Influencer QA

Changing the Culture of a Government Agency

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can you change the culture of a federal agency with constant political leadership changes? Because of constant change at the top, no one actually follows through on strategic plans. Long-time federal employees know that if they just wait it out, the leadership will change and they won’t have to.

This Too Shall Pass

Dear This Too Shall Pass,

Confucius was once asked what changes he would make if he were emperor. His answer: I would change the language. Confucius’ argument is that language is the most fundamental influence of all; what you think, how you think, how you feel, and ultimately, how you act, are all shaped by the liberties and constraints given you by your language.

Measurement is the language of organizations. If you want to change organizational behavior, start with the language. Some have tried to blame inefficient government bureaucracies on the bureaucrats. They assume the reason service stinks at the DMV and is stellar at Nordstrom is because of the people themselves. That’s baloney. We’ve done plenty of research in government agencies and found inspired, capable leaders as much in abundance as in many Fortune 500 companies.

The primary obstacle to influence is that there is no external forcing function that demands accountability for results. Consequently, prioritization becomes political rather than natural. In a commercial enterprise, owners and customers create natural accountability. Organizations that don’t serve them well suffer—sooner or later. Hence, commercial enterprises are generally observant of measuring how they perform for owners and customers.

In government agencies, there is no demand to measure service to owners and customers; it becomes the prerogative of leaders to measure what they will. For example, a new law can be passed demanding that having a paperless office is of higher priority than getting road projects done on time and on budget.

Now I know I’m not telling you anything new here. But this background is important because my central recommendation is to focus your influence on this one key change. You’ll never change the fact that every four years or so you’ll get a new photograph on the wall to match the political appointee at the top. But what you can do is try to build support for an internally imposed measure that aligns with the needs of those you serve.

A few years ago, I worked with a governor of a state in the US who was remarkably effective at driving change. Her primary influence was requiring senior civil service staff (and her appointees) to develop stakeholder aligned scorecards for their agencies. She didn’t have to reach down and micromanage much of anything. Her mantra was, “If you don’t have data, you lead by anecdotes.” And she was right. By simply requiring every agency to identify mission-aligned metrics that they would track religiously, she created a sense of accountability and a motivation for change that had been lacking previously.

You don’t have to be a governor to influence in this way. For example, Bill Patrick, from the State of Michigan’s Department of Human Services was able to influence a very important change. Bill worked in a state office in Fort Wayne, MI that offered financial services to low income residents. Customer service was pitiful—terrible wait times for counseling, inconvenient scheduling process, etc. Yet within a matter of months, customer satisfaction rose from 23% to 82%. The first influence key Patrick used was simple measurement. If you want to create awareness and motivation for change—change the language. Create credible measures that align with the fundamental mission of the organization and people will have a hard time resisting their effect. By simply documenting the degree of the problem, Patrick rallied support for his effort to influence change. And he succeeded spectacularly.

The main thing commercial agencies have that you don’t, is a forcing function. But good leadership doesn’t wait for a forcing function. Introduce a new language (measure) that is inarguably mission-aligned, and you’ll open the possibility of dramatic change.

Best wishes,

Crucial Application

Most Parents Fail at School-Related Crucial Conversations

According to a recent VitalSmarts’ study of 986 parents, three-fourths overestimate their effectiveness in helping their children navigate common school-related problems, including their child’s academic performance, discipline problems, and social issues like bullying. Yet when parents were asked about how they dealt with these issues in real life, thirty-five percent failed to raise key issues with teachers or administrators, and eighteen percent more tried but described their interventions as “not at all successful.”

Parents see themselves as far more skilled at these discussions than teachers and administrators, yet parents put very little responsibility on themselves.

“We found that even when parents DO take responsibility for their child’s school issues, their perceived ability is a lot higher than their actual ability to handle them,” said author David Maxfield. “In addition to highlighting this skills gap among parents, we believe the study shows the extent to which parents ‘outsource’ these issues to teachers, rather than taking responsibility for themselves to hold these key conversations that can spell success or failure for their child.”

