Crucial Conversations QA

Letting a Valued Employee Go

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

What does a manager do when a job has outgrown the employee? In this age of rapid growth, often the job a person was hired to do is no longer what the organization needs. In a large organization there may be some other positions to move someone into. In a small nonprofit there are only a few jobs and each one needs to be done well. The person is a good person, well-meaning, doing what they were hired to do, loyal to the organization–but not able to ramp up to meet new demands. This seems to happen not infrequently–at least in the nonprofits I work with.



A Dear Apprehensive,

You raise an incredibly important issue–one that strikes at the heart of many contemporary complaints. In the view of an increasing number of people, companies no longer show loyalty to their employees. Nowadays it’s all about profits. Show a minor weakness and bang!–you’re cut from the rolls. And heaven forbid that a company’s needs should change and now your skill set no longer fits the company’s need set. Bye bye.

The sensitive human inside us cries that this seemingly cavalier attitude is bad and wrong. If employees demonstrate their loyalty by giving it their best effort, then a company should be equally loyal. In fact, that was how successful companies used to recruit and maintain their loyal staff. They offered lifetime employment and received incredible loyalty in return. Shouldn’t we continue to do the same?

Let me deal with a couple of false assumptions. First, the idea that a company needs to offer lifetime employment is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. If people no longer fit and can’t be retooled to fit, they add unnecessary costs, putting everyone at risk. I once consulted with a company that was so dedicated to keeping everyone around that people constantly complained of “dead wood.” Either people had become obsolete and simply couldn’t carry their load or were burned out and WOULDN’T carry their load. In either case, people tired of carrying them on their payroll and found it very difficult to keep their costs competitive. This issue alone very nearly bankrupted the company.

Second, the assumption that companies need to provide people with a safe harbor can be patronizing and insulting. If we’re scared to death of letting people go for what we might consider to be humanitarian reasons, then we’re assuming that the person will not be able to find an equally good job and we need to care for them. In truth, in some cases being let go is the best thing that can happen to an employee. People now find a job to which their talents are better suited, they make a stronger contribution, feel better about themselves, and often are financially benefited. When I’ve seen people get let go I’ve always felt bad about the loss of the relationship but have assumed that they will land on their feet.

I know this can sound like I’m turning a blind eye to disaster, but let’s imagine that the person does find a job but with lesser pay–as is sometimes the case. Now how should we feel? Nobody wants to see a friend suffer, but creating circumstances where people are now in jobs that better suit their talents is always superior from a work perspective. And when it comes to the money, companies can ill afford to play the role of humanitarian or government services. At some point you have to return to the strict business model and ask what best serves all of your stakeholders–from other employees to customers to share owners. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Now, let’s move to the more practical side. If people do become functionally obsolete for any of a dozen different reasons, it does make sense to do your best to help them find a position either by matching them to a better job within the company or helping them retool. Frankly, most companies put more energy into trying to help people find an internal position than they do in trying to help them retool. If you want to look at the limit case, I once worked on a project with engineers and scientists who had spent their careers studying magnetics only to learn that lasers were their company’s future solution. They were then given two years to come up to speed on lasers. The company executives were so amazingly gracious because they had a fifteen year relationship with these talented scientists and were willing to invest in them and reward their loyalty. Over the long haul, it also made financial sense.

If you can neither find an internal position nor help people retool (or maybe they don’t want to retool) then it’s important that you do your best in sponsoring them outside the company. Find out how to best formulate a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference. Allow them access to your resources where possible. Provide flex time as they work their final few weeks. And finally, show them their due respect by assuming that they’ll eventually find a match and land on their feet. As long as you’re doing your level best to give your employees a chance to fit and you consistently treat them with dignity, there is no reason to feel unethical or harsh solely on the basis of the fact that you had to let someone go.

Good Luck!

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Accountability QA

Absentee Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a manager who seems to be missing in action. In all fairness to my manager, my work is independent and in a different location. Nonetheless, his communication is superficial, and he doesn’t act as if he’s genuinely interested in my performance. He’s difficult to find (always in meetings), fails to provide me with crucial information, and continually misses deadlines on information or decisions that I depend upon to do my job effectively. I decided to call him every other week to brief him on my work outlook, issues, successes, etc., but when I do he acts as though he’s in a hurry and I’m taking up his time. I truly find my work rewarding, but working for this unengaged manager is frustrating.


