder if this is what’s going on here.” Four, and most important, setting all of their other ways aside, they always find a way to say something that indicates they disagree. They say something. They speak up.

And guess what happens when one person finds a way to say that the emperor has no new clothes? The same thing that happened when Asch himself inserted one person to disagree with the majority before the actual research subject was polled. The subjects now expressed their honest views far more frequently because they were no longer alone. One candid, forthright, and skilled person makes it safe for everyone. One person strengthens the entire team, family, or organization.

Many contemporary scholars are calling for people to muster the courage to speak up—particularly when they hold a strong but different view and they’re facing a great deal of social pressure or formal authority. Solomon Asch was interested in studying people who did just that. Our findings have been that many of the people who strike out against the masses do so in a way that doesn’t make it safe for others to follow. They’re either low self-monitors who don’t care if they fit anywhere or they’re angry people who can no longer sit in silence. Nobody wants to be like either. Weird and angry don’t work.

But there’s a group out there among the 25 percent who speak with skill—and in so doing limit the risk to themselves and to others. They aren’t as much courageous as they are able to speak with both confidence and skill. They’re masters of crucial conversations. Learn what these folks do, teach it to others, and the number of people who will comfortably speak their minds (no matter how different) will grow from a small minority to a point where virtually everyone feels empowered to express his or her views. And when this happens, just think of what the world will be like. Not everyone’s socks will match, but we’ll hear a lot of new views—and that can only make things better.

Crucial Conversations QA

Confronting Suspicions with a Spouse

Dear Crucial Skills,

My wife asked a friend of ours to help her with a home improvement project. Since then there have been other similar types of projects and he is now coming over to the house on a regular basis. In some worrisome ways their friendship seems too close. I have not found them in a compromising situation—yet—but it feels like she has moved her affection from me to him. And truthfully, I worry that inappropriate things are happening.

How do I confront her on this? Do I need to have proof solid enough for court before I confront her? This is tough, and I have to do something soon. I should have done it already, but until I picked up your Crucial Confrontations book a couple of weeks ago, I was at a loss for any answers that were not complete ambushes.

I am stuck still on how to apply your principles with her. She tends to shut people down when they disagree with her. I know if she did this with me at this point I would completely lose it, and resort to all the things that you folks say not to do, regardless of the consequences to the relationship or our marriage. I don’t want that to happen.

Please Help!

Home Improvement

Dear Home Improvement,

I can’t imagine a bigger burden than the one you’re carrying. I’m so sorry for your predicament and hope I can offer something of use to you.

As I’ve done before with questions like this, I’ve collaborated with one of the Marriage & Family counselors I respect most in the world—my father. Here are our thoughts.

First, examine your story. You need to do this for three reasons: 1) to ensure you don’t overreact to the situation; 2) to open yourself up to dialogue rather than delivering an “ambush” as you so aptly put it; 3) to prepare yourself to hold the crucial confrontation in a healthy way. The “story” you’re telling yourself (which, of course, is possibly true, possibly false, and possibly somewhere in between) is that your wife has inappropriate feelings for this friend. You’re also telling yourself that she may be acting on those feelings. To get control of this story and help yourself see it as story rather than fact, take out a piece of paper and make two columns. Label one “Facts” and the other “Stories.” Under the “Stories” column write out all the feelings, thoughts, judgments, and conclusions that are spinning in your head and gut right now about the situation. Then under “Facts” write down all the objective, observable information that supports your story.

Now comes the tough part. Write down any facts that *don’t* support your story. Work hard on this. The challenge here is that once our fears cause us to embrace a story, we tend to ignore information that would refute it. We are not encouraging you to take this step in order to wash away your concerns—only to help you judge more accurately what might be happening. So be sure to do this step thoroughly.

Now, with this information in front of you, you can decide whether or not to speak up. As you look objectively at this separation of fact and story, you may, for example, notice you have very few facts. Or that you have ignored some significant contradictory facts. Perhaps you are telling yourself a story that is not supported by the whole body of facts. If so, this is your issue to deal with. A more likely outcome is that you’ll realize that there is some cause for concern, but not as much as you had earlier thought. If so, you need to speak up—but you’ll do so with less accusation and certainty. Your goal will be to share concerns and gather more information. Finally, you may look at your worksheet and realize you have a legitimate and acute issue and your story looks pretty solid.