What can parents do to master these conversations? Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield offer the following tips:

Get your motives right. It’s easy to get defensive about issues with kids. Parents and teachers both feel attacked and accused. The key to a healthy conversation is to remind yourself and the other person of the shared goal—helping the child succeed.
Defuse defensiveness. Start the conversation by assuring the other person of what you are not there to do. For example, “I’m not here to blame you. I am here to understand,” If you’re a parent, let the teacher know you want to help them succeed without creating more work or drama for them. If you’re a teacher, assure the parent it’s all about the child’s success, not criticizing the parent.
Start with facts. Use specific facts—details about incidents—to illustrate your concerns to the teacher or administrator. Use all facts available; if your child is partially at fault, be quick to admit it.

View the results of our study in the infographic below or click here to download a copy.

ParentFail infographic

Influencer QA

Slim by Design: An Interview with Brian Wansink

Any time one of our Influencers publishes new research, we pay attention. These are people with a track record of success that proves they’re experts at changing behavior. Brian Wansink is just one of those influencers. His research on eating behavior contributed to the introduction of smaller “100 calorie” packages (to prevent overeating), the use of taller glasses in bars (to prevent the overpouring of alcohol), and the removal of 500 million calories from restaurants each year (via Unilever’s Seductive Nutrition program). He was appointed by the White House to help develop the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid. He is also a good friend of VitalSmarts. In fact, you’ll recognize him from our very own Influencer Training.

Brian has new research that he’s published in his latest book, Slim By Design. I was immediately impressed by his Source 6 approach (the influence of the environment) to improve our health. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I thought our newsletter readers would find applicable for their own influence efforts to stay healthy. So without further ado…

Joseph: The subtitle of your new book, Slim by Design, is “Mindless eating solutions for everyday life.” Shouldn’t we be mindful of what we eat?

Brian: For ninety percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating—our lives are just too crazy and our willpower is too wimpy. Instead, the solution is to tweak small things in our homes, favorite restaurants, supermarkets, workplaces, and schools so we mindlessly eat less and better instead of more. It’s easier to use a small plate, face away from the buffet, and sit a Frisbee-spin away from the bread basket than it is to be a martyr on a hunger strike. Willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime. That is one of the great things about your Influencer Model—you emphasize that a huge part of changing behavior is changing your environment. Slim by Design focuses exactly on how you do it to eat better and lose weight.

Joseph: Yes, but not all the ideas you write about in Slim by Design are directly related to food. What’s one you found most surprising and how are you incorporating it into your life?

Brian: We all intuitively know that we probably eat worse when we’re in a bad mood than when we’re in a good mood. But there’s both good news and bad news here. The bad news is that even if we’re only in a slightly bad mood—tough day at work, mediocre report card, etc.—it dramatically worsens what and how much we eat at mealtime. The good news is that it takes very little to turn that mood around. In one of our studies, we simply asked people to describe one thing that happened that day that they were grateful for, and they ate twelve percent fewer calories. They even ate more vegetables!

Within two days of discovering this, I changed what my family and I do before mealtime. Before both breakfast and lunch, I think of one thing that’s happened in my day that I’m grateful for. At dinnertime, I have a slightly different routine. Each person in the family shares what happened that day by answering four questions: 1) their high point, 2) their low point, 3) who they appreciate most and why, and 4) their plan for tomorrow. It gives us a chance to celebrate the good things that happen, realize that each of us has daily disappointments, thank a person who helped us out, and to raise our eyes toward the future. All three of my daughters get their moment in the sun, and it makes me happy to see each one shine. On most days, this is one of the most crucial conversations I have.

Joseph: Slim by Design is not only about changing your habits, but it’s also about creating a movement. Can you elaborate?