Cut off

Dear Cut Off,

You face an interesting decision. Do you talk to someone who doesn’t appear to care about your job, your results, or your relationship–and by extension might not care about any of your concerns? You weigh the possibilities and wonder if the odds favor you or not. He might suddenly “feel your pain” and take corrective action of some sort. He might smile politely and do nothing. He might act upset and say it’s not his fault that you’re located in a different building and then resent you for attacking his leadership style. Hmmm. What will happen?

So the real question is: What can you do to increase the odds that the outcome will be beneficial?

Before I offer any suggestions, let me say that our own research has revealed that the single best predictor of satisfaction with leadership is frequency of interaction. The more two people interact, the greater the satisfaction. People who are directed and reviewed by individuals in different buildings, or even different states, universally dislike the arrangement. You’re not alone. People rightfully wonder: How can my boss evaluate my performance, coach me, provide me with career advice, mentor me, and sponsor me to a better position without ever seeing me in action?

Within a corporate context, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. The more accurate expression would be: out of sight, out of mind. I mention this because you may want to take a job where you won’t constantly be facing such a large barrier. No matter what you do, the distance can be daunting.

If you love the job itself and really want to stick with it, here are few things you might consider.

First, ask what’s in it for your manager to correct the problems you mentioned. He is causing you grief by not providing you with essential information, meeting deadlines, or making timely decisions. You feel your pain, but if you can’t link his relatively insensitive and unprofessional behavior to something he cares about, you’re dependent on him caring about your pain–something that currently doesn’t seem to affect him.

So, here’s what you have to ask. In what way does his poor performance affect you–and then affect him? For instance, when he doesn’t give you time-sensitive information, you have to track him down, interrupt him in meetings, leave notes with secretaries, call his boss to see if he or she can find him etc. This can’t be pleasant for him. When he doesn’t provide you with X, harming your performance in Y, this is how it affects the department–which in turn causes problem Z for him. The point here is that if you only enter the conversation with the idea of his changing for the sole purpose of making your life better, it’s harder to achieve the results you want. Link his existing bad behavior to the existing negative consequences he’s already experiencing.

Second, ask what can be done that doesn’t call for him to change his behavior. How can you manipulate the environment? The idea of talking on the phone to update him may indeed interrupt him. How about e-mail that he can read at his leisure? There are some fairly decent video conferencing solutions out there. Maybe an electronic face-to-face will work for him. How can you get his support staff to be cued to send you critical information the minute he gets it? The point here is that it’s far easier to manipulate processes and *things* than it is to change human behavior. Look at environmental solutions.

Third, if you do choose to talk to him directly about the problem, bring your best skills into play. In our book Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, we teach a step-by-step process for dealing with crucial confrontations. Here are a few tips from the book.

Be careful with your conclusions. You may believe that your boss is uncaring and unreliable (you didn’t say this, however you could easily conclude this), but this should never be your starting position. Pick one of the behaviors that has you concerned and deal with that behavior only. Don’t pile on a bunch of problems. In a similar vein, take special care not to pile on inflammatory conclusions. Trade “You’re unreliable, insensitive, and uncaring” for “Yesterday I was expecting the O’Malley workup but it didn’t come. I was wondering what happened.” Then stick to the problem of not delivering on his promises. Deal with untimely information, lack of support, and the other problems at a different time. Start small. Stick to behaviors.

Once you’ve decided which issue to deal with, carefully unbundle it. Even though you think you’ve picked one problem, it could easily have several component parts. For instance, if the problem you pick is a pattern, focus on the repeated nature of the behavior. Talk about the pattern, not a single instance. If the problem is now harming your relationship (and it sounds as if it is), then this may be the problem you want to address. Talk about the problem (say, not meeting deadlines) from the point of view of how it’s affecting how you work together. “When I don’t get what I need from you, I end up trying to track you down and I don’t want it to feel like I’m hounding you. I can see that you don’t like it and I’m starting to feel reluctant to follow up. And yet, if I don’t find a quick resolution, it affects my performance.” Pick one problem, unbundle it, and then pick the issue that matters the most. Ask: “What is the one thing I really want to see change?” and then focus on this.