Now it’s time to speak up. No sugarcoating—but an attempt to talk in a way that leads to the best possible outcome. You must accomplish a few things in the first sixty seconds of this most Crucial Confrontation:

Make it safe. Tell your wife you have something tough to discuss. Assure her of your love for her and your desire to have a wonderful, loving, and safe relationship with her. And yet something is in the way of that right now. Tell her you realize you could be telling yourself stories, but that you also believe there is legitimate cause to wonder. Then ask for permission. Ask her to commit to hear you out before responding. Then allow her to take a timeout if she needs to before she responds. If she has a tendency to get defensive, respect that challenge and give her leeway to work through her defensiveness.

Share facts first. Once she commits to hearing you out, share only the facts first. Describe the behaviors you’ve seen from her or the friend that cause you concern. Be careful not to mix your story up with the facts. For example, you might say, “In the past we would talk a lot with each other during the evenings. In the past month we talk very little. That’s also the period of time in which you and Clifton have been working a great deal.” Notice the difference between this and “Since you’ve been spending time with Clifton you don’t talk with me anymore.” The first is fact. The second has a story (a judgment that time with Clifton has caused you to stop talking to me). Strip out any inflammatory, judgmental, or emotional language as you share the facts.

Tentatively share your conclusion. If you’ve done your mastered your stories well, by the time you finish sharing your facts your wife will understand why you are concerned even without you sharing your story. But share it anyway. And do it tentatively. After all, since you haven’t seen them doing inappropriate things, all you have is a story right now, not final facts. Say something like, “As I’ve thought about speaking with you I’ve tried to ask myself if this was just me being jealous. And perhaps that’s some of it. But as I consider all of these observations I think it’s reasonable for me to be concerned. Can you see why I might be? And is there something I should or shouldn’t be worried about here?

Invite dialogue. Now you need to hear her out. Let her respond. If she becomes defensive, reassure her of your intentions. If she tries to turn the tables on you and make this out to be your problem, once again, restore safety—then remind her of the facts you’ve laid out and keep the focus on those. Ask her to help you understand what is and isn’t going on. Reassure her that your goal is not to accuse or attack her. Your goal is to not let anything get in the way of a spontaneous and loving relationship with her. Make it safe. Ask sincere and inviting questions. Encourage her to share her feelings. If there are things you’ve been doing wrong that have driven her away, own up to them. This is not just about her; this is about you, too.

Once you get the issue in the open and establish a solution-focused conversation, come to agreement about ground rules–behaviors you both agree are appropriate and inappropriate in your relationships with others.

You have our sincere best wishes that this conversation will lead to a healthier and happier life for both of you.


Joseph Grenny
Dr. Guy Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Bridging the Cultural Communication Gap

In today’s fast-paced, multi-national, interdependent world, how do you talk about important topics with people whose specialty, culture, or physical location make it difficult to freely and clearly speak your mind? Here are some tips for bridging the gap—whether it’s across departments or across oceans.

  • Avoid e-mail. When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, never let e-mail replace talking. Complex topics deserve real-time, two-way communication. If you can’t meet face-to-face, talk on the phone.
  • Tentatively share concerns. Express your views and then tentatively share your concerns. Listen for hesitance from the other side. If you address both sides of an issue, you make it clear that it’s okay to raise differing opinions.
  • Invite differing views. After you’ve shared your view, conclude by making it safe for others to honestly express their opposing views.
    Ask, “What might I have missed here?” or “What do we need to do differently to make this work for you?”
  • Allow time. In some cultures, any quick response to a suggestion is seen as immature. When you give people time to review a proposal with their own team, it provides them with a chance to work on how they express their views and to make any necessary translations.

Remember, your goal should be to jointly come to a shared understanding. Physical, emotional, or intellectual distance calls for careful and honest dialogue.

Crucial Conversations QA

Childish Behavior at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My husband asked my help in a situation at his job and I’m turning it over to you, the experts!

