Crucial Conversations QA

Revisiting the Past

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My current job is being eliminated, and unless I find another position in the company, I could be facing a layoff after twenty-two years with the company. The job I would really like to have reports to a manager I used to work for and with whom I didn’t get along.

The manager and I never resolved our differences. I am intimidated by this person. I seem to say and do things that set him off–certainly without intention. I want this person to understand that I have a great deal of respect for his intellect, for his accomplishments, and for his leadership. But I do not want to come across as a brown-noser, and certainly, I would like for him to consider me as a serious contender for the vacant position in his group.

Any suggestions that you might have for me in terms of my approach with this manager would be greatly appreciated.

Signed,

Very Anxious

A Dear Very Anxious,

I couldn’t think of a better example of a situation where a crucial conversation must be held. Congratulations on recognizing it. So often we fool ourselves into thinking we’re coping with avoiding a crucial conversation, while we act in ways that perpetuate and even deepen the problem. You are right on target in believing that a failure to address the relationship problem will affect the outcome.

In truth, this crucial conversation is somewhat easier than many others. The reason is that your goal is just to find out what you were doing wrong in the past relationship. It’s always helpful to examine your own role in relationship problems, but when your very motivation for a crucial conversation is–as you said–to find out what you say and do that “sets him off”–you’re in a great place. You’ve applied the “Master My Stories” principle marvelously.

Second comment before some advice: To paraphrase the objective you described, your goal is to be honest and not pathetic. You have two “contrasting” challenges: 1) You want to discredit the story you think he holds about your view of him and help him see how you truly see him (you respect his intellect and leadership); 2) you want to express interest in the job, but without seeming like you’re pretending the relationship was fine.

I set up these “contrasting” statements because they help you design the opening lines of the crucial conversation. Your goal in these first lines is to “Make It Safe.” You’ll do it by helping him understand what your intentions are and aren’t, and what your view of him is and isn’t. By ensuring mutual purpose and mutual respect in this way, you’ll help him feel safe, and you’ll safeguard his accurate perception of your intentions.

For example: “Thanks for making some time. I’d like to throw my hat in the ring for this job. And yet in doing so I worry about a couple of misperceptions. I worry, for example, that based on some of the tension in our past working relationship you might think I don’t support you. I want you to know I have a high regard for your intellect and leadership. I also worry that in saying this now, I will be seen as disingenuous.”

That’s the opener–you’ve clarified your intentions and your respect while avoiding misperception of either. Now, we’ll open the main topic:

“I want to acknowledge that things weren’t always smooth between us, and in some ways I’m confused about why. My goal in this conversation is to get feedback from you about what I was doing that didn’t work for you and see if there’s a way to make it work better in the future. If there isn’t, I would not want the job–or to saddle you with me! If there is, I would welcome the chance to work with you.”

Here you’ve clarified the topic, and also avoided his perception that you’re begging or masking by being clear that you won’t accept the position at any price–both for your benefit and his.

The spirit of your question is so mature that I truly believe you’ll be able to get through this conversation.

Best of luck in your crucial conversation, and in your career.

Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Workplace Violence

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you recommend as a first step when an irate employee comes into a supervisor/manager’s office and begins to shout out a complaint and demand immediate action?

Signed,

Under Attack

A Dear Under Attack:

When I was asked if I’d be willing to answer a new question that had come in, I remember thinking, “I hope it’s something like the following:”

– I have a colleague who splits infinitives. How can I deal with this?

– Last week I asked my son to study ten hours and he only studied nine. How can I hold him accountable?

– My computer is eight months old and I need a new one. How can I get my boss to support my work needs?

But no luck. I get to answer this tough one. A serious one indeed.

When we do our training sessions, we show videos where a colleague, boss, or family member flies off the handle. Some participants say, “That’s way over the top. That would never happen here.” And we can understand that. Other participants, however, raise their hands and with energy say, “Oh, I’ve seen much worse.” I bring this up to suggest that many people do face situations like the one represented in the question.