Good luck as you step up to a tough situation. Prepare carefully, be on your best behavior, and hopefully you’ll start to resolve some of the problems that have you rightfully frustrated, one at a time.

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Accountability QA

Outbursts During Church Meetings

Dear Crucial Skills,

During monthly “Church Council” meetings, the norm has been for one or more outbursts to occur. More often than that not, the issue surrounds church finances or something our senior pastor has or has not done. As chairperson of the meeting, how can I best defuse volatile outbursts during meetings while still maintaining an atmosphere where church members feel safe to appropriately express concerns?


Dear Frustrated,

Whether at home, at work, or at a church meeting, sometimes we run into behaviors that we know are counterproductive. These behaviors, like “volatile outbursts,” cause the positive feelings in the room to dissipate and people to shut down. When they shut down, they don’t contribute their questions or ideas and, perhaps more importantly, their level of commitment and engagement decreases. So planning and taking action both suffer. Certainly those are outcomes that no team leader, chairperson, manager, colleague, parent, family member, etc., wants to have happen.

So, the problem is clear and unfortunately widespread. What are some solutions?

Here are some tips and skills that we learned and then shared in our book “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behaviors.” Wow—even the title seems to promise some solutions! So here we go.

Step 1: Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. In training we encourage people not to jump to conclusions about others. We don’t know why they are acting the way they are. It’s easy to mentally categorize them as “insensitive,” “bullies,” or “the last living Neanderthal relics.” We ask, “How come they don’t get it? Can’t they see the problems they are causing?” The cure for labeling other people or for telling ourselves stories that allow us to dismiss them is to ask the humanizing question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human being act like that?”

Could there be reasons that you don’t know? Often we tell ourselves that the other person is acting this way because he or she just doesn’t care about others’ feelings or is being selfish—interested only in his or her own agenda. This question helps us suspend our judgments, be more patient, and seek to understand or diagnose before we act. When we ask these kinds of questions, we don’t vilify the other person. We also don’t oversimplify. Maybe the person has stress at home, or has a constituency that is influencing him or her to “win, and accept nothing else,” or maybe, and this is pretty common, the person doesn’t have the interpersonal skills required when topics get emotional.

Step 2: Safely Describe the Gap. By “Describing the Gap” we mean describing the difference between what was expected and what was observed. You expected productive dialogue, but you instead witnessed emotional outbursts. You can make describing the gap safe by inviting the person to talk in a private setting. You can make it safe by showing in your attitude, your facial expressions, and your tone of voice that you are not frustrated or angry. You have not prejudged the person. Your intentions are to share what you’ve observed, seek to understand, and then to find a solution. It might sound like this, “In our church council meetings, we’d like a very positive climate that is candid and respectful. Last night, you raised your voice, called the decision ‘one of the most miserable in history,’ and then said, ‘Why can’t we do something smart once in a while.’ I believe that affected climate of the meeting and the involvement of the people there. Can we talk about this? I’d like to understand why you acted that way.”

Step 3: Diagnose. Now you pause and listen to diagnose the real cause behind this behavior. You’ll hear reasons why the person is acting the way he or she is acting. The reasons you hear will help you understand whether this person is being influence by motivation issues, ability barriers, or a combination of both. Here is a brief list of some of the possible responses with some annotation.

  • “Oh chill out, it’s not a big deal.” (Motivation)
  • “I know, but it’s so hard for me to control my temper around an issue I care so much about.” (Ability)
  • “Come on, that was just healthy debate.” (Motivation)
  • “John started it . . . did you see how he disregarded my data?” (Motivation)
  • “My leader told me to make sure I didn’t give an inch on this budget.” (Motivation)
  • “I know I have a problem. I’ve offended my spouse and my brother by yelling just this week. I don’t know what to do about it.” (Ability)

Step 4: Seek a solution. Without getting into the details of how to solve them (we have whole chapters devoted to this in “Crucial Confrontations”), let me suggest that you solve motivation and ability problems very differently. For motivation, you help the other person understand the consequences of the problem to self, to others, and to your organization. To solve ability problems, ask for ideas and jointly explore ability barriers.

