Kerrying On

Border Guards

Unintended consequences—we’ve all experienced them. You have a well-intended idea, give it a whirl, and then something unpleasant results. For instance, you’re trying to assist a colleague at work and you end up slowing things down. Or perhaps you help a friend write code and insert a bug into the program. Or perhaps you point out that a new employee is doing something wrong and he ends up getting knocked out and dragged feet first down a half-dozen stairs while his head bangs on the cement steps. You know, stuff like that.

It was 1971 and I had just been put in charge of the clothing locker located at the Coast Guard’s boot camp in Alameda, California. It was our team’s job to outfit new recruits with their uniforms. This would have been fairly easy had it not been for one tiny problem. We weren’t the first to see the recruits. By the time we began our work with them, they were frightened to death. They would stand stiff and zombie-like and be fitted poorly. A few weeks later, many would have to return to be refitted which was time-consuming and expensive. If only we could encourage recruits to relax—be less zombie, more Gumby.

So I suggested to my boss that we stop the traditional practice of forcing initiates to strip down and stand unclothed at the beginning of the fitting. From my boss’s reaction, you would have thought I had suggested that we have the recruits put on prom dresses and dance with velociraptors.

“Not stand naked?” my boss exclaimed. “Why, it’s tradition! If you want to build men, first you have to tear them down. What better way than through humiliation?”

“But it’s hard to measure and fit them accurately when they’re humiliated and nervous,” I explained. “What if we find a way to make the recruits laugh? You know, tell a joke or something.” So it became part of my job to “do something” to make the recruits laugh.

To get a feel for the humor quotient of the recruit audience we faced every week, consider what they did the five days before they marched into the clothing locker. From sunup to midnight, boot-pushers screamed at them nose-to-nose while calling them flattering nicknames like “maggot” and “puke.” Sometimes they were even marched into the estuary, rifles held over their heads, until someone nearly drowned.

As the next group of recruits dragged their terrified selves into the clothing locker, I was all set to tell a joke to get them to laugh, relax, forget their recent brush with death, and be easily measured. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself within minutes. As the platoon of sixty young men stood there sans clothing, I noticed that one of them was starting to put on his newly issued undershorts backwards. Seizing the moment, I pointed out that the fellow in question didn’t even know how to put on skivvies! Ha, ha, wasn’t that a real stitch!

Fifty-nine pairs of eyes darted to the singled-out trainee—as if staring at a prisoner climbing the gallows. The boot-pusher who had been training them ran over to the skivvy-confused recruit and pushed him so hard that the recruit fell backwards and knocked his head on the cement floor. He was out like a light. A few minutes later, when the medical team arrived, they saw that the injured party was “only a recruit,” so they grabbed the unconscious fellow by his feet, dragged him across the room and down the cement stairs—head thumping all the way.

Good intentions—bad outcome. I had wanted frightened initiates to relax but ended up putting a fellow in the infirmary. Fortunately, the young man quickly recovered and graduated with his unit, but the remaining guys in his platoon didn’t exactly relax. Watching their colleague’s head bounce down the stairs didn’t have the calming effect I was hoping for.

Our ultimate goal for changing the outfitting experience had been to turn the clothing locker into a safe haven. This was not simply for measurement purposes, but because none of us working there wanted to contribute to the harsh treatment that was central to recruit training. We had all experienced it, hated it, and hadn’t bought into the notion that recruits needed to be broken before they could be shaped into men. Pushing recruits to the limit—that was all okay—but abuse wasn’t.

We also knew we couldn’t change the entire boot camp experience by ourselves. Nevertheless, we figured we could at least create a refuge where individuals were treated respectfully. We could stand at the border between the clothing locker and the rest of the base, and do our best to maintain a professional and respectful atmosphere.

Sadly, I didn’t know how to be a border guard. But for the next year I was determined to learn how. Over time, I discovered dozens of methods that allowed me to be an effective border guard. And eventually we were successful in creating a safe clothing locker.