So here is a response as first steps:

1. First, make sure you are safe. This means physically safe. There are too many incidents of workplace attacks in the news. How do you ensure your safety? Immediately make sure that there are other people visible. Make sure your door is open. Step into the hall to be close or visible to other people. You can often sense in the situation how much your physical safety is risk, but not always. Don’t take any chances.

2. Instead of jumping in to resolve the concern and running the risk of escalating the situation, address the other person’s emotions directly: “I can see this is a serious matter to you. When you talk that loudly, it becomes uncomfortable for both of us. I’d appreciate it if you could lower your voice. I want to listen to you and understand what you want, but I want it to be safer for both of us. Can we take a two-minute break?” This gives you both a chance to calm down and prepare for a more productive conversation. It also gives you the opportunity to make sure the situation is safe–to open the door, get someone’s attention, etc.

3. Find out what is making the situation so “unsafe” for the other person that he or she is shouting. If you explore others’ reasons, you might be able to help understand the data that’s driving their story and fueling their emotions. Once you understand their stories and their data, you’ll know where to begin in resolving their concerns.

4. If these kinds of behaviors are a pattern for the other person, you can not only mention that (“This is the third time you’ve come in upset and shouting. Please calm down”), you can also get an agreement about what is acceptable behavior the next time he or she has an issue to bring up. Clarifying this expectation and coaching the person will help him or her understand what behavior is unacceptable and what he or she should do instead.

I think it’s fair to talk about and then move toward progressive discipline if this kind of behavior is not eliminated.

In summary, make sure you are safe, make sure the other person knows you want it to be safe for both of you, and then deal with the issues that the person is bringing to your attention. Finally, and importantly, deal with his or her behavior and what needs to improve.

Best wishes,

Al Switzler

Crucial Accountability QA

Asking for a Raise

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can I convince my manager to give me the promotion and pay raise I am owed?

This year I came back into mainstream office activity after resolving some personal problems. I got more and more responsibility over the course of the year and my supervisor reassured me he had no concerns about my performance and that he would see about getting me my promotion at year-end.

I recently approached him about the promotion and he said that I first needed to write up my strengths and weaknesses as well as long-term goals. He said he couldn’t support me getting my promotion until he had this in his hands. It seems like he’s adding steps after the fact. It was a big letdown from the expectations he set earlier in the year.

How can I convince him to see my point of view?

Signed,

Put Off

Dear Put Off,

I’ve got a few thoughts that I think could be helpful but I’d like to beg permission to take a few logical leaps here. I sincerely don’t want to be hurtful and yet since we’re not face to face I worry I will be. I trust that you were sincere in your request for advice, so I’ll venture forward hoping you’ll know my heart’s in the right place even if my brain isn’t. Okay?

Let me start with the most abrupt thought. Your very request is worded in a way that makes me wonder if your first challenge will be to change your motives. You asked, “How can I convince him . . . ?” If my goal in a conversation is to convince the other person, then I tend to come at it in ways that reveal my motive. My goal becomes to “be right” and “prove my point” or “win” with all the behaviors attendant to those motives. This is doomed from the outset and tends to cause the other person to resist rather than consider my views.

The goal of dialogue is not to “convince” but to “contribute to the pool of meaning.” You have some very clear and compelling concerns based on your experience that it is important for your boss to consider. And yet, he probably has some other views that you are unaware of. Your goal in the conversation must not be to get your raise; it must be to get a fair and reasonable outcome. Put differently, your goal must be to come to a common understanding of where you and your boss stand. If that is your motive, you will approach this as dialogue rather than monologue.

Second point. The root cause of most violated expectations is unclear expectations. We have conversations and leave drawing different conclusions. Or we remember it differently. Or things change and we assume others are revising their expectations accordingly–and they aren’t! Unfortunately, this advice will be useful in the future but not the present. It is this. If you do not have a written confirmation of your pay and promotion expectations with your boss, then you made a mistake. Never let a conversation about such a high stakes topic end without summarizing and even documenting your agreements. If you have this documentation, it becomes the starting point for the conversation you are trying to have now. If you don’t have it, you have no clear starting point.