Step 5: Get an agreement. This last bit of advice is surprisingly easy and often the core issue. Excellent performance begins with clear agreements. There are two points on this:

1) If you get a solution, determine specific steps—we teach who, does what, by when, and follow-up in the book.

2) Determine some ground rules. Often teams have clear goals on technical or business issues like due dates, budgets, and quality standards. They often don’t have agreements that are specific and clear around the more intangible aspects of working together—like cooperation, communication, initiative, or style.

I think getting an agreement about what appropriate behavior means in your church council would help the individuals involved. It might sound like this: “Each of us will be respectful and candid in our communications in the meeting. If we feel ourselves getting emotional, particularly if we get angry and raise our voices, we will pause and ask questions of the other person to get more perspective.” And so on.

Another agreement or ground rule that might help is this: “If someone loses his or her temper in the meeting, we will privately talk to the person to help coach.” These steps can help you deal with an issue that won’t go away unless it is honestly and safely addressed. This is, by the way, what a crucial confrontation is—a face-to-face accountability talk conducted with safety, respect, and candor.

Best wishes,
Al Switzler

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Landing That Job

You’re seated across from an interviewer who is waiting to be impressed. What will make you stand out from the herd? Well, like it or not, it probably won’t be your academic record. Your resume is also a feature that can only serve to eliminate you if you haven’t done it well. Grades, classes, and resumes rarely set you apart.

So what makes the difference? It’s your ability to master crucial conversations that is most likely to land you that job. Every time you talk with a future employer, you’re in the middle of a crucial conversation. Stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.

Why would recruiters pay so much attention to your interpersonal skill as demonstrated during the interview? Interpersonal skills matter because in a real job, you work in a social environment made up of small groups and teams. Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Additionally, individuals who fall apart under the pressure of an interview aren’t going to stand up to the tension-filled conversations offered up most days at work.

Some helpful tips on landing that job:

1. Work on your mindset. Convince yourself that you want the job and you’d be honored to work for the company. Otherwise, you’re not a good enough actor to hide your uncertainty or possible disdain. You can always say no later.

2. Read your audience. As much as the interview feels like it’s about you, it’s not. It’s about how well you’ll fit into the new culture. That means you need to know something about the company and people you’re talking to. Do your homework. Also, as the interview unfolds, watch for nonverbal cues.

3. Practice holding crucial conversations with a friend. Practice both advocating and listening. Ask your friend to see if you speak confidently without seeming pushy or brash, and if you carefully listen. Ask clarifying questions when necessary.

4. Ask for the job. You’d be surprised how many people aren’t offered a job because they didn’t have the moxie to ask for it.

Crucial Conversations QA

Looking for Equality in Pay

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I just found out that another manager in the same profession but with less qualifications and a smaller job is making $14,000 more than I am. If I confront my boss, I’m afraid she will ask where I received the information, but I’m not willing to answer that question. It shouldn’t matter. What to do?

Underpaid and uncertain

A Dear Underpaid and Uncertain,

This is tricky because the answer is very situational. So let me throw a few things at you and invite you to grab any that are relevant.

First, I’m curious about why you can’t share your source. The purpose of dialogue during crucial conversations is to fill the “shared pool of meaning.” This means that you find a way to reduce defenses enough that you and your boss can speak freely about your salary concerns. If you want your boss to understand how you feel, she’ll need to have access to the data behind your current thoughts and feelings of inequity. You’ve got to be able to “share the facts.”

I try to avoid getting into the trap of having information in my head that I can’t admit to having by cautioning those who want to share “gossip”—or even hard data—with me but don’t want me to attribute it to them. When they’re about to open their mouths, I say something like, “Please don’t put anything in my head about someone that I can’t candidly discuss with them.” This lets the speaker know that I expect him or her to take responsibility for what he or she is about to say. There are times when I’ll agree to keep names anonymous—but I want at least to have the freedom to acknowledge that this data is in my head when it affects my feelings, thoughts, and behavior toward another person or group. It keeps me from being the source of my own mistrust and political behavior.

With that said, here are some situations you may face as your share your facts.