Most of us assume the role of border guard more often than we might think. As parents, we refuse to embrace some of our own parents’ bad habits, which is good news for our kids. We do the same at work. We refuse to use guilt, threats, or looks of disgust to motivate. We filter out the bad and nurture the good.

But doing so isn’t easy. Border guards frequently question their efforts. Can they really make a difference without any formal authority or power? And what if lots of people around them act in unhealthy ways? Can they have an impact? What if their efforts to make improvements actually create problems?

The good news is, border guards make change possible. Organizations don’t change one morning when 1,200 people awake and—voilà—simultaneously start acting differently. Changes typically take place in small groups that are led by leaders (formal or informal) who play the role of border guard. In fact, that’s how the Coast Guard’s boot camp was eventually transformed into an organization that now leads the country in human performance technology.

As a final note—sometimes the borders you defend are small yet extraordinarily important. For instance, your ex-spouse or current life partner routinely chooses abuse over dialogue. Yet you refuse to respond in kind. You’re trying to create a haven for yourself and your children—not a toxic holding tank. And it’s hard. You don’t have control of others’ behaviors—just your own. You may feel hopeless and outnumbered.

Yet you still stand watch.

Fortunately, you aren’t alone and it isn’t hopeless. There are thousands of border guards out there who do their best to transform their homes, work groups, and companies into healthy harbors—and the world benefits from their tireless efforts. I heartily applaud those of you who have a vision of what you believe your family and work culture can and should be, the courage to defend it, and the savvy to make it happen. I congratulate you for standing at the border between your hopeful haven and the harmful world around you and boldly proclaim, “Not on my watch!”

Influencer QA

How to Effectively Merge Company Cultures

Dear David,

My company has recently been acquired. Historically, we have enjoyed a great culture, a profitable business, and high employee satisfaction ratings. I’m concerned that when we integrate into the new company, we’ll lose our “secret sauce”—our unique cultural differentiators that have helped us be successful. Do you have any advice for how to avoid this, or at least how to influence the parent company’s culture for the better?

In Fear of Losing a Good Thing

Dear In Fear,

An organization’s unique culture can be a powerful driver of success. At the same time, there are often elements of a culture that hold back the organization. This mix of challenges is especially apparent during mergers and acquisitions. The different cultures have different strengths and weaknesses, and you want to emerge with the best of both.

I’m going to use one of our clients, a healthcare organization, as an example. We’ve worked with this organization as they combined several formerly independent hospitals, each with its own culture.

Culture lies below the waterline. We use an iceberg metaphor to illustrate the relationship between the visible parts of an organization and its more hidden cultural elements.

Above the waterline is the tip of the iceberg you can see. In an organization, this includes explicit goals, strategies, structures, processes, and systems. This is the organization’s not-so-secret sauce. These are the parts that are talked about the most. They are planned, tracked, and evaluated. They are on every leaders’ radar screen.

Our healthcare client had a very explicit above-the-waterline goal and strategy. They wanted to become a “destination” health center—a place that would draw patients from several states. This explicit strategy guided their structure (they built a children’s hospital, cancer and heart centers, and a medical school, and purchased several regional community hospitals); it guided their processes (implementing integrated IT systems); it guided their reward systems (creating incentives that encouraged community hospitals to refer patients to their centers of excellence); and it influenced its people policies (switching from using community physicians to using employed physicians).

Below the waterline lies the bulk of the iceberg you can’t see. In an organization, this includes implicit norms, values, hidden assumptions, unwritten rules, and behaviors. This is the organization’s secret sauce, its culture. An organization’s culture often goes unseen, unrecognized, and undiscussed. It’s like the adage, “fish discover water last.”

An organization’s culture is often derived from local regional norms, professional practices, values the founders held, and the like. It’s a source of great strength and vitality, but can also include contradictory and unproductive elements.

Because culture lies below the waterline, it is often ignored or neglected by leaders—especially during times of change. And this is certainly the case during mergers and acquisitions.