Brian: The Slim by Design movement is about taking small actions in the five places that booby-trap most of our eating: our home, our favorite restaurants, our corner grocery store, our office, and our child’s school lunchroom. These are small concrete, actionable solutions that my Cornell University Food and Brand Lab has developed, tested, analyzed, and tweaked in dozens of cities across the United States and abroad. To make your life slim by design, you don’t have to change the whole world—just focus on these five places or zones. You can think globally, but eat locally. All you need to do is to 1) change what you do in each of these places, and 2) let them know how they could help you eat less and eat better.

For each location or zone, there’s a starter ten-point scorecard that will give you an initial idea of whether these places are making you slim or fat. There are also specific steps you can make to change things. Best yet, you don’t need any special skills to make these changes. All you need to know is what to do—and how to ask these places and people around you to help. I love the work you folks do at VitalSmarts, and this whole movement idea is based on your Influencer approach. It’s making influencers out of each of us. We’ll not only be influencing ourselves and our family, but also our neighbors and our community. We’re adding influence sources three and four to a powerful source six strategy.

Joseph: How do I know whether my home is making me slim by design or fat by design?

Brian: My previous book, Mindless Eating, contained about 150 proven, workable weight-loss tips we’d discovered from our studies in homes. Since that time, we’ve discovered many more tips that relate specifically to your home—such as your kitchen, cupboards, refrigerator, table, and TV room—and combined the 100 easiest ones into a Slim by Design Home Scorecard. It helps you quickly troubleshoot how a home is adding unwanted pounds and it shows exactly what changes will reverse this. For example, it will ask you things like, is the kitchen organized? Is there fruit on the counter? Is the toaster put away? To get you started, here’s an abbreviated ten-point version of the scorecard to help you see if you’re on track.

Joseph: Where should a person start?

Brian: Start with the scorecards. First, go to the website and fill out the Slim by Design scorecards for each of the five different zones. You can then share the results on Facebook or Twitter or send one of the suggested letters so that your restaurant, grocery store, work site, and child’s school lunchroom knows how they’re doing in helping to make you Slim by Design. Second, you can read Slim by Design for more ideas. Third you can follow and interact with us on social media. For more fun tips from Brian, watch his video message to our readers!

All the best,

Want to win a copy of Slim By Design?

Brian has been kind enough to share twenty books with our newsletter readers. To be entered into a drawing to win a book, please forward this newsletter to a friend who you think could benefit from these skills or share it on your social account. Send an email to and let us know that you shared it and we’ll enter you into our book drawing

From the Road

How do you hold a Crucial Conversation over e-mail?

In a perfect world, Crucial Conversations would always be held face-to-face. The benefits of immediate feedback and nonverbal communication makes dialogue much more rich and accurate.

However, today’s global and distributed workforce doesn’t always allow for face-to-face interactions. When you’re in Singapore and need to communicate to co-workers in Germany, Brazil, and the United States, the distance, time zones, and different cultures can create huge barriers to dialogue. The next best option to face-to-face interactions is to use video conferencing for a virtual in-person meeting. Even a phone call preserves some of the nuances of conversation.

When those options aren’t available, you can still use many Crucial Conversations skills in e-mail communication. Because you won’t be able to use Learn to Look to notice when safety is at risk, you may need to work harder than usual to establish safety during high-stakes e-mail conversations. This is an ideal time to use contrasting statements to clarify your good intent up front. This will ensure the e-mail recipient understands you want to be helpful or gain understanding—not questioning or accusing them.

When you use STATE skills in e-mail, be sure your facts are clear. Then be very tentative with any story you tell. Be sure you own the story as your perception, not as an accusation or a conclusion. When you Ask for Others Path in an e-mail, be specific about the response you want.

