How do you explain to an alcoholic employee that his drinking is affecting his job? How do you deal with an employee who glares at you when you walk into his office because he hates decisions you’ve made? What do you do when your biggest client asks if she can pay an overdue bill next year? How do you tell your business partner you’re having an affair with his wife? In business and in life, stuff happens. Unless you talk about it, say the right things, and come up with solutions, really bad stuff happens. So Crucial Confrontations, the newest book by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (McGraw-Hill, 2005) is important. It and the authors’ earlier work, Crucial Conversations, can teach readers how to deal with broken promises, violated expectations, and other bad behavior. Patterson talked with me about the techniques his group has discussed.
Our readers are entrepreneurs with 5 or 10 or 15 employees. What are the typical crucial confrontations in their office? The No. 1 way people find employment at small businesses is through networking, friends, and family. That is not a great way of hiring. Rather than going to Monster.com and getting 200 resumes, of which 20 are eminently qualified and 5 are very good, small business owners often hire people they know or are connected to though friends or family. There is less likelihood at a small company that they have gone through a rigorous search process to find the right people. There is always a chance when you are working with people that they are not going to live up to your expectations. But it is even more so at the smaller companies because of the way they hire people. Every time someone on the staff lets you down, it’s exacerbated by the fact that you may have hired friends and family members whom you are less likely to feel comfortable confronting about not living up to a promise or not being qualified in ways that you thought they would be. Personal habits, hygiene, or how they talk with customers–any one of those problems. We find in smaller companies people are less willing to step up to a confrontation about them.
Are crucial confrontations more important because of the era we live in? My grandfather was trained in social interaction at a card table, playing cards with his parents and sitting out on the porch and talking in the evenings. If they had differences of opinion, they argued. He lived in a much more social world than we live in. Electronics have replaced conversation with participation–watching from a distance. We watch TV more than ever, rather than having a conversation. Children who play video games used to play baseball and argue with each other about the rules. Now they sit quietly next to each other in parallel. We used to go to dances and listen to soft music and talk to each other. Now, the music is so loud, you can’t even hear conversation. While technologically we are becoming more confident than our predecessors, I have little reason to believe that conversationally and interpersonally we are. With the advent of the microwave, fast food, and mom and dad working, people don’t have dinner at the table where they use to have confrontations and conversations and talk. Now you put people in a cubicle or an office and give them e-mail, and they just dash off nasty things to each other. So people are less qualified to meet face to face. Our society is less interpersonally confident. TV creates bosses as bad guys. They are abusive and insulting and attacking. I had my students watch every TV show that had a boss interacting with an employee.
So Donald Trump is not a role model? Everything about that show is horrific. His leadership style is repressive. His two key people shake in his presence. He makes capricious calls based on the worst kind of analysis. It’s the worst of leadership. Trump’s personal style is abrasive and insulting, and he is an egomaniac.
You say that knowing what to cover in a crucial conversation is so important. Let me give you an example. I’m at a meeting with a bunch of grade school principals when one tells me about a little girl who said something racist to another little girl, and she in return calls her “fatty.” Now you have a racist comment and an insulting comment. They call the parents and tell them they are going to discipline the children. One parent says, “You can’t discipline my child,” and comes down and yells at the teacher. The teacher says the girl is going to have her eat lunch with a teacher’s aide and be deprived of playing with her friends as punishment. The mother says, “I’m going to take her out for lunch on a special mother-daughter date,” essentially confounding the authority. She’s pitting the child against the authorities, she’s refusing to allow them to discipline, and she is treating them in an insulting way. There are four different problems right there. When you’ve got a big bundle, you have to slowly unbundle it. You have to look at the one issue you care about most, the one that you feel will have the biggest impact, and deal with that. Most people move too quickly. They go for the easiest thing or the most emotional thing, and it may not be the right target at all in a crucial confrontation.
What do you do? Ask yourself: “What is the problem?” Then, “Am I angry? How am I going to come across? What is the first sentence going to sound like?” If you are perfect at this, you don’t need to do this. Maybe you don’t even have to think about it, and the words just flow out of your mouth. But most of us are not perfect at this. We have avoided confrontations. When we step up to it, we stumble through. Preparing yourself is slowing down. Slowing down may mean thinking about the situation. Sometimes people will find it helpful to write it all down. Most people have a confidant, a friend, a spouse whom they talk to in advance, and even practice the conversation. We have had people get great results by reading about it, thinking about it, practicing, and then going in.