Here is the problem: most leaders focus too exclusively on above-the-waterline strategies for change. Yet, the most typical dangers—the obstacles that sink change efforts—lie below the waterline. Change plans run into cultural norms, and as Peter Drucker is credited with saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Our healthcare client also had to deal with many cultural elements. For example, many of the community hospitals they purchased felt as if they’d been “taken over.” Many of these small hospitals had been founded by religious orders (from several different religions), and saw their secret sauce as being a sacred sauce—not something they wanted to lose.

Identify Your Secret Sauce. While culture includes norms, values, hidden assumptions, and unwritten rules, it is expressed through behaviors. Behaviors are the key. The rest—the norms, values, etc.—are the influences that create and maintain the behaviors. When dealing with culture, we begin with behaviors. Specifically, we look for what we call vital behaviors. These are behaviors that are linked to many others. They are nodes in a network of behaviors. When you move a vital behavior, it brings many other behaviors along with it.

We helped our healthcare client identify vital behaviors related to patient safety, quality of care, patient experience, and employee engagement. In this case the senior team identified two:

1. Speak up whenever you have a concern, regardless of your role or position.
2. Hold each other accountable, regardless of role or position.

These vital behaviors were the secret sauce the overall organization needed. Some of the different hospitals and professions within the organization already demonstrated these vital behaviors at a highly reliable level, while others didn’t as much. And the influences—the norms, values, hidden assumptions, and unwritten rules that supported or undercut the vital behaviors—were different for each part of the organization.

Conduct a Six-Source Diagnosis. Identify the influences that are keeping problem behaviors in place. Look for obstacles in each of the Six Sources of Influence™.

For our healthcare client, the data helped senior leaders identify the obstacles that kept people from speaking up and holding each other accountable. But we wanted more involvement in the assessment process. We brought together groups of opinion leaders and formal leaders from across the hospitals and had them identify obstacles. Altogether, more than five hundred formal and informal leaders participated in these workshops. And these workshops weren’t outsourced to consultants or HR. The entire senior team led each workshop—sending a powerful message about their priorities. Below are a few of the obstacles participants identified:

• Some people didn’t want to “hold others accountable.” They saw that as management’s job.
• Some people didn’t know how to speak up without sounding disloyal.
• Some people didn’t want others from “lesser professions” to hold them accountable.
• Some accountability conversations required management support or support from respected peers. This support was spotty in places.
• People thought promotions went to those who “kept their heads down” and “stayed out of trouble.”
• There weren’t many times, places, or opportunities for feedback and accountability conversations.

Build a Six-Source Change Plan. The teams identified five to ten robust strategies in each of the Six Sources of Influence. Below are a few examples of the strategies they identified:

• Personal Motivation: Have staff rotate into areas they support, so they experience the challenges by standing in others’ shoes.
• Personal Ability: Formal and informal training in speaking up and holding others accountable. Create scripts for specific patient situations.
• Social Motivation: Have managers and opinion leaders lead the training to show their support.
• Social Ability: Identify physician champions to support the norms on each unit.
• Structural Motivation: Create small and simple rewards to recognize people for speaking up.
• Structural Ability: Create regular times and places for crucial conversations. Use posters, screensavers, coffee cups and the like to remind people of the new norms.

The organization tracked this initiative at three levels:

1. They tracked how the six-source strategies were being implemented.
2. They tracked the vital behaviors, using a quarterly pulse survey that assessed whether people were speaking up and holding others accountable.
3. They tracked the results—impacts on patient safety, quality of care, patient experience, and employee engagement.

Their results have been stellar. They’ve achieved dramatic reductions in hospital-acquired infections and patient falls; they’ve improved several key measures of quality; they’ve moved into the top ten percent on patient experience scores; they’ve reduced turnover; and they’ve achieved consistently high scores on employee experience.

This has been a lengthy answer because I want to do justice to your question. We create our organization’s culture, but the “we” needs to include senior leaders, managers, supervisors at all levels, and opinion leaders from across the organization. It is truly a team effort. We at VitalSmarts have helped several organizations navigate this journey with great success. At an individual level, I suggest you begin by reading our book Influencer and attending Influencer Training.