For example, let’s say you’ve been collaborating with someone on the other side of the world on an important report. You drafted a summary of the report and sent it to your co-worker. In response, you received a complete rewrite with a single-sentence e-mail that said, “This may work better.” This isn’t the process you agreed on, so you need to address the apparent disconnect. Your e-mail might sound something like:

“I got your e-mail with the rewrite of the report. I just want to check in with you on the process we’re following. I’m not unhappy with any of the work you do; I’ve enjoyed collaborating with you a lot. I just want to make sure we’re seeing the process the same way. I thought we had agreed that I would write a first draft of the report based on our collective research. When I sent you the draft, I was expecting to get your comments. Instead, I got a complete rewrite of the report. I’m a little confused by this and am wondering if we’re seeing our roles in this process differently. I’d really like to talk with you about this rather than exchange e-mails. Could you give me a couple of times that would be good for us to talk about this in person?”

If it’s impossible to talk in person, your question might be, “Could you share with me your understanding of our roles in creating this report?” Then you can get the other person’s perspective and go from there.

Two-way communication is always best. But when you have to use e-mail to address difficult issues, be sure to use Crucial Conversations skills to help move toward dialogue.

Crucial Conversations QA

Atoning for Past Mistakes

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve recently taken the Crucial Conversations Training in an effort to improve my communication skills with my coworkers. However, I’ve been cautioned that I already burned a few bridges and that some of my coworkers are hesitant to work with me on projects. To be honest, I don’t really blame them. I’ve been described as a strong Type A personality and I sometimes get frustrated when other people on the team don’t share my drive for producing results.

I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people over the years, but I don’t want to go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine to atone for the sins of the past. I feel like I can be pleasant, friendly, and helpful ninety-nine percent of the time, but they are always going to remember the one percent of the time when I wasn’t at my best. What is a professional way to say that I’d like to wipe the slate clean of past transgressions and start fresh?

Mr. Type A

Dear Mr. Type A,

We are mistaken when we assume relationships are simply the sum total of all of our interactions; they are so much more. The most important component of any relationship is not the behavior that has been enacted between two people; rather, it is the conclusions that have been drawn about each other. The stories we tell ourselves are the basis of our relationships with each other.

You are wise to notice how mistakes you have made with your coworkers in the past have made them hesitant to work with you on projects. It’s good that you want to make a “fresh start.” The key to your success will be to first work on your stories about your coworker relationships, and then work on their stories about you.

It seems to me that you are one step shy of taking responsibility for your part of the problem when you describe yourself as getting “frustrated when other people on the team don’t share your drive for producing results.” I think it’s more likely that the problem is not that you care about results and they do not. It’s the way you express your frustration that causes them to not want to work with you. I believe the story you are telling yourself puts you in the best possible light (having a strong drive for producing results), instead of describing that when you are frustrated, you act in ways that hurt or offend others.

The fact that this is your story is further evidenced by your statement, “I genuinely do feel badly if I’ve hurt or offended people.” Do you have any evidence that people have been hurt or offended by you? For instance, that they don’t want to work with you. By adding the “if,” it seems that you are allowing the possibility it might be true, but not taking responsibility for acting in ways that did in fact hurt and offend others.

My advice is to revise your story in a way that factually identifies what you are doing that is creating the outcomes you want to change. How are you acting out your frustration instead of talking out your frustration? Answer that question and you will be on the path to becoming more effective with your coworkers.

Next, work on your coworkers’ stories. You have been cautioned about having already “burned a few bridges,” yet you feel that ninety-nine percent of the time, you are “pleasant, friendly, and helpful.” That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

I had a man approach me after a workshop on how leaders can rebuild trust. He told me that he had been using these skills with his two children for two years but their trust in him had not improved. I asked him what had happened two years ago. He explained that he came home drunk and had yelled and hit his children.

The next day, when he realized what he had done, he was ashamed. He felt awful. He quit drinking that very day. Since that awful night, he told me he had not raised his voice in anger with his children, nor had he lifted his hand against them. Yet, in spite of his consistent efforts, he still feels a distance between them and reluctance for them to “let him into their hearts.”