– Your boss may want to appropriately change the conversation. If the person who shared this information with you violated a company policy by doing so, your boss will rightfully try to divert the conversation to a discussion of that point. And you can’t avoid it because that is an equally important issue to your concern about pay equity. If this is your situation, you have an ethical responsibility to return to the person who shared the information with you and confront his or her dishonesty.

– Your boss may want to inappropriately change the conversation. If there is no policy against sharing salary information, then you should head off the change of conversation at the outset. Begin with your boss by saying “Some information has come to my attention that I’d like to share. I don’t think it’s right for me to say who shared it because they don’t want to be involved. Also, the source isn’t the real issue in my view.” Having taken this stand, you’re more likely to be able to stay focused on your salary concern.

– Your boss may ignore your attempt to focus the conversation. If even after you frame the topic your boss tries to change the topic to discovering your source, ask her to justify the change of topic. For example, “Earlier I suggested the source wasn’t relevant to my concerns about pay equity. The real issue is whether or not this is true and fair. And you’re now asking for the source. May I ask why that is important?” If she has a legitimate reason, you’ll be obligated to respond. If she is simply irritated that this issue is in the open, she’ll be less capable of convincing you that you need to disclose.

Now, once you’ve teed up the topic, you need to be open to dialogue. That means you need to be open to changing your mind.

It could be, for example, that your “story” about the pay differential is wrong. For example, any difference could be smaller than you heard. Or, there may be legitimate reasons for the pay differential. Or, there could be reasons—but not reasons that you accept. Be open to listening and be open to being influenced. If you aren’t, you’ll create a more defensive climate where your boss will be less open as well. Listen a lot. Ask a lot of questions. When you fully understand, then respond from a position of knowledge.

Finally, be sure to focus on what you REALLY want. I watch many people provoke resistance in salary discussions because their goal is “more money for me!” This violates safety and mutual purpose and drives your boss to silence or violence. Your goal must be to gain fairness, not just get more money. “Fairness” is a higher value that most people are motivated to achieve—and one you’re likely to get your bosses’ agreement to address.

Best Wishes,


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Two Faces of Deference

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Deference: submission or courteous yielding to the opinion, wishes, or judgment of another

One day while waiting for my car to be repaired, I asked Leo, the repair shop’s head honcho, why his crew members kept coming to him with questions. “It’s simple,” he explained. “They aren’t as good at diagnosing as I am. Never will be. So every time they can’t figure out what to do they ask me, I tell them, and then they do it. The truth is, I know just about everything there is to know about their jobs and they don’t. That’s why I’m the boss and they aren’t.”

As I watched the crew in action, it turned out that Leo did know just about everything. He also may be one of the last all-knowing bosses in America. The time when leaders rise to power by knowing everything about every job went the way of the hula hoop—maybe even the buggy whip. Nowadays, most leaders work with specialists who know far more about their jobs than the leader will ever know. So bosses who work for a company more modern than, say, a blacksmith shop, depend on the people who come to work each day to give their best effort—as well as their best ideas.

But what happens when employees believe that it’s not safe to share their ideas or to disagree with the boss? In fact, what if they go along with the boss’s ideas no matter how zany, insipid, or impractical? When this happens, you’re in serious trouble. The people who are closest to the customer or who know the most about their area of expertise are deferring to the boss. If the boss isn’t omniscient like Leo, disaster lies just around the corner.

And yet, deference to authority thrives in almost every business. Most bosses, no matter how enlightened their philosophy or egalitarian their style, face employees who are at least slightly uncomfortable disagreeing with them—some are even terrified. You can find people who willingly dissent no matter the circumstances, but in most companies, savvy employees refrain from quickly disagreeing with people in authority.

In fact, here’s what you yourself may have done: After your boss offers a suggestion you think isn’t all that hot, you initially withhold your opposing view and wait to see if others will take the risk of speaking up. Unfortunately, since everyone is doing the same thing, nobody says anything. Soon it feels unsafe to express your differing view, and you let a half-baked idea go unchallenged.