Crucial Accountability QA

How to Deal with a Distracted Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,

My brother has a small IT business and usually employs four to five people at a time. He recently employed a twenty-year-old college student we’ll call Mark. Because of his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy, Mark had to stop studying and finds himself raising a family. His family situation is complex; he commutes about an hour to work and then another hour to the opposite side of the city to his girlfriend’s home. The baby is three months old and there are tensions in their young family.

My brother wants to help this young man, but at the same time, finds himself paying good salary to someone who shows up late, leaves early, and has constant distractions at work. Mark is often visibly tired and drowsy. My brother has considered letting him work from home, but I advised him against it. Adjusting Mark’s schedule to part-time is another option, but would mean a pay cut to Mark. My brother knows he is up for a crucial conversation with Mark. What is the best way to approach this?

Out of Options

Dear Out of Options,

This question hits so close to home for me! I have a fifteen-month-old daughter and commute over an hour to VitalSmarts each day. If not for the crucial conversations I use at home everyday to relieve the natural tensions of a blended family (I also have four children from my husband’s first marriage), I could be Mark!

Your question brings to mind a question I have often considered—is it possible to bring too much heart to a conversation? It seems clear that your brother has the best of intentions toward Mark. He actually knows what is going on in Mark’s life, which is not something all employers can say. Second, he is actively seeking solutions that would help Mark and considering the impact of those solutions on Mark. Both of these things demonstrate a lot of heart. But does he have too much heart? When do you say enough is enough?

Honestly, I think it is impossible to bring too much heart to a conversation or a relationship. An overabundance of caring and concern is never a problem. However, an imbalance of caring and concern is.

Years ago, I read a wonderful article about the pitfalls of being a small business owner. One pitfall was caring too personally for the individuals in your employ, who are often also related to you. The author pointed out that small business owners hold on to poor-performing employees too long, often at the expense of other employees.

The key then is making sure you are balanced in your concern. In Crucial Conversations, we teach that you assess your motives (Start with Heart) by asking not only what you want for the other person, but also what you want for yourself, for the relationship and for others in the organization. So you must balance your concern for yourself and the needs of others with the needs of Mark. Allowing Mark’s poor performance to persist not only has negative implications for your brother, but it’s also unfair to the others who work for him.

So here is some practical advice for your brother and everyone out there who has a “Mark” in their life.

First, get really clear on your expectations. What exactly needs to be done? Does it matter how or when it is done? What constraints are you operating under? It is imperative that we challenge our own assumptions about how work is done, the biases we have about different schedules or approaches, and the norms we may be operating under without even realizing it.

It is easy to think, “I need someone here from 8 a.m.–5 p.m.,” because that is how it’s always worked in the past. But it may be true that it is more about the work getting done than the person being present. Is work from home or flexible work-time an option? If not, why? What are the barriers and are they worth removing? The answers are less important than the clarity around them. For some roles, people absolutely need to be in an office space. Some roles must be from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. That is fine. Just make sure you know why, and that you are clear about your expectations.

Next, communicate the gap. Once you are clear in your own mind on the expectations, articulate them for the other person. Make sure Mark is as clear as you are. Then share the gap you see between your expectations and his performance. Make this 100 percent factual. At this point, it isn’t about why there is a gap or even what the gap means. This is solely about clearly communicating the gap.

Finally, diagnose what is causing the gap and start brainstorming how you can close the gap. As you do so, make sure you communicate your Mutual Purpose. Your goal should be to close the gap by finding a solution that meets both your expectations and Mark’s needs. Be open to diverse ideas about this. Anything that meets your expectations and Mark’s needs should be discussable, even if it is something you wouldn’t have thought of or aren’t initially comfortable with.

One last caveat—it is not your brother’s job to solve this problem by himself. When we care a great deal about someone, we often think we need to figure out the solution and then present it to them like a gift. We think, “Maybe Mark could work from home? Or maybe he could work part-time?” Thinking through alternatives beforehand is not necessarily a bad idea. Just be careful that you don’t unilaterally decide on the solution beforehand.