Explain the Groundhog Day phenomenon. The concept is named after the movie starring Bill Murray. Phil Connors, an obnoxious meteorologist, is forced by some cosmic event to relive the same day over and over again. The movie says that until you get it right, you are going to be forced to live through the same thing over and over again. The reason we applied that metaphor to people we watched is that they often deal with the same problem the second, third, and fourth time as if it were the first instance. This is inappropriate. The first time someone doesn’t do what a manager requires, that is a single instance. The second and third times, it is becoming a pattern that is more serious. Eventually you find it is affecting relationships. And that is the third thing a manager may want to discuss. The conversation may very well be, “I’m starting to wonder or not whether or not I can trust you because it has been two or three times. I’m having to follow up more frequently, and I’m feeling like I’m micromanaging you.” That is a different conversation than you have with someone who does not follow a procedure.
What is the right way to start a crucial confrontation? The biggest problem in starting is that people have already passed judgment before they open their mouths. In the first 30 seconds, you set the tone. But that tone is really set in your own mind before you even open your mouth. Before you confront someone, you want to think, “Gee, that’s a good person, I wonder what happened.” And then walk up to him and say, “Larry, you said you were going to have it to me at 3 and I notice I didn’t get it. I was wondering what happened?” That’s a best practice. You have assumed the best of the other person and described the problem in an upbeat tone, and it sets the tone for the rest of the conversation or confrontation. More often than not, people get ticked off about something and say, “I can’t believe it. You don’t care about me.” They start telling themselves ugly stories and those stories are really emotions. And even at that point, if we decide we are going to be on our best behavior, we are not going to be. The tone of voice will be different, the language, body posturing. All of that is going to set off the person to become defensive. The rest of the interaction is going to fail.
You talk about confronting people with safety. You want to make it safe for the other person to openly describe what is going on. Rather than charging at them, insulting them, attacking them, you try to make it safe by describing what you observed and not drawing negative conclusions. That is the first step. If the person becomes defensive, then offer her safety by helping her understand your good intentions. You may say, “Gosh, I really want to talk about how we can solve this problem in a way that works for both of us,” so that she knows that your intentions aren’t to punish people but to work through a problem. That makes everyone feel safer. You say something like, “I don’t want you to think this is a huge problem, because it really is not, and I want to catch it early on.” Reducing the scope of the problem helps create safety. It makes it much easier to move forward in conversations.
You also suggest that you introduce a confrontation by making a 15- or 30-second opening statement and then asking a question. You are diagnosing the cause behind the issue. When someone lets you down, the most common reaction is to think they are uncaring and want to see you suffer. The truth is they may have run into a barrier–their boss may have cut them off in the hallway and said, “I’ll take care of it,” and then didn’t. There are lots of reasons that a person may have not delivered on a promise that are very different from what you may be harboring in your head. So it is important to stop and diagnose and say, “I was wondering what happened,” and really mean it. That opens it up for the other person to talk. They may be guilty in the sense that they didn’t do it, and you will get to that later. But you don’t want to start off every conversation as if everyone is dead guilty. Most people aren’t.
What do you do when someone fails after a crucial confrontation? When you have had the conversation and are still unsuccessful, you need to come back. Now the conversation is that you talked earlier, and we worked on things and the problem is recurring. Why are you still having a problem? It may be that there are other barriers that need to be removed. It might well be that the person doesn’t have the ability to perform the task. You may have to say, “It has become evident that you can’t handle this task, and we are going to have to remove you from it.” In some cases, that means removing a person from his job. This is not about keeping everybody in every job. This is about addressing problems directly. When they can’t be resolved to your satisfaction because people don’t have the ability, you remove those people from their position.
Many managers are authoritarians. What’s wrong with that? We live in a complicated world where managers manage people who know more than their manager knows. You can’t just tell them what to do. Today’s generation is highly participatory, more educated than ever, and expecting to be involved. With dependence on a subordinate who is expecting to be involved, you’d better not be authoritarian. You will pay the consequences through turnover or even worse, spiritual turnover, which is when people quit in spirit and stay around for the pay and benefits but do the least amount possible.
Editor-at-Large Andrew Gluck, a veteran personal finance reporter, is president of Advisor Products Inc. (www.advisorproducts.com), which creates client newsletters and Web sites for advisors. Advisor Products may compete or do business with companies mentioned in this column. He can be reached at email@example.com.