Third, given your history (a problematic previous year or two, recently returned, increasing return of responsibilities over the year) and given your bosses response, I have a strong intuition that he is not leveling with you. He may well be putting you off because he has been less than candid about his view of your performance. If that is so, then once again, the purpose of your crucial conversation needs to be to solicit his views and concerns. You must make it safe for him to be totally honest with you about your performance. If you don’t, he may continue to feel a need to be political with you.

Finally, just fill out the darned form. If all he’s asking for is a simple sheet with your self assessment and goals–why quibble about it? You may be telling yourself a story that makes this out to be bigger than it is. The next step in my view is for you to change your story–let this be a small bureaucratic request in your mind not a big retreat from your expectations. Comply with it. And see if that doesn’t solve the problem!

I wish you the best and hope for an outcome that is positive for both of you.

Happy Holidays,

Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Violated Agreement

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

What do you do when someone violates an agreed upon decision-making process?

Four other supervisors and I recently made a process improvement decision. Two weeks later one of my peer supervisors called a meeting that I assumed was a chance to review progress on implementing these decisions. I sent one of my staff who was perfectly capable of reporting our progress. She returned and said this supervisor drove a whole new set of process decisions in the meeting. I called this supervisor to ask why she had done this and she said simply, “I forgot we had an agreement.” My concern is that she not only forgot, but she also drove a bunch of decisions that should have required the consent of the other supervisors. I apologized to my employee for “setting her up” like that.

How should I approach this supervisor? Should I involve my boss?

Signed,

Violated Expectations

A Dear Violated Expectations,

Please allow me to shotgun a bit here. Your situation allows an opportunity to teach a few very important points about crucial conversations. I hope you’ll find some of the points I make relevant to your problem.

First and foremost, I worry that you might be telling yourself a story that is exacerbating the problem. In “Crucial Conversations,” we teach how the emotions we feel are created by us, not by what happens to us. A strict reading of your note suggests that this is the first time something like this has happened. If that is true, then you are at risk if you draw generalized conclusions about the untrustworthiness or insensitivity of your peer. If she said, “I forgot” and apologized, you may be the problem if you are harboring a grudge about it and drawing a deeper conclusion than that this was an innocent mistake. If this is not the first time this has happened, or you have accumulated other “data points” to suggest this supervisor is untrustworthy, then we can move on to the next potential pitfall.

The second thing you might need to remedy is the error of confronting the wrong problem. In “Crucial Confrontations” we teach that the first thing you have to do is be sure you confront the right problem. If things like this have happened before, then the conversation you should be having focuses on the pattern of violating agreements–not the most recent instance. If you confront only the most recent instance and the person explains it away, then you’ll walk away feeling obligated to accept the explanation without feeling satisfied with it. The reason? You confronted the “content” issue rather than the real “pattern” or “relationship” concern you harbor. Again, a strict reading of your note suggests that after your peer said, “I forgot” you let the issue drop. You allowed the conversation to turn from, “I thought our agreement was not to change process without all four supervisors present” to “Why did you change the process we had agreed to previously?” Can you see the difference? The first is a decision-making process conversation. The second is a content issue related to a decision you thought you made. There’s a difference. And when you accepted “I forgot,” you allowed the topic to change to the wrong problem.

Finally, I hear a lot of “expectations” in your question but not a lot of explicit agreements. For example, it sounds like you “expect” that all four supervisors will agree on process changes. You “expected” that the meeting you sent your rep to was about implementation status. If you did not make these expectations explicit and even document them, then you may have been part of the problem. It is absolutely essential in emotionally and politically risky situations to be crystal clear on how decisions will be made, who will do what by when, and how you’ll follow up. If you are not carefully specifying and appropriately documenting these key decisions, you leave room for your expectations to be violated and for you to tell yourself stories that villainize those who contribute along with you to violating them.

My advice at this point is (assuming this is a single instance concern):

1. Master Your Story – ensure you are seeing your role in creating this problem–that you are seeing it as a single instance problem and not a deep character flaw in your peer–and soften your emotions accordingly.

2. Have a crucial conversation about the decision-making process first with the specific peer, then with all four supervisors. And document the agreement in a brief e-mail!