The purpose of the dialogue is to involve Mark in finding a solution, to help Mark understand where you are coming from, and to make sure Mark knows how much you care. This may mean that the conversation is really a series of conversations, one in which you discuss the gap and others in which you brainstorm solutions over time.

I wish your brother luck in working through this situation.


Community QA

Why You Shouldn’t Hold a Crucial Conversation

The other day, it seemed the whole family woke up a little rushed and even more crabby. As we all tore around the house looking for socks and lunchboxes and jackets, my eyes began that familiar wander toward all the not-yet-Pinterest-worthy spots in the house. Another unwatered plant! That broken window-pane! This out-of-control closet! And the emergency earthquake kit—with expired provisions—that will certainly be the death of us all when the big one hits!

My tyrannical mental march around the house ended when it was time to take the kids to school. Drop-offs were quick and I soon found myself alone with my thoughts as I headed home to work side-by-side with my husband for the rest of the day. While driving, I planned how I would hold my hubby accountable for his role in contributing to the mountainous collection of things not-yet-done. But I’d had that conversation before and knew how it would surely go. And I didn’t think I would be enjoying the rest of my day very much. So I decided NOT to give voice to my criticism this day. Instead, when I was least in the mood for it, I walked back into the house and invited Gary to go for a walk with me. And he did! As we walked, we held hands. We talked. He even asked if he could take me out for breakfast. A lovely impromptu date with no mention of household tasks. Later that day, I mentioned I thought there was a lot to do and he agreed. We made a list together and started putting tasks on the calendar. Success!

I know Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase “Lean In” to mean something different, but when I think about how to stop getting in the way of myself at home, it feels like a helpful mantra to lean TOWARD the people I love (when I’m most tempted to give them a good talking-to). Here’s what my new Lean In mantra is teaching me:

When the children whine, don’t tell them to stop. Just lean in for a hug.
When someone complains, don’t tell them to be grateful. Lean in with empathy.
When I feel disrespected, lean in and model respect.
When I want to control outcomes, lean in with choices and flexibility.

As my ever-wise husband likes to gently remind me, not every conversation needs to be a crucial one. As Valentine’s Day approaches, perhaps the best gifts include not just the conversations we need to have, but in some cases, the ones we don’t have. I’m working on it.

How about you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

BS Guys

Why We Lie: A Surprisingly Simple Way to Spur Greater Honesty

Fifteen-year-old Jake is a high school basketball star. We invited Jake to go into another room and toss beanbags through holes of various sizes in a plywood target, then report back to us with his final score. Our hidden camera recorded that he scored six out of a possible fifteen points (not too good for a basketball phenom). As Jake approached our table to report his score, we wondered—would he embrace his shame and tell the truth? Or would he lie to get the extra $1 per point we promised him? Eighty percent of his colleagues in our experiment had lied. Would Jake follow suit—or fess up?

Most of us lie. Studies have shown that lying is actually the natural order of things. From the time we are small, we learn there are powerful incentives to say what works rather than what’s true. The question is, why? Do we lie because we are morally bankrupt from birth? Or is there something more fixable going on? Given the importance of trust to healthy relationships, families, and communities, how can we help people do the unnatural? How can we, in spite of all the immediate incentives to do the opposite, influence people to tell the truth?

The answer—at least in part—is surprisingly simple. And it begins with understanding one truth: most of our immoral actions are due not to moral defect, but to moral slumber. Thus, what we need is not a radical exorcism, but a bit of a wake-up call.

Let’s set lying aside for a moment and look at a different example of ethical decision-making and how little it takes to influence people to make decent choices.

