Tag Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Dealing with Unethical Behavior

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

Recently, I have been put in a very difficult situation. My CEO wants me to do something I consider very unethical; he has also instructed me not tell anyone about it. I am very concerned. First of all, I don’t want to do it. Secondly, I don’t want to withhold things from my boss. Also, I feel like I am becoming the “fall guy.” If the CEO gets caught, I will be the one blamed and fired. How can I explain to my CEO that I don’t want to be part of this unethical thing without losing my job?

The Fall Guy

A Dear Fall Guy,

There is no easy answer here. I will not mince words with you. You face risks either way. If you comply, you will compromise your morals, undermine trust with your boss, and expose yourself to sanctions. If you decline, the CEO may feel it is a risk to keep you around. Or he may externalize his guilt through aggressive action against you. If he has crossed the line of innuendo and made overtly unethical demands of you, you must accept these risks and respond accordingly. The world has changed and you must respond to the reality you’re in.

First, plan for a worst-case scenario. You feel most powerless when you are least prepared for the worst. Increase your own sense of safety and control by limiting your downside risk. Document everything to ensure you can defend your rights for wrongful termination or progressive aggression should either occur. Talk to a lawyer. Involve HR or others with fiduciary responsibility to protect your rights. You are most vulnerable when you are most alone, so get support.

Then, act to create a better scenario. Having taken appropriate steps to reduce your risk, you will feel more empowered to take some risk. If you feel that the CEO is redeemable, consider confronting the issue directly with him. The best way to help someone feel safe when asking them to acknowledge moral lapses is to genuinely appeal to their best self. If your relationship is strong enough, start the conversation by inventorying those things that you admire in the CEO. Then candidly disclose that this recent request is out of character. For example, you might say, “One of the things that has appealed to me about my job is the chance to work for a man I admire. When Anna was ill and you personally paid her out-of-pocket medical costs, I thought, ‘This is a company that cares about people more than profits.’ That is why your request that I inappropriately allocate revenues in our financials has been surprising to me. That is not how I see you.”

Finally, help him find a way back. Having confronted the issue, don’t leave him alone. Explore the motivations that drove him to act unethically. Help him find a creative and honest way to accomplish the same goals. Often our first moral lapses are bad ways of accomplishing good things. It is only when a lapse becomes a habit that corruption becomes intrinsically appealing. You might say, for example, “We can shift accounting staff to work on aggressively reducing receivables. Would extra liquidity accomplish the same thing?”

I honor you for taking a stand. Take it wisely and this agonizing circumstance may bear unanticipated fruit.



Crucial Conversations QA

How to be Genuine During a Crucial Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

I try to use crucial skills in my workplace but have struggled to sound genuine and have even turned people off with my approach. I’m no actor and I sometimes have to take a moment to recall some techniques. However, I’m worried that I might still be coming off as too calculated because of some of the formulas I generally follow.

For example, during a content or pattern conversation I use a contrasting statement, then describe what I noticed versus what was expected, and finally end with a question as to why that was the case or what info I am missing. Judging by the other person’s silence, I get the feeling they feel put off by what probably seems like an insensitive show, but I don’t know how to make it any more natural. I’m being as candid as possible while trying to avoid all of my own messy emotional reactions. Have you encountered similar resistance to your techniques before?

Yours Truly,
Awkward Actor

Dear Awkward,

Thanks for your question. New skills often feel awkward at first, and the last thing you need is awkwardness when you’re trying to be your very best. I do have a few tips that might help.

Sense and respond. First, walk away from the formula. Instead of using the skills as a series of sequential steps, use the process as a map. Listen to the other person, ask yourself where you are on the map, and then respond. This sense-and-respond process will feel more natural for you and for the other person because it puts a greater emphasis on listening. It makes you more responsive to what others say, and it makes your responses more brief.

Here’s an example. Suppose you begin with Describe the Gap. State the facts about what you expected and what you observed, and then pause to listen. As you are listening, ask yourself where you are on the map: “Do they understand and agree with what I expected?” “Do they agree with what I observed?” “Are they telling themselves a different story about the gap?” and “Are they feeling unsafe?” Depending on what you hear, you will respond with another skill.