Now here’s the really intriguing part. Leaders themselves don’t have to do anything to create a climate of fear. Unhealthy deference often stems from their title, their salary, their position, the size of their office, the leather in their chair, and the history of every other boss who ever walked the hallways—independent of the current leader’s behavior. It stems from the images of insulting police chiefs, bureaucratic office managers, manipulative hospital administrators, and every other kind of wacky or dangerous leader that fills the TV airways. Negative images are set in cognitive stone before leaders ever open their mouths. It’s not in their behavior, it’s in the ether.

Let me share with you the two faces of deference you need to be watching out for. First, there’s the problem I’ve been alluding to—employees are afraid to disagree with an idea that they think is wrong (maybe even stupid). Second, there’s the problem of taking a half-baked idea and making it worse by implementing it well. (My favorite quote as of late is: “If it’s not worth doing, it’s certainly not worth doing well.”) Let me share an example of each type of deference.

One day the owner of a company just down the street from my office burst into a meeting and threw a bag of rice on the table. It was one of those bags that you put in the microwave and heat up so you can use it to soothe sore joints. “This is the present we’ll be giving to our customers and employees this year for the holidays!” the boss shouts in a manner that suggests that his idea is actually clever. Nobody wants to rain on the boss’s parade so employees meet his suggestion with their best hint of disapproval—a long pause followed by lukewarm enthusiasm.

The boss doesn’t pick up on the unspoken message. In fact, later that week he hauls two tons of uncleaned feed corn into the office (I’m not making this up). It turns out that corn is cheaper than rice and can work just as well. Soon the feed corn is spreading weevils throughout the building. Next the boss moves the corn outside where disgruntled staff members throw it in the air because the wind is supposed to blow away the dust and chaff—or so people vaguely recall from the movie The Ten Commandments. Next the boss comes up with the idea of sewing the company’s logo on the sack. To do so, they have to buy a fancy sewing machine. Unfortunately, the cloth is too thick so they have to buy another, even more expensive machine. And so on and so on.

The entire time this insane activity is escalating, nobody expresses a word of dissent. Nobody points out that a bag of feed corn is not all that nifty a gift. Nobody dares say that the holiday “bag-o-corn” is now costing a fortune. No one has the courage to point out that they don’t like stepping away from the work they spent years of college training preparing for only to sweat over a sewing machine. Nope, the boss remains clueless because nobody is comfortable telling him that transforming feed corn into a product you can buy for two dollars on the internet may not be all that inspired.

The second form of deference can be even worse. People don’t merely stay mum when they disagree with an idea, they actually take what the boss thinks is a reasonable suggestion and turn it into something outlandish. They do so by trying far too hard to please the boss.

For instance, an Admiral who worked across the bay from my office in Alameda, California tells one of his staff members (my neighbor) that he would like to have “one of those convenient little refrigerators” in the hotel room he’ll be staying in next week. This is at a time when minibars were still new to the hospitality industry, so the hotel he’s scheduled to stay at doesn’t have such a thing.

Not wanting to disappoint a person who actually commands a fleet of ships, the Admiral’s staff has an oversized refrigerator installed in his room. Unfortunately, since the humongous fridge won’t fit through the doors, they have to temporarily remove a window. And since the hotel rooms start on the third floor, they have to lower the refrigerator into the room by helicopter.

Later that week the admiral walks into the room, sees the fridge, and tells his wife, “Look, our room has a refrigerator in it. How nice!” He has no idea that the space that will eventually hold his yogurt cost thousands of taxpayer dollars—nor would he have wanted the money spent that way. It all started with a simple suggestion, but his direct reports really wanted to please him.

So here’s the deal. If you have a nice office with a large desk, a private parking space, and fancy oil paintings on the wall—you can’t make subtle suggestions that will successfully travel down the chain of command without being blown out of proportion. The same is true if you make, say, more than twice as much as the people to whom you’re making suggestions. And people are also likely to defer to you if there has ever been anybody in your company who has been forceful and punitive. Or even if they’ve just heard stories. Frightened by the “ghosts of leadership past,” people won’t say no. They won’t push back. They won’t make your suggestion better. In fact, they’ll turn your suggestion into a command—and often a dumb one at that.