I asked him, “What happened the morning after? What did you say to your children?” He told me that there had been no discussion of the incident, but that he had resolved then and there to quit drinking and to truly change. Because he did not discuss the incident with his children, he had not created a context for his future behavior. When he did not say he was sorry, when he did not promise he would never yell at them again and never, ever hit them, he did not create clear expectations about what they should expect from him. As a result, even though he was kind and no longer yelled, this was not evidence to his children that he had changed. In their mind, they were still waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” Instead of seeing the incident as an exception to his usual loving behavior, they saw this behavior as revealing his true nature.

Let’s get back to your question. For you to build effective relationships with your coworkers, you’re right, you do not have to “go around doing a big sackcloth and ashes routine.” However, don’t repeat this father’s mistake. You must create a context with clear expectations going forward. Explain to your coworkers that you have completed training and realized there are some significant ways you can improve. Identify what they are. You might say, “In the past when I have gotten frustrated, I have lashed out and accused you of not caring. In the future, I will Describe the Gap. I will factually identify what has happened and compare it to what I expected. I will then ask for your view on what has occurred and I will listen to understand.”

By creating clear expectations for your coworkers about what they can expect from you, you give them a context from which they can evaluate your behavior. Instead of dismissing the ninety-nine percent of the time when you are helpful, and waiting for your next explosion, they will start to see your good behavior as evidence that you are doing what you said you would do. Every good encounter will be further evidence that you are really making an effort to change.

When you do make a mistake, immediately acknowledge it, apologize, and start over. Instead of seeing your mistake as proof you have not changed, your co-workers are more likely to hear your apology as a sincere effort to improve and will be more willing to cut you some slack.

By making real improvements, acknowledging mistakes, quickly apologizing and getting back on track, you can rebuild some of those “burned bridges” and become even more effective in producing the results you care so deeply about.

All the best,

Kerrying On

I Miss Strawberries

I miss strawberries. Despite the fact that my acquaintance with them began quite by accident, I still miss them. It all started when, as a child, I was foraging in the woods behind my house and stumbled onto a patch of wild strawberries. I had already gobbled down berries of all sorts that morning and figured that the insignificant sampling of fragaria vesca wouldn’t amount to much. I was wrong. The berries were delicious beyond description. As I feasted on the wild wonder, all other berries hung their heads in shame.

And now for a change in direction, but not topic. Last night I mistakenly tuned into a TV “makeover” program. Not one where they transform a clap-trap shamble of a house into a modern wonder, but one where they make over an actual human being—a woman to be more precise. I had tuned into the part of the program where a plastic surgeon was holding up “before” pictures of a normal-looking woman. He chided her for once having looked so plain. Then he bragged about the miraculous transformation he and a team of surgeons, silicone experts, and cosmetologists had performed. Although no one said the words, it was clear the transformation team believed that looking like a runway model should be the goal of all caring people.

“Just look at her!” the plastic surgeon exclaimed as the woman finally walked on stage. They had replaced the plain person with a firmer and “rounder-in-the-right-places” beauty. Behold Barbie. The woman gushed. The team applauded. The crowd cheered. I doubt that when penicillin was discovered the celebration was as boisterous as this one.

The woman they had transformed worked as an elementary school teacher. When the TV program cut to a video clip of the remade teacher’s cheering students, I was surprised by their boisterous reaction. I figured the kids would be disappointed, but they seemed to like the new version of their teacher. One boy went so far as to say that she was “hot.” I flinched.

I also thought my first-grade teacher was beautiful and I can remember the day I was most struck by her beauty. My classmate, Tammy Ray Black, had just completed a coloring assignment. She was the kid nobody liked; learning was a challenge for her. And as is often the case with children who struggle, she was constantly acting out, whining, and causing her classmates grief. Finishing a task was a breakthrough for her and Miss McDonald didn’t miss this chance to reward her efforts.

At first, I couldn’t believe that my beloved teacher was praising Tammy Ray for completing a coloring assignment. Heck, I’d done the same thing a hundred times before and she never said anything to me. And then I got it. Miss McDonald was trying to help my classmate feel better about herself. How lovely. At that moment I thought she was as beautiful a person as I had ever seen. Curiously enough, she didn’t look a bit like Barbie. Of course, Barbie hadn’t been invented yet, so how was I to know what was beautiful and what wasn’t?