Have you ever wondered whether a cook having a bad day takes it out on your food? Ryan Buell and colleagues from Harvard Business School did a fascinating experiment in a restaurant to test the effect of cameras on food quality. In one condition, customers were able to see the cooks as they prepared their food. In another, it was the reverse—cooks were provided with screens showing diners receiving their food. Which intervention would you guess made the biggest difference in food quality? Surprisingly, it was the second! You might think allowing customers to inspect quality would put cooks on notice and compel better quality. It didn’t. What made a difference was not inspection but connection. When cooks could see those eating their food, they cooked better (as judged by customers) and faster (as judged by a stopwatch)!

All the cooks needed in order to care more about taking care of customers was to feel connected to them. It’s easy to get morally dozy when you can’t see the effect of your work. And it’s remarkably easy to invite people to greater integrity by simply connecting them with the moral and human content of their actions.

Now back to lying and the beanbag toss. In the first round of our experiment, we asked teenagers to report their own scores (which we verified using a hidden camera), and we paid them $1 for each point. Eighty percent of the subjects lied. Some of them lied by more than 200 percent. And ironically, many of these kids had recently attended a Bible study class!

In the second round, we tested the power of a self-administered moral wake-up call by simply encouraging participants to think about their own morals.

Psychologist Albert Bandura suggests that you and I spend most of our lives morally disengaged. We make choices without thinking about their human consequences. When our phone buzzes as we drive in freeway traffic we feel tempted to read and respond to the message. When we do, it’s not because we don’t care about the safety of ourselves and others. It’s because we aren’t thinking about safety. We’re thinking instead about the profound urgency of the text message reverberating in our mobile device. If cooks make better choices when they feel connected to customers, would teens make better choices if given an opportunity to connect with their conscience?

After explaining the beanbag toss to the second-round subjects, we gave them a slip of paper that asked them if they were willing to commit to be honest about their score. Then we invited them to sign a statement committing to do that. All chose to do so.

Jake was one of the second-round subjects. After completing his pitiful performance he approached the table, hung his head, and with a self-conscious smile, told the truth: “I got six.”

When participants were invited to think about their own values and make a voluntary commitment to abide by them, the outcomes were completely reversed. This time, 80 percent of the subjects told the truth.

The most powerful way to improve the moral character of our world is not policing, but connecting. We can help one another stay morally engaged by simply connecting people with their own values and with the consequences of their choices.


Kerrying On

Wild Dogs and Card Catalogues: An Ode to the Cloud

It was the wish of Bellingham School District No. 501 that starting in the seventh grade, each student write a weekly theme and an annual term paper—and continue this practice throughout all of his or her junior high and high school years. Themes were easy. I would sit down and write whatever cockamamie idea came to mind, turn it in, and then have it torn apart by college English majors who graded my work with a red pencil and hatchet.

Unfortunately, we weren’t taught much about how to actually write. In fact, I don’t remember being taught anything about writing. The theory was: throw young writers in the water and see if they learn to avoid torturing a metaphor. In any case, every week I wrote a paper that would come back marked with terms such as AWK, ¶, and DANG MOD.

This confidence-killing technique was small potatoes compared to the esteem-crushing, soul-sucking damage caused by the annual term paper. Unlike themes, term papers required library research from original sources. That meant I had to walk a mile to my grandfather’s grocery store and buy three-by-five note cards.

“Poe, Twain—and I believe the Bard himself—used three-by-five cards,” My seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Lewis, explained. “It’s how you organize your thoughts.”

Required cards in hand, I walked another mile and a half to the city library to start my research. And yes, I did have to fight off wild dogs along the way. It was the fifties and wild dogs roamed the countryside. No kidding.

Once I arrived at the library, I milled about looking confused until Mrs. Huffington, the reference librarian, asked me if I needed help. This was, of course, said in a tone that indicated needing help was a sign of being hopelessly dimwitted. I told her about my upcoming term paper, explaining that I had narrowed my subject matter from a treatise on the universe to twelve pages about the planets.

Mrs. Huffington sneered at my topic, which she said was “grossly unfocused,” took me to a three-mile-long card catalog, and then stood me in front of the P drawers. I chuckled at the sound of the expression “P drawers,” while thumbing my way through an endless list of references about planets. Eventually I picked a reference, recorded the code required to find it, and headed to the stacks.