For example, if they don’t agree with the expectation, you will review the facts. If they are telling themselves a different story about the gap, you will use CPR. If they appear to be feeling unsafe, you will use a contrasting statement or another skill to restore safety.

Get your heart right. We used to try to teach fairly sophisticated acting skills, such as how to look concerned, how to appear nonthreatening, and the like. In fact, one of my side jobs in graduate school was with a legal firm, teaching witnesses how to appear less shifty-eyed under cross-examination. But that’s a whole different life.

What we learned is that if we get our heart right, all the subtle nonverbal cues we send out become consistent with our message, and we become natural. However, if we don’t get our heart right, then few of us are good enough actors to appear to be anything but awkward, unnatural, and insincere. So we no longer try to turn ourselves into actors. Instead, we change our hearts. I’ll remind you of a couple of mental skills for getting your heart right.

First, use the Start With Heart skills. Ask yourself what you really want long term—for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. Let that long-term goal be your North Star. It should guide your conversation and keep you on track.

Second, use the Master My Story skills. Remember, when we feel frustrated or angry, it’s because we’ve drawn an ugly conclusion about the other person. We are telling ourselves an ugly story. Change your emotions by interrogating your story. Here are three questions I use to interrogate ugly stories: a) “Do I really have all the facts I need to be certain my story is accurate?” b) “Is there any other more positive story that would fit this same set of facts?” and c) “Why might a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?” Asking myself these questions changes my emotions by opening my mind to new and different stories.

Don’t worry too much. Once you have your heart right, don’t worry too much about the rest. People focus on your heart, not your head; they focus on your motivations and intentions, not your facts, logic, and argument. Others may see that you are frustrated or angry with them, but they will also see you are trying to control your anger, and that you respect and care about them. And that’s a good message to send.

Stop sooner and more often to listen. At VitalSmarts, we’ve spent a lot of time studying opinion leaders—people who are especially respected by their peers. However, there is another line of research—people who study “low self-monitors.”

Here are two hallmarks of being a low self-monitor: a) If you think of a conversation as taking turns, low self-monitors don’t give you your turn. They monopolize conversations. b) Once you do get a chance to speak, low self-monitors don’t sense and respond. They don’t change course based on what you’ve said. For example, if you say, “I’ve already heard that joke,” prepare yourself, because you are about to hear it again.

What we’ve learned is that we are all likely to make these two errors when we’re in a crucial conversation. We want to be at our best, but we act like a low self-monitor. Can you see why? We tend to focus on ourselves and on what we’re trying to say, and we stop focusing on the other person. The trick to avoiding this trap is to stop and get the other person to respond sooner and more often.

Practice and make the skills your own. My final tip is to find your own words and phrases. Integrate the skills into your everyday conversational style. Set aside some places and times when you will look for chances to use a skill here and a tool there—not the whole process but pieces of the process. Practice the pieces and make them your own. You’ll find the process becomes a part of yourself.

Best Wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Speaking Up To The Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m trying to follow the chain of command in our organization when presenting ideas and suggestions, but the ideas seem to stop at my boss and never get to the people who would benefit from the suggestion or idea. My boss doesn’t like conflict or change, believes that getting along is more important than addressing issues that might cause conflict, and doesn’t see the value in sharing feedback unless it is to tell people they are doing a good job. How can I motivate my boss to take action on ideas presented to him to improve our organization?


Trying to Address Change

Dear Searching,

You are not alone in feeling stuck in this situation. Many would agree that influencing or motivating upward is a tough challenge. It’s tough to speak to leadership about behaviors that are negatively impacting the quality of work or the quality of work life. It’s tough to speak up about ineffective systems or stifling bureaucracy. It’s tough to tell your boss that you have more on your plate than you can do without feeling like a whiner. It’s tough to speak up when your boss overtly or subtly makes it clear that he or she does not appreciate you speaking up. And a key word here is boss—the person who can impact your ability to make your mortgage payment next month. So, it’s tough. I know that. I’d like to share some advice I’ve formulated over the years.