Best wishes,

Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Increasing Safety after a Promotion

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve entered that magical world of senior management, but now I feel I know less than I did when I was a middle manager. I have to dig harder for the truth, and work harder to prove it is still “safe” to talk with me. Two months ago a lot was shared with me–now that isn’t the case, and even my staff members, who were once my peers, share less.

How do I demonstrate “it’s still me”?

Signed,

Outside Looking In

A Dear OLI,

You’ve described a situation that lots of people have experienced–that is, when you have power, how can you help others honestly share what’s on their minds? This situation can arise when you move to senior management, when you are the person on your team with the most experience or the most technical knowledge, when you are the new manager, or when you are the parent. All of these require some insight and skill to help others feel “safe” talking with you.

Here are a few tips we’ve learned as we’ve studied people who are very effective at helping others feel safe.

1. Remember the past. The situation you’re facing might have been created by the other person’s past experiences–with you or with someone else. I recall just such an experience. We were doing interviews in an organization that was, to be delicate, struggling. People were tight-lipped, nervous, and cautious. Occasionally someone would share the example of a manager who yelled at employees–Murphy. Another would tell a story of how employees were belittled by a boss–Murphy. Still another got emotional about how some supervisor had limited an employee’s career–Murphy. Later that afternoon, we asked one of the new executives if we could interview Murphy. We couldn’t. Murphy had retired seven years earlier. But his ghost, his memory, still stalked the halls of this organization. Many of the new managers, newly promoted managers, and even old managers who had never mistreated an employee were treated like they were Murphy–or at least next of kin. Managers and supervisors had to deal with this history when they asked others for input.

Sometimes we are living with a past that we personally created. I remember a man sharing with a group as he was going through Crucial Conversations training, “I’ve got it. Finally. My kids are nervous around me. Why? For 99.9 percent of the time, I’m Dr. Jekyll, and only .01 percent do I lose my temper and become Mr. Hyde. But my children are always looking for Mr. Hyde.”

When you have to deal with situations clouded by the past, remember to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act nervous or unsafe?” Are there situational or historical factors that are influencing him or her?

2. Share your intentions. We learned from dialogue masters to clarify issues by Contrasting. A Contrasting statement clarifies what you don’t intend and what you do intend. This helps the other person understand your good intentions and dispels worries about selfish or harmful motives. Often the “don’t” part is the most important. For example, when you’re beginning a talk with a person who is hesitant to share, say something like, “I’d like to talk about this topic candidly. I wonder if there has been some hesitancy on your part because I’m now in senior management. I don’t want to let my new position get in the way of important communication that needs to be shared. My intention is to be a good listener so that I can hear the issues that affect you and the job. What do you think?” It may take a time or two–or three. The main issue here is to deal with mutual purpose–what do both of you want?–rather that dealing first with the content of any particular issue.

3. Be consistent. If you want to get input from people who are hesitant or feel unsafe, you have to be consistent. After you share your intentions and try to understand others’ points of view, keep up the process of engaging them in dialogue. Ask, listen, and respond. Sometimes the response will be “Great idea, let’s do that.” Sometimes it will be, “Interesting, let’s discuss what that means to our budget or to customers.” Once in a while, it will be, “Let me repeat what I heard. Is that right? I see that differently. Can we compare our points of view?” The main point is this: To have people believe that you are really interested in hearing their thoughts, you have to consistently make it safe for them to share over time. Then come trust and credibility.

Safety is not easy sometimes. But dealing with it is essential.

May you have terrific results from your efforts!

Al

Crucial Accountability QA

Legal Dilemma

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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QDear Crucial Skills,

I am a corporate lawyer. I have been trying to tell our VP of Legal Affairs that I believe the company is at serious risk for litigation on an issue. Each time I do she cuts me off without listening and argues that we’re fine. I see major holes in her counterarguments and don’t believe they would stand up in court. This particular issue is a specific area of expertise of mine. The VP–while very smart–has no real background in this particular area. Mainly I just want her to listen to and consider my points. If after listening she still thinks she is right, I am fine with her making the final judgment.