After a long and dispiriting search, I came to a group of journals that sported numbers, letters, and secret symbols similar to the code I had written, only to discover that the edition I wanted wasn’t on the shelf. So I hiked back to the sea of boxes, selected another reference, wandered the stacks, found the journal, turned to the section that had the information about planets, and—voilà—discovered that the pages I needed had been ripped out! This heinous act had surely been perpetrated by a previous student who didn’t want to go to the trouble of writing down the information on his three-by-five cards. And obviously they couldn’t photo copy the pages because the copy machines you can now find in every library nook and cranny hadn’t been invented yet.

By now it was growing late, so I exited the library and started down the road that would take me the two-and-a-half miles home—without a single piece of information for my term paper.

It only got worse. Between slogs to the library, I had to read extremely complicated material about the planets—including Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, Mickey, and Dopey. (I was tempted to work this line into my term paper, but came to my senses). I also had to learn about the proper use of Latin footnote terms such as “op. cit.” and “ibid” in preparation for the imminent resurgence of the Roman Empire.

Then came the monumental job of typing the paper on our family’s manual Remington portable typewriter. And heaven forbid I make a mistake! Typos had to be erased with a steel-belted, paper-shredding Eberhard Faber eraser. I made so many mistakes and attempted so many corrections, that my final product was a real dog’s breakfast. It was so trashed, if you held it up to the light, it looked like a papyrus manuscript—had ancient scholars used an Aramaic Remington portable.

After feverishly working on my project for several weeks, I submitted it and eagerly awaited my grade. I had worked hard and was proud of my final document. I shouldn’t have been. It came back covered with red marks of all sorts—and the grade of a C- over a D+.

“Look at this wonderful paper,” Mr. Lewis exclaimed as he held up Sally Welch’s glorious effort. My classmate, Sally, had her term paper typed by her mother on a fancy electric machine, and it had zero typos. Plus her parents had done most of the research and writing, earning Sally an A+ over an A+. But that didn’t stop Sally from smiling broadly as Mr. Lewis heaped on the praise. She was clearly bound for glory. Whereas I, the C- over D+ student, would probably end up in the food services industry as my school guidance counselor had suggested earlier that year. No lie.

At this point you may think I’m about to launch into a rant about questionable teaching methods and egregious inequities. Not so. I’m simply trying to provide background material, particularly for people under the age of forty, for the thanks I’m about to offer.

“What thanks?” you ask. I recently spoke to a group of Google executives. But before I started into my assigned topic, I offered my heartfelt appreciation for their work, as well as the work of other search-engine designers.

I had just completed an entire book, chock full of citations from original material, and in so doing, was not once attacked by a dog. I never had to hike in the pouring rain only to discover the reference book I sought was missing. I never had to pull a journal down from the shelf only to have key pages ripped out. Instead, I cheerfully scooted my computer mouse here and there, occasionally twitched my index finger, and magically uncovered material that years earlier, would have taken days to find.

I now have the entire library of congress—along with just about anything anybody who ever had a thought has had to say—at my fingertips. Thank you search-engine inventors, code writers, data scanners, and people who vacuum and do the plumbing for The Cloud. Thank you for turning our world into a place where information is as available and cheap as air itself.

I know, we’re not always sure what to do with all the information that silently beams into our space in giga-, tera-, and super-giga-tera bundles. Nevertheless, it’s time to offer a “good on ya” to everyone out there who has made information that used to be largely unattainable a mere click away.

My guess is that my grandkids will never have a clue how hard it used to be to research and write a term paper—and I’m fine with that. But one thing is for certain: as they put together their papers, they won’t be chased by dogs.

Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with a Last-minute Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

My boss likes to leave things open for change until the last moment and this stresses me out completely. A few examples:
(1) We were presenting to senior management and had agreed to drop several items from the presentation based on specific logical reasons. Two hours before the presentation, he decided we needed to add those items back into the presentation without reason.
(2) We were launching a high-visibility product—from senior management’s perspective—and he tried to change the launch material that was already delayed going into production. If we had done as he wanted, we would have missed the launch deadline and faced huge embarrassment.
(3) We were in the middle of an event and he texted me asking to change the schedule during the event!