Back to the wild strawberries. “So you liked the strawberries,” Grandpa remarked as I told him about the ones I had discovered. “They aren’t just tasty,” he went on to explain, “they’re also honest.” I didn’t catch his drift, so Grandpa quickly clarified his point. “You see, most fruits and berries employ trickery. They look good on the surface, all the while hiding their inner seeds. You bite into a beautiful piece of fruit and nearly break a tooth on the concealed pit. The strawberry, in contrast, wears its seeds on the outside. That makes it honest.” Or so said Grandpa.

Let’s leap to a still different time and place. The summer before I started junior high school, I entered the workforce for the first time. Each morning, I rode a bus with my buddies far into the country. Here we would walk into a sea of parallel rows and pick strawberries—the honest fruit.

As it turns out, strawberries are also the user-unfriendly fruit. They offer no relief from the sun as they lay low to the dirt, requiring you to either stoop or crawl if you want to harvest them. But these commercial strawberries were nothing like the wild ones I had discovered. They had been transformed through the miracle of horticulture into larger and prettier berries. But at a cost. They weren’t nearly as flavorful as their ancestors.

It only got worse from there. In my fifth summer of picking strawberries, I was selected along with two other kids to harvest a new, experimental field. The small patch sported the latest and greatest variety of strawberry. The new breed was huge, deep red, and flawless. Horticulture experts had outdone themselves. And because the berries were so large, I could fill a box in half the time. For a dream-like two hours, I filled each flat of twelve boxes in a mere fifteen minutes, not the half hour the other, smaller berries took. I loved those new money-doubling products of horticultural science.

But not for long. Sadly, as I bit into one of the uber-berries, I discovered the rest of the story. The new strain was even more bitter and pithier than the commercial ones I had been picking for years. Worst of all, gone was the taste of strawberry. Imagine that. A strawberry that didn’t taste anything like a strawberry. As you may have already guessed, the experimental berries that I picked over forty years ago are the same huge, deep red, tasteless fruit you can buy at the grocery store today.

Putting it all together. I’m exercising a fair amount nowadays in order to lose weight. I want to be able to play with my grandkids without dropping dead from a heart attack. For me, thinning down is not so much a looks thing as a health thing. That’s because I mainly like who I am and I’m glad that my wife, children, and grandchildren seem perfectly satisfied as well. Like a strawberry, I typically wear my seeds on the outside. I’m deeply aware of the fact that I look like a cross between Tom Cruise and Danny DeVito—minus the Tom Cruise part. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

I don’t believe it when TV commercials and programs tell me I need to transform myself into someone else’s view of how I should appear. In my particular case, today’s beauty vendors routinely try to tempt me with the wonders of liposuction or maybe even calf and pec implants. Imagine that: little plastic pillows sewed inside me to make my chest look more muscled. You’re talking about a guy who doesn’t miss his hair all that much or even think to comb it for that matter.

Most important of all, I never want my wife, children, or grandchildren to feel that they too are unfinished until someone transforms them into the world’s view of the perfect prototype. I love them just the way they are. I love them for who they are. And like the wild strawberry, I love them for what’s inside. I know that sounds corny. It is corny. But maybe I’m not thinking clearly. When I look out the window of my office and see puffy-lipped, silicon enhanced, calf and pec sculpted, and curiously look-alike “perfect specimens” jog by, I have an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. I miss strawberries.

Crucial Accountability QA

Transforming a Negative Environment

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a mid-level manager in human services, and support a twenty-one person staff. Nineteen of these team members have a professional approach to their work, manage their emotions appropriately, and are respectful to others. However, two team members are constantly negative, complaining, and disrespectful. I have addressed these behaviors with them, but they only improve for a little while before reverting back. I am continually amazed at how these two team members can negatively affect nineteen otherwise positive people. Over the years, I have seen this on other teams as well, where the negative member(s) adversely influence the positive members, even though the positive members are in the majority. Is there a reason that negativity trumps positivity?


