Tag Archives: Work

Crucial Conversations QA

Addressing Inappropriate Work Attire

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Joseph Grenny is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I need advice on how to have a conversation with a subordinate about her provocative attire. It’s tricky because her clothes are clean and very nice—just more revealing than is appropriate for our office. To make it more complicated, I’m a man and I’m wondering if that should make the conversation any different than if she had a female supervisor. Her attire is holding her back from progressing and limiting how management can use and develop her skills. I’m nervous about discrimination and harassment accusations that could result if I handle this wrong. And yet, I know I need to have a conversation with her.

Revealing Conversation

A Dear Revealing,

Since you’re in a legally sensitive area, I asked Jaclyn, our HR Manager, for some advice. Between Jaclyn and myself, we’ll give you our best thoughts.

1. This is about policy not preference. The first thing you have to do is ensure your company has a clear dress and grooming standard in place. If they don’t, you are on shaky legal ground if you approach a specific employee and make this an issue of personal judgment. If the policy was implemented correctly, it should already have been communicated to all employees, and even signed by them to acknowledge their understanding and commitment. If this step is done right, your conversation will be much easier to hold. So, address any gaps in the policy deployment before opening your mouth with your employee.

2. Just the facts. When you sit down with her to explain where she’s out of compliance, be sure you scrupulously avoid mixing any of your judgments or “stories” into your description of the problem. For example, if you said, “Some of your clothes are a bit more provocative than appropriate for an office setting” you would cross the line into judgments. Rather, refer factually to the gap between what she wears at times and what the policy says. For example, “Our policy says ‘clothing should not be form-fitting or revealing of large portions of the legs, chest . . .” After sharing the relevant excerpts, you could ask how she thought her outfit yesterday, for example, compared to the requirements. Once again, the focus is not on judgments but on facts.

3. Make It Motivating. Mention that part of your interest in holding this conversation is a concern for her potential in the organization. Be sure to mention that. Let her know that a key reason for her to comply is to keep doors of advancement open. Using her career as motivation could help her to keep her commitment while also ensuring she understands your goodwill toward her.

4. Make It Safe. You’re likely to feel uncomfortable in the conversation because it is an area of sensitivity and you’ll be worried she’ll be offended or hold a grudge against you. That’s where make it safe skills come in. I’d encourage you to use contrasting after having shared your concerns to help her understand your motives and respect for her.

For example, you might say, “You and I have worked well together in the past and I want you to know that I do not want that to change. I have a great regard for the quality of your work and have no concerns in any area other than this. This is an uncomfortable conversation for me just as it is for you. I was nervous that you would misunderstand my reasons for holding it and hope you know it is only to ensure I’m doing right by the company while contributing to your development as well.” Using contrasting in this way can help her understand you are not simply doing this to be a prude or to make life hard for her.

You also asked about whether the conversation should be any different given that you are a man speaking with a woman. Jaclyn and I agree that it should not. Your mindset in this conversation is that you have an employee who is out of compliance with a clear policy. Period. You should describe the gap between her current practice and the existing policy factually and respectfully. Then conclude by both confirming her understanding and asking for her commitment to comply in the future.

On a personal note, as I wrote this to you, I reflected back on my first really sensitive conversation with an employee. I was an entrepreneur in a small company and had a half dozen people working for me. One had a tremendous hygiene problem that was offending customers. Sal was 25 years old. I was 17. He was a good friend. I hardly slept for a week as I obsessed over whether and how to deal with the problem. When I finally had the crucial conversation, my stomach was in knots, so I know how easy it is to turn inward when these challenges face us.

And that’s the idea I want to leave you with. The reason we do so poorly in so many of our crucial conversations is that we’re more concerned with how the problem and conversation affect us than we are with how they affect the other person. My selfishness in the situation with my employee made me more worried and less effective than if I had kept my attention on what I really wanted to do for Sal, my customers, and my colleagues.

At last I had the conversation. I don’t recall well enough what I said to be a judge of whether or not I was skillful. But I do remember what happened. Sal began bathing. He bought some new clothes. He got some badly needed dental care. His circle of friends increased. In the next year he got married—something he had longed to do for some time. Now, I don’t take credit for all of that. But in my quiet moments when I deliberate about whether or not to talk to someone I care about, I try to get outside of myself and focus on what I really want for those I care about.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Recovering From an Outburst

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently had an argument with someone at work because I misunderstood what she was saying to me and I said some things in return that I regret. I took your course but the skills went away from me when my emotions kicked in. Now, even though we have met with the clinical coordinator and everything seems to be ironed out, she is very cool toward me. I have apologized and even sent her a card, but I feel I truly blew it and now I’m unsure we’ll ever get back to where we were. Do you have any suggestions about what I can do to help bridge the gap?