Situations like these are causing immense stress for me. I like to plan things well in advance and do not like surprises at the last moment. How can I successfully communicate this with him?

Stressed Out

Dear Stressed Out,

Great question! And thanks for sharing the detailed examples. Often we have to work back from our emotions to the story that drives them, and then to the facts behind our story. As I see it, you’re dealing with the following:

• Emotions: Stress and frustration.
• Story: “My boss likes to leave things open for change until the last moment.”
• Facts: The three incidents you describe.

Challenge your story. I want to begin by challenging your story just a bit. As humans, we often make what psychologists call “The Fundamental Attribution Error.” We attribute others’ bad behavior to internal dispositions (as you do when you suggest, “My boss likes . . . “), and ignore external factors that might be influencing his or her behavior. Take a bit more time exploring why your boss might be leaving things open to the last minute. Here are a few possibilities:

• He is distracted by other tasks and doesn’t really attend to your priorities until the last minute. Then, when he finally gets his head in the game, he wants to make changes.
• Other leaders he must accommodate don’t pay attention to your priorities until the last minute. Then they demand changes, and your boss passes them along to you—as if they were his.
• Perhaps some situations are so fluid that they really do require last minute changes. (I’d be surprised if this last one is actually true, but it’s worth considering.)

A robust solution to your problem needs to address all of these influences. If you focus too narrowly on motivating him, without acknowledging the reasons for his last-minute meddling, he’s likely to feel attacked and become defensive.

Determine what you really want. Focus on what you want long-term for the organization, your boss, yourself, and for your working relationship. Take pains to avoid a self-focused perspective (such as when you say, “Situations like these are causing immense stress for me. I like to plan things well in advance and do not like surprises at the last moment.”) Instead, focus on the benefits you want to achieve.

Trust me. If you are feeling stress, then others are as well. And the organizational costs of these last-minute changes can be profound. I’ve seen organizations grind to a halt, as managers stop taking action and making decisions because they fear others will second-guess them at the last minute. If you can introduce greater predictability and stability, you will be helping your organization, your boss, and many others—including yourself.

Establish expectations that work for everyone. In our Crucial Accountability course we teach a skill called Describe the Gap. The gap is the difference between what you expect and what you’ve observed. In your case, the gap is between what you expect and what your boss and other stakeholders expect. Your conversation will succeed to the extent you can align these expectations.

I suggest using principles and terms from project management best practices to describe your expectations. A good process involves the right people (your boss and other stakeholders) at the right times, before decisions become last-minute.

Learn how project management is done in your organization and use what you discover in the conversation. Your goal will be to have your boss and other stakeholders commit to following a project management process that will make their lives easier, and improve the effectiveness of the organization.

Move important decisions forward in time. Since the problem is that your boss isn’t making decisions until they are urgent, a part of the solution is to create this urgency earlier. Project plans are supposed to do this by establishing checkpoints that involve people early in the process. However, this involvement only works if people take the plans seriously—if the checkpoints create a sense of urgency.

You need to make sure you are getting people’s mind share and serious involvement when you need it—early in the process. If you can’t get serious involvement early, then count on getting it at the last minute.

Get permission to hold people accountable to the project plan. Your first test will come when your boss and others skip project checkpoints or arrive unprepared. Talk with them in advance about this potential. If they don’t get their heads into the project on time—as called for in the project plan—then the whole planning process will break down, and you’ll be back to last-minute changes.

Some organizations even introduce a shorthand way of referring to the negative cycle. One I work with calls it “Skipping the D” and “Hijacking the D” (meaning “Skipping the Decision” and “Hijacking the Decision”). Everyone knows what these phrases mean and they use them as reminders to hold each other accountable.

I hope that some of these suggestions will work for you. Let me know how it goes.