I know this all sounds crazy, but it’s not. For those of you who struggle with the challenge of getting people to comply with the most simple of commands—despite your authority—it’s hard to imagine employees who not only eagerly follow your advice, but who even take it to an insane extreme. And yet it happens all the time.

So what’s a person to do? In my next article I’ll address how to deal with the two faces of deference. For now I merely want to highlight the issue and send out a call for your experience. Send me your most entertaining and outlandish example of deference. What insane idea did the boss come up with that people actually implemented without saying a word? Or what modest suggestion did people blow out of proportion?

Well, I have to run. I’m late for lunch and my helicopter is waiting.

Crucial Accountability QA

Intervening Mother-in-Law

Al Switzler

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


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

At a large family gathering, my four-year-old son threw a temper tantrum wanting his cake and ice cream in a bowl rather than on a plate. My wife told him he could have the dessert on the plate as it was served or not at all. Seeing my son’s dissatisfaction with this arrangement, my mother-in-law stepped in with a bowl and loudly stated, “This is my house, and I am his grandmother, and if my grandson wants his dessert in a bowl he can have it in a bowl.” The whole room went silent as Grandma transferred the dessert to the bowl.

I wish my wife had stood up for herself, but old patterns are often hard to break. I also wish I had stood up for my wife and my son. Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say, I reverted to silence (this was before I read Crucial Conversations). This behavior is not a pattern for my mother-in-law, so I am not sure if this is worthy of a crucial conversation. She can be strong in her suggestions but rarely as forceful as she was on that day.

Would it have been appropriate to have a crucial conversation with my Mother-in-law at the moment of her behavior, to reverse her directive back to my wife’s? If so, can you give some suggestions?

Thank you!!!


A frustrated son-in-law

A Dear Frustrated,

The key question here is one that haunts many of us: “To speak or not to speak?” In Crucial Confrontations, we devote a chapter to this question. The chapter is entitled “Choose WHAT and IF: How to Know What Crucial Confrontation to Hold and If You Should Hold It.”

The steps we teach about knowing WHAT to confront can be summarized quickly. Masters of these skills get the issue clear in their minds by “unbundling” it—they determine if the issue is one of Content, Pattern, or Relationship. Content deals with the specific or original problem. Pattern is the reoccurrence. And Relationship deals with factors such as trust or respect. Figure out which of these is the real issue here.

The question is not only what you should confront, but if you should confront and whom you should confront. There are several people in this situation you could consider.

The person you focused on primarily was your mother-in-law. You mentioned that the issue with the ice cream was not a pattern. However, you also mention that you wish your wife would stand up for herself. That suggests a pattern. Does your mother-in-law intrude, interrupt, or dominate in ways that are a pattern—regardless of the content? Do you need to talk to her?

We offer a few questions that can help you decide if you should speak up: Is your conscience nagging you? Is that little voice in your head frequently whispering—or yelling—“There it is again! That is so unfair! Doesn’t she realize what she’s doing?” Next question is, are you acting it out? Do you talk about your mother-in-law when she’s not there? Do you withdraw or avoid her? Have you ever seen her name on the caller ID and not answered it while at the same time laughing like some fiend in an old movie? Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect, but you get the point. If you are answering yes to any of these questions, you should probably speak to her.

Next is your wife. Maybe you shouldn’t speak up to your mother-in-law. Maybe you should coach your wife. Does she complain about her mother’s behaviors or actions regularly? Does she “bite her lip”? You could coach your wife about speaking up. You could help her unbundle the issue and decide whether to talk about Content, Pattern, or Relationship. If what has you concerned is her not speaking up, talk to her.

Third is your son. He possibly also has a pattern of behaviors that is of concern. He’s just four, but that’s old enough. You can have a talk with him. How would you do that? You would use the same skills that you would use with your mother-in-law or your wife. Use all the skills that help you deal with what’s crucial. Make it safe—keep it private and don’t go into the talk having pre-judged or being emotional. Start with the facts: “I’ve observed this…” “this is what I expect…” and end with a question: “Can we talk about this?”

Remember that if you don’t talk it out you act it out. There are many ways to deal with these issues. You can balance candor with courtesy. You can build safety and have honesty. There are learnable skills that can help all of us improve to address the issues that matter most in our lives.

Best wishes,