Still Embarrassed

Dear Still Embarrassed,

We all make mistakes in our communication with others. The wise among us recognize the error and apologize to the offended person. You, having said things you regret, have taken these steps. You even went the extra mile and sent a card to apologize. Well done.

These actions are all within our control. What are not in our control are the other person’s feelings and response. Others get to decide how they’ll respond to your efforts to set things right. Sometimes they’ll forgive you and move on. Sometimes they decide to hold a grudge. Sometimes they feel hurt and may discount your apology as insincere, or they take it as sincere but steel themselves against you, wondering when it will happen again.

I wonder if the latter is the case with your coworker. Maybe she sees your efforts to be kind and respectful, but is looking, waiting, and wondering when you will lash out again.

In cases like this, consider a metaphor. Your efforts to be respectful and treat your coworker well are like pebbles. Water is like distrust or unease. You drop pebbles into the water hoping they will pile up, build mass, and rise above the water so that your respect and good intentions become the focus and substance of your relationship instead of the distrust. However, your pebbles seem to sink out of sight, making no appreciable difference. The key to changing this situation is to create a new context for your relationship, a way to capture the pebbles and make them count.

Let me share an illustration. As I finished a Crucial Conversations workshop, a middle-aged man approached me. He thanked me for the workshop and said he was the single parent of three teenagers. He had tried to apply the things I had advocated with his children, by consciously and consistently attempting to build trust and respect with them over the last year—but, it wasn’t working. They still distrusted him. He said they were “gun-shy” of him.

I asked him if something specific had happened a year ago. He became emotional and explained that he had come home drunk and “slapped his kids around.” He said that when he woke the next morning and realized what he had done, he was mortified and wanted to die. He vowed to stop drinking and has not touched alcohol since. Over the last year, he has been on his best behavior with his children, not slipping once, but they are still emotionally distant.

I asked him what had happened between him and his children the morning after the hurtful incident. He explained that he sat down with his children and told them how sorry he was for hurting them and asked for their forgiveness. Nothing else was said and every kindness he has offered since, although appreciated, was no more than a pebble sinking in the pond.

For this father, I believe his heart is right and his children are aware of his kindnesses toward them, but they seem to be on guard and wary. Rather than seeing his awful behavior as a once-in-a-life-time mistake, they may fear they got a glimpse into their Father’s real feelings and that he may erupt again at any time.

Picture how the situation would have been different if the morning after the incident, the father had gathered his children and given a heart-felt apology, asked for their forgiveness, then said, “I want you to know as of this moment, I will never drink alcohol again. Never. And I will never raise my hand against you. I will never strike you or hit you. I love you and you can count on my promise.”

Whether or not the children believed him at that moment, he would have created a context for their relationship, a clear set of expectations they could use to hold him accountable. From that moment forward, every sober day would be evidence that Dad was keeping his word. The context Dad created was like a jar of water. Every time Dad kept his word it was like putting a pebble in the jar. Instead of sinking away, it’s captured in the jar and displaces some of the water. Over time, the jar fills with respect and good intentions and empties of distrust and unease.

Even now, it’s not too late for this Father to create a new context for his relationships. This is done by setting clear expectations going forward, and informing his kids of what they can expect from him. Dad could meet with his children, reference what happened a year ago, detail the things he has done to make sure it never happened again—including his having given up alcohol. He could then create clear expectations going forward. “I will never drink again. I will never hit you. If I’m angry, I’ll do what I did during this past year: I’ll talk it through with you. I love you and will keep my promise to you.” If he sets these expectations, even though it’s a year late, the children will not only start putting pebbles in the jar, they may even retrieve some from their memories, and the jar will be filled quickly and their trust restored.

Now, your offense was nowhere near the severity of the Dad in this story; however, the principle still applies. I would encourage you to build a context for your relationship with your coworker. Sit down with her and begin by stating the facts: “Two weeks ago, I yelled at you and called you a ‘yellow-bellied sap-sucker'” (or whatever you really said). “I also apologized to you and sent you a card asking for your forgiveness.”

Having stated the facts, express what you really want for the relationship: “I hope we can have a professional, respectful, warm relationship going forward.”

Next, create the accountability. “In the future, you can expect that I will work hard at being respectful and professional.” You don’t need to obtain a commitment in kind from her; you just need to keep your commitment. In this way, you’ve given her the jar, and maybe because of the way you’ve handled it, she’s already put several pebbles in.

I wish you the very best in your efforts to build good, strong, effective relationships.