Dear Discouraged,

Thanks for a winning question. Infectious negativity saps the vitality from far too many workplaces. Your final question is especially interesting to me: Why does negativity trump positivity?

I’ll describe several reasons for why negativity spreads and persists, as well as suggest a variety of solutions.

1. Negativity trumps positivity because humans are designed to be risk averse. This makes sense, when you think about our survival instincts. Bad news signals danger and may require action. Danger signals are processed by the amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, instead of by the prefrontal cortex. These amygdala-mediated thoughts seize our attention and focus it on the danger. This is why even people who are normally positive pay more attention to negative than to positive information.

2. People pay attention to negative information because it violates the organization’s public relations bias. Most organizations and most leaders try to sugarcoat problems, hiding them from employees. The result is that employees are hungry for the truth—especially for the less-flattering truths they believe are being withheld from them. This means they pay special attention, and seriously consider, the negative information they hear—even when it comes from less-than-trustworthy sources.

Solution: The solution to these first two problems is to add more and more honest information to the pool. People who have questions and concerns will turn to darned near anyone for information. Make sure you are there first with honest answers.

3. Too many people count on others to speak up for them. They are too timid to speak up for themselves. The people who do speak up fall into two camps: those especially skilled at crucial conversations and those who aren’t. Those especially skilled folks know how to speak up in ways that are frank, honest, and respectful. Those who are especially unskilled are honest, but offensive, and may not even realize how negative they actually are.

Solution: Create opportunities and make it safer for people to raise questions and concerns. Don’t force the silent majority to rely on their least-skilled members to raise their concerns. In addition, train and coach the less-skilled communicators to be more skilled in how they raise their concerns—and direct them to raise their concerns with you.

4. The fourth reason that negativity spreads is different from the first three, because it deals with a different kind of negativity: disrespectful behavior. When someone is disrespectful, others often respond with disrespect—tit-for-tat. As a result, disrespect becomes a poison that spreads quickly through a team.

Solution: Every team has informal/implicit norms for what constitutes respectful behavior. When disrespect is seen too often, it may be necessary to make these norms more formal and explicit. This may require a team meeting, a few crucial conversations, or an actual code of conduct. You’ll need to decide how explicit the norms need to be.

However, the key to success isn’t the norms, but how they are enforced. You need to achieve 200 percent accountability: Team members are 100 percent accountable for being respectful; they are also 100 percent accountable for others being respectful. This means that team members, not you, hold each other accountable. It may require some coaching or training, but it is essential. You, as the leader, can’t keep these norms alive. They must be enforced by the team members themselves.

5. Negativity is a habit that’s hard to break. We’ve all observed this unfortunate truth. People commit to stop complaining, rumor-mongering, or being disrespectful, but then fall back in to their old ways.

Solution: Use our CPR skills to make sure you frame the problem correctly. Here is an example.

Content: If the problem is a single incident, then address the content. The content includes the facts about what you expected and what you observed. For example, “When you have a concern or hear a rumor, I expect you to bring it to me, so I can deal with it in a productive way. I hear you shared a rumor this morning—as if it were true—with several team members without checking it out with me first. What happened?”

Pattern: If your chief concern is with the pattern of behaviors, then address the pattern. The pattern is that the person has made a commitment or promise, and has failed to live up to it. For example, “We’ve talked before about sharing rumors without checking them with me first. I thought I had your commitment to stop doing this. I hear you shared a rumor this morning. If my facts are right, then you broke your commitment to me. Help me understand.”

Relationship: If your chief concern involves trust or respect, then address the relationship. The relationship may need to change. For example, “When you make commitments to me, and then fail to follow through on them, I begin to think I can’t trust you. And, if I can’t trust you, I don’t see how I can have you on my team. Help me understand.”

I hope these ideas help you deal with the negativity that spreads in your workplace. Let me know how they work.

Good Luck,