1. Frame the challenge in the best possible way. This is, of course, a variation on the crucial conversations principles: Master My Stories and Make It Safe. Start by asking yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person (yes, your boss) act this way?” Why is he not passing ideas on or not encouraging or inviting others to speak up? What would make it safe enough for him and yourself to have this conversation? Make sure that you clarify Mutual Purpose and are prepared to be very respectful when you bring up the issue. You want to make sure you come across as curious and helpful rather than frustrated and judgmental. Also, don’t speculate and focus on the possible negative outcomes. We often exaggerate possible negative consequences and underplay the positives. That strategy causes us to vote for staying silent—thus voting for the status quo.

2. Talk about the right issue. In tough situations, we are often tempted to bring up a simple, easy topic and not the real one. In your particular case, the easy issue is that you made a suggestion and it wasn’t passed on. The real issue is that your boss has a pattern of not passing on ideas and that means that you and your colleagues face the same problems at work week after week. The real issue may be that you see yourself and others becoming disengaged and thinking that nothing can be done to change the situation. As a part of your preparation, you’ll want to do a consequence search. What are the consequences of the boss’s behavior? Who is being impacted? Teammates, other departments, customers, you? How? When you find the consequences, you are prepared to talk about the tougher issue.

3. Make sure it’s safe, then talk. Not all times and situations will be equally safe for your boss. Of course, the first goal is to make it safe by mastering your clever stories and getting your motives and emotions right before you open your mouth. When you meet with your boss, if your face is saying that you’ve held court in your head and found him or her guilty before your mouth says anything, the boss will hear the first message. Also, you should consider other factors that create safety. You don’t want an audience. Privacy makes this conversation safer. You will also want to choose a good time. You will know if there are better times—some people are more receptive and have fewer work demands or stresses during certain times of the day or week. And when you talk, start with an observation and question, not a conclusion and emotion. It’s always hard to create scripts in a vacuum, but one that might be helpful is: “I’ve been excited about the new employee involvement program the company has initiated. I’ve noticed a pattern over the past three weeks. Each week, two or three suggestions were given to you and I hear that those have not been passed on to the committee. I’m wondering if we could talk about that. Would that be okay?” In your conversation, you want to honestly and empathically understand the reasons and jointly seek solutions.

4. Know what you’ll do if it doesn’t work. There are a variety of responses you can expect. 1) You and your boss talk about it and find a solution or not—but you are talking and that’s progress. 2) The boss agrees to a solution and then doesn’t change (which leads to another conversation about the pattern and the relationship). 3) The boss gets angry—maybe loudly, maybe quietly. On a bell curve this response is an anomaly and yet many people magnify the tail end to be the middle of the curve. They inflate the small percentage of this happening to a large number and thus choose silence and gossip rather than speaking up. If you play the real odds, you choose speaking up in a safe way. Whatever the reaction, it’s always wise to have some backup plans.

If it doesn’t go well with your boss (it’s not safe, he gets emotional, etc.) there are two possible backup plans you might consider:

a. Share your intentions and excuse yourself. Tell him that you brought up this topic to improve the results and teamwork in the company and that you didn’t intend to cause him any stress. Express thanks for his time and find a way to leave.

b. Suggest a team approach. If appropriate, you might propose that the improvement program can be done by members of the team. After the suggestions are vetted by the team, one team member could take them to the Employee Involvement Committee. This might fit your boss’s preference or style better.

For either of these plans, you need to assess what is happening in the moment and what might be the best next step. The point here is that you’ve anticipated some next steps, so when one option ends, you have a way forward. Preparation and sound anticipation improve confidence.

Speaking up to your boss can be tough. Yet I remind you that if you don’t speak up, you are voting for the status quo. Also, if you gossip or speak up in a frustrated, angry, or judgmental way, you’ve diminished the relationship. Either way, you have become part of the problem. On the other hand, if you can speak up in a safe, considered, and planned way, you are much more likely to solve the problem and build the relationship.

I wish you well,