Two newer coworkers have formed an alliance and seem to have bonded over nightly drinks at the local watering hole, which my husband does not participate in. One of them created a ruckus over a boxed lunch that was to be delivered to a subcontractor. He asked my husband to deliver it on his way somewhere, but the recipient declined the lunch. It was given to someone else. This coworker made assumptions that my husband didn’t try to give the lunch away and just ate it himself. He then e-mailed these assumptions to two supervisors and carbon copied my husband.

When my husband tried to work this out, the second coworker shouted at him and called him a liar and other unprintable things. He was also instructed to “stay three feet away from him at all times.” My husband strongly suspects alcohol abuse and is upset at the lack of resolution of this childish situation. He is worried about the effect that the e-mail had on his superiors and is also attempting to collaborate with these men as they do an important job.

Although this situation sounds to me like something from a playground, I realize that things like this happen regularly at jobs. I should also mention that upper management seems loathe to contend with any of this, so my husband does not have much in the way of support.

Thank you for your insight,

Bamboozled Spouse

A Dear Bamboozled,

It’s never easy to assess a complicated interaction from afar. Add to distance and time the fact that the story has now been passed on twice—first by your husband and then by you—and it only gets more difficult. This particular scenario has all of the earmarks of multiple causes. While it may be true that the two individuals in question have indeed formed an ill-intended alliance and alcoholism may be at play, I’m still left wondering what would set off such an outburst given the triviality of the originating event. I’m also interested by the statement that the bosses don’t want to get involved. Shouting and cursing usually get everyone’s attention.

I’ll start by assuming that your assessment is completely accurate and that your husband has played no role other than victim. Your husband needs to keep his distance from the two parties in question. When tempers and alcohol are involved, it’s safest to stay away if at all possible. In today’s world of violent outbursts at work, I’d be irresponsible to suggest otherwise. In addition, your husband’s boss needs to be informed in private along with the HR department. He needs to document the event as a means of protecting his reputation as well as to keep the company informed of inappropriate behavior.

Here’s my advice to your husband on reporting the behavior: When reporting the event, remain calm and stick with the facts. Your conclusions only make you look reactionary or possibly suspicious. For instance, you don’t know that the two coworkers have formed an alliance—that’s a conclusion. If you suspect that alcohol is at play, you have to report the facts—slurred speech, loss of balance, etc. When it comes to reporting the shouting match, the same is true: Don’t vilify the individual by offering hostile conclusions (“He was a maniac!”). Instead, write down the exact words as you recall them, including a description of tone and volume.

Now let me add one final piece. My experience in similar situations has taught me that in about one-half to two-thirds of cases like this, the people who end up being the targets have done things that started the ball rolling—or at least gave it momentum. While it’s true that eventually they end up being cut off socially or that people mysteriously overreact or “blow up” in their presence, when you talk to others about the situation they point to the victims and suggest that they may have initiated the problem. I’m acutely aware of the fact that sometimes we blame victims as a way of making the world seem more safe and sane for all of us and that doing so is completely unfair. This is a known psychological phenomenon and I don’t want any part of such thinking. However, I’m also aware that there are often two sides to a story.

Generally when I’m brought in to consult in similar circumstances, there are not complete victims or villains. Usually everyone involved has played a role. As the spouse, listen to your husband carefully and see if you can uncover something he may have done to cause the hostile reaction. Watch him in action in similar situations with friends or family. Is it possible that he’s unaware of something he’s doing?

For instance, I’ve watched people talk to colleagues about a problem, and when they reported the conversation to others afterward they appeared innocent. However, during the actual conversation their tone came off as patronizing or insulting. These people are terrific at having a surface appearance of innocence while simultaneously making people angry. Then they point to the anger and ask, “What’s wrong with them?” I was once asked to consult with an executive who was routinely judged as being arrogant. He knew what people thought of him but nobody ever told him what he actually did. I watched him in action until I saw him do things that appeared arrogant and then described this behavior in detail. He hadn’t intended it, so he needed an outside observer to point it out to him.

You get the idea. If the behaviors are subtle, seek them out and talk about them openly. If your husband is truly an innocent victim, treat him as such.

Thanks for submitting this question. I know I have equivocated a tad, but I’m merely trying to help you think through the event in its entirety. You husband is lucky to have a loved one who is looking out for him.

Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Big Bosses and Bad Behavior

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Kerrying On

Yesterday a colleague of mine told me that the company he works for has a rather interesting practice. At the end of every quarter, no matter the company’s financial state, the sales team holds four meetings a day for two weeks. During each, they talk via conference call with the big bosses. The first call is devoted to that day’s tactics. Twice more during the course of the day they talk about how things are going. Then at the end of the day they conduct a post mortem to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Four meetings a day sounds a bit intense—maybe even like overkill—but not particularly worth further comment.

Then my friend sprung the punch line. The first conference call starts at 4:30 A.M.; the last starts at 11:30 P.M. It seems that the execs want the sales team to put in a minimum of seventeen hours a day for two straight weeks. It’s all part of their “maximum commitment” culture. The senior leaders want to model total devotion as well as an intense passion for hitting the numbers. Apparently one of the bosses read an article that suggested that if you really care about something, you make a big show—you know, make a huge personal sacrifice. Let people know that you’re not all talk and no walk. This particular group of leaders chose to walk alright—only they chose to walk on the backs of their sales force.

Here’s the weird part. According to my friend, nobody quits. They complain a lot and heaven only knows that their families are really miffed about the practice, but somehow they’ve convinced themselves that if you really care about something . . .

Besides, the execs aren’t asking something they themselves don’t do all the time. “They’re a bunch of characters,” is a common reaction from other people. However, as employees describe the founding owners who are known for their long hours and raucous behavior—often involving lots of liquor, gambling, and cursing at their assistants—they begin to sound more like selfish curs than “characters.”

No less than an hour after hearing about these execs, I read in the newspaper about a leader who had been caught with a prostitute in his fancy car in the parking lot. But the tone of the article wasn’t critical—it sounded more like a PR piece touting the leader’s chutzpah.

It seems that this founding leader is a technical genius who is entirely misunderstood and whose contribution to the world of marshaling electrons exempts him from having to follow the rules of common decency and courtesy. Once again, the employees quoted in the article spoke of him with something approaching reverence—justifying a long list of behavior that would get anyone else fired or even jailed as a natural side effect of misunderstood genius. They spoke of him as a “genuine character.”

A dear friend called me that very same day to tell me that his sister Marinda had just completed a trip with her boss, the founder of a well-known company. He too, she explained, is a character. When the meeting with the other company’s president didn’t go well, the “character” blew a gasket and called Marinda a vile sexist term to her face. When Marinda attempted to change the subject to their client’s objections, the boss called the widely respected president the same thing—repeating the vile words. When asked why she tolerated such abuse, Marinda explained: “He’s one of those young geniuses who has carried the company on his intellectual back. I guess he’s earned the right to be a bit quirky.”

In fact, she went on to explain that the fellow’s quirky (although frequently abusive) behavior was what gave their company an edge. “When you learn to snarl at the world, break social barriers, and spit in the face of convention you get good at thinking outside the box.” So instead of arguing that her company has done well in spite of the president’s arrogant, abusive, and insulting actions, she recast them as the force behind their success. Somehow “in spite of” had transmuted into “because of.” This clever transformation, of course, not only dismisses the disgraceful actions, it also suggests that the founder’s roguish behaviors need to be both rewarded and replicated.

Here’s the scary part. As you listen to the employees of these quirky, outside-the-box (and often abusive) founders, many take the same route as Marinda. They brag about their off-kilter leaders and determine that their offensive behavior is okay because they’re being suffocated by unduly repressive social norms. They just have to strike out at those around them in order to release their misunderstood genius.

This tortured logic, of course, is nothing more than a steaming pile of . . . untruth. Anything that profoundly disrespects the basic humanity of those around you never makes things better. Anything that abuses, insults, and demeans people only makes the world a worse and less effective place. Anything that deprives people of their dignity or shackles them to their desk can only contribute to your eventual failure. And finally, anything that results in the enormous transaction costs associated with repeated abuse (e.g., complaining, hiding, getting even, giving up, etc.) will eventually bring any organization to its knees.

So how do these “characters” continue to survive? Every time there is a group of thugs whose founding genius masks their bad behavior, it is invariably the original idea—the technical breakthrough—that causes their success. When an idea is big enough to lead to a near monopoly, companies can continue to survive despite leadership actions that would cause most organizations to fail. Create a large enough competitive advantage and you can house a whole host of “in spite of” behaviors.