This is especially risky because she has a short fuse and both yells at and fires people who disagree with her. How do I get her to listen on this important issue that I’ve already unsuccessfully approached her on several times?

Signed,

Gag Order

A Dear Gag Order,

It’s interesting to me how often our answers are embedded in our questions–particularly when it comes to crucial conversations. Other people (like me) look smarter than they deserve when they do little more than play back what you just told them. I believe that may be the case with your question. You ask the question, “How do I get her to listen to us on this important issue that I’ve already unsuccessfully approached her on several times?” My first piece of advice is to have a conversation with her about precisely that. Don’t talk to her about this issue. Talk to her about your inability to talk to her about the issue.

If you ever find yourself having the same conversation twice, odds are you’re having the wrong conversation. If your real concern is how the conversation is going, then that’s what you should be talking about. Now, with that said, it’s important to ensure that she feels safe when you do talk. Otherwise she’ll likely attribute bad motive to you (you’re doing this because you’re arrogant, or gunning for her job, or whatever) and then she’ll feel totally justified in yelling at you or firing you. Not a good outcome. In the critical first 30 seconds–what we call the “Hazardous Half Minute”–of this crucial conversation, you must do three things:

1. Make it safe. Help her know that you respect her and that you care about her best interests.

2. Describe the gap. Describe factually what has happened compared to what you expect to have happen. Be sure to avoid hot, judgmental, emotional words that would damage safety.

3. Make it motivating. Help her understand the natural consequences of her not engaging with you on this topic–obviously emphasizing consequences she’ll care about.

Here is a possible script just for illustration. Your choice of actual words will best be informed by your best guess at what makes her feel unsafe when others challenge her and what consequences motivate her the most.

“Ms. Finch (for fun let’s pretend she’s Atticus’ daughter), I have a concern I’d like to discuss if that’s okay. I want you to know my whole reason for raising it is to be sure I’m doing the job I was hired for, and to be loyal to you in every best sense of the word. Can I take a minute to share my concern? (Make it safe–clarify your intentions and respect). Here’s the concern: On three occasions I’ve attempted to describe some legal risks I see on issue X. On each occasion you’ve disagreed so quickly that I have not been able to do justice to my argument (Describe the gap). Here’s my concern–I don’t think you want me to check my brain at the door. And yet that’s what I’ve felt tempted to do. I’m also absolutely sure that you care a great deal about this company–and hope you see me having the same value. I know you wouldn’t lay low if you saw a big risk–and I suspect you’d see me as delinquent if I did the same (Make it motivating–give her a reason to listen to you and describe motivating natural consequences of not listening). May I have five minutes to make my argument? After that, I’d like to have you shoot holes in it–and give me permission to do the same with your points if that’s okay?”

Now–I don’t know that this is the right script. But so long as your VP has some good motives somewhere inside her, I think I’ve accurately described your objective. In the first 30 seconds, you must Make It Safe, Describe the Gap, and Make It Motivating for her to listen to you. Once you get started–particularly if she’s an impatient person and begins to cut you off again–you’ll need to hold her to the agreement she just made. Very politely remind her of her commitment to your five minute speech–and continue on. Then be sure to be true to your commitment to listen to her counterarguments and support her final decision.

I especially loved your question because your attitude is 100 percent right. Organizations are not democracies. We don’t all get to vote about the final decisions. But we do have an obligation to speak up when we have important meaning to contribute. You clearly do–and I wish you the best in discharging your responsibilities!

Warm regards,

Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Micromanaging Revisited

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I read with interest the Q&A posted 9/8 (“Being Micromanaged”) and handled by Joseph Grenny.

I’d like to reverse the scenario and ask what should the manager who believes that his/her direct report is “wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability” do? As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. With one employee I recently approached this crucial conversation perhaps too delicately. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Thank you,

Dr. Delicate

A Dear Dr. Delicate:

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

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

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

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

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person. The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as: “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

2. Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”: a choice where we see only two options–both of them bad. (e.g., “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.”) In reality, there is often a third, better alternative: You can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?” Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship…you can get both.

3. Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation. When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened–I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

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

Best wishes,

Al