If it’s true that it’s big ideas that cause success and not the weird actions of a handful of leaders, then how is it that we routinely conclude the opposite? How do we find a way to transform “in spite of” to “because of”?

First, it’s hard to determine cause in complex social interactions. Who knows? The company is doing well and the bosses have created this weird culture; maybe it’s the weird aspects that make it work. Stranger things have happened.

Trust your gut on this one. If it walks like a duck, flies like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If actions appear inexcusable, they are. A healthy leadership style and work culture would make the company even more effective.

Second, we often transform “in spite of” into “because of” due to a powerful psychological effect called cognitive dissonance. To quote the renowned social psychologist Leon Festinger, “Rats and people come to love the things for which they suffer.” As counterintuitive as this may sound, when you’re forced to do something you don’t like or are treated badly, you can say it was a painful waste of your time (adding to your growing depression) or you can paint a happy face on it.

Humans often take door number two. Apparently we all have a feel-good cheerleader embedded deep inside our heads and, by golly, we routinely turn lemons into lemonade. We think to ourselves, “The poor treatment must have been good for me. That’s it—it helped mold my character.”

The third reason we label a disease a remedy stems from our tendency to bundle negative and positive attributes into one massive and inseparable thing we call personality. For example, I was recently talking to a friend who runs the HR function for a large law firm. He complained that flamboyant courtroom lawyers who are applauded as geniuses in front of a jury are allowed to be egotistical lunatics with the other members of their firm. Not only have these long-winded geniuses earned the right to be prickly and proud through their courtroom brilliance, but, according to the firm, that’s just how “those types” are.

Apparently you can’t be brilliant with the jury and a valued and respectful coworker all at once. Nope. Apparently personalities come like bills sent to the Senate—each with quasi-insane riders that nobody really wants attached—but you have to take the bad along with the good. That’s just how things are.

Finally, we often allow ourselves to conclude that bad behaviors cause good outcomes because we don’t know how to confront the bad behavior. If we speak up, we figure our career is toast. When people in positions of authority are at fault, who’s going to battle that lost cause? At first we hate what our bosses or coworkers are doing to us, but since we feel powerless to change it, we decide that maybe the mistreatment is not really so bad.

Consider the case of the salespeople who are routinely forced to work from before the crack of dawn until nearly midnight. They don’t like it. They don’t even think it’s good for them or the company. But then again, they don’t complain either—not to the big bosses anyway. This means that sooner or later they have to conclude that they’re spineless wimps, or that maybe (upon further review) the quirky strategy isn’t so bad after all.

The solution to all of this incessant “perfuming-the-pig” lies first in admitting the truth. Bad is bad and always will be. Calling bad good just makes it that much worse. Second, we must willingly and ably speak up when we observe inappropriate behavior—whatever the source and no matter how many other people are arguing that it’s good for them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to label the bad good if we know how to make it go away. I know this can be challenging, maybe even impossible in some cases, but certainly not always. I’m reminded of watching a skilled leader at Ford Motor who one day turned to his coworkers and asked, “Are we going to continue working hours that are killing our health and harming our families or are we going to find a new way?” Nobody had wanted to speak first, but this fellow finally did.

His willingness to confront their pressured brand of workaholism would have been downright dangerous if he hadn’t discussed the problem with such a wonderful blend of candor and professionalism. His ability to master crucial conversations took away all the risk. Instead of unleashing his pent-up anger in an ugly outburst that eventually would have haunted him, the Ford executive calmly raised the issue and discussed it in a way that made it safe for everyone to weigh in with their hidden concerns. It was something to behold and led to a change in the lives of dozens of people. In my view, this ability to stand tall in the face of crippling silence is the brand of everyday heroism that every organization could use.

Now, many of you may be thinking that you don’t have to work seventeen-hour days and people don’t curse one another in your company, but you do see things that simply aren’t right. Don’t let them continue. Step up, speak up, and if necessary, skill up. Learn what to say and how to say it. We’ve written two books on the topic. But here’s my addition to these two works: If nothing else, become good at pointing out one important fact. “Because of” and “in spite of” are two different animals. It pays to know which one you’re facing.