Kerrying On

The Law of the Hog

When David Maxfield and I pulled up to the plywood mill, we were surprised to see an ambulance parked out front. We had come to study the impact of an upcoming leadership training program, but I must admit it was difficult to think about research as we walked by a vehicle that had “Sisters of Mercy Hospital” painted on both sides in large, red letters.

Our guess was that an employee had suffered an accident. After all, the place sported gigantic saw blades, menacing debarkers, and a terrifying machine known as “the hog.” Which, by the way, you’re not allowed to go near, unless you’re wearing a safety belt that keeps you from falling into a hole in the floor that leads to an assortment of razor-sharp, spinning blades.

It turns out, there had been no accident. According to Tony, the HR manager who was now taking us on a tour of the facility, a supervisor on the graveyard shift had confronted Max, an hourly employee who wasn’t following correct procedures. Max disagreed. One thing led to another until Max pushed Tony, who pushed back, and then Max fell and cut a large gash in his forehead.

“But we’re trying to turn that around,” explained the HR manager. “That’s why we’re implementing a leadership training program. We want you to help us determine if the instruction we’ll be providing actually works.”

As Max was loaded into the ambulance, David and I walked to the main conference room just down the hall. There, scattered around a table, sat eight randomly selected employees who had been scheduled to talk with us about what it was like working in a plywood mill. This was to be the first of two dozen such group interviews.

As I cleared my throat to start the conversation, as if on cue, the ambulance driver sounded the siren. Everyone turned to the window to watch the emergency vehicle haul their coworker away. Then, in unison, the eight employees turned their heads back toward David and me and shot us a look that said, “What do you think of the place so far?”

By now I was aching to know what these employees thought about the shoving match that had just occurred. So I asked, “What happens around this place if you dislike how you’ve been treated by one of your leaders?” After a brief pause, a fellow looked me in the eye, smiled contemptuously, and uttered two words that to this day reverberate in my mind. “The hog!”

As the blood drained from my face I managed to ask, “You mean that machine with the nasty blades that you use to cut up scrap veneer?”

“Exactly!” he replied. By now I was envisioning a team of angry employees wrestling their foreman to the ground and stuffing him into that frightening hole in the floor. “So, precisely what do you mean when you say ‘the hog’?” I continued as I prayed for an answer that didn’t involve death and dismemberment.

“When our boss leaves our work area, we take perfectly good veneer and throw it into the hog,” one of the interviewees answered politely. “That’s right,” another employee chimed in. “The hog is used for chopping up scrap. When someone grinds up good veneer, it hurts the foreman’s numbers. That gets the foreman in trouble with the plant manager.”

“Absolutely. If you want to get even with a supervisor who just insulted you or tried to jerk you around,” explained still another interviewee, “you feed the hog.”

It was from this incident that David and I created the expression “The Law of the Hog.” It means that if you talk with someone who has disappointed you or behaved poorly, but you do so in a way that is less than professional, others may find a way to get even—i.e., “feed the hog.”

Over the years, we’ve learned that every organization has its own version of feeding the hog. In one freight-shipping company, employees who become upset at being mistreated have been known to throw perfectly good parts into the deep blue sea. At a computer chip manufacturer, disgruntled associates flush gold chips down the toilet. At a software company, angry code writers purposely write errors into the program. These acts of sabotage are a means of seeking revenge on the leaders.

Of course, not everyone who believes he or she has been treated poorly seeks such direct and active revenge. The most common method of feeding the hog takes the form of lost focus, energy, and engagement. After being harshly treated by a leader, employees spend time talking about what just happened rather than doing their job. Next, they refuse to put in extra effort. Eventually they disengage.

But there’s more to the hog story. Years later I asked David (who had talked extensively with Tony, the abusive supervisor) how Tony felt about the incident.

“Actually,” replied David, “he was devastated. He had worked at the mill for years. When he was finally promoted to foreman, he discovered that it was difficult to get people to listen to him. He desperately wanted employees to follow procedures and meet deadlines, but they often ignored him. With time,” David continued, “he learned to rely on intimidation but he hated doing so. It was a small town. Some of Tony’s direct reports were neighbors, others relatives, and now they all saw him as the enemy. Tony’s own wife refused to go to church with him or otherwise be seen with him in public.”

So this wasn’t merely a story of aggression followed by revenge. Tony wasn’t the bad guy and the employees weren’t innocent bystanders exacting justice. It was a more complex tale about creating a culture of accountability. Fortunately, the leadership training we were hired to study actually did teach foremen how to hold others accountable. By learning best practices, Tony and the other leaders discovered what many skilled leaders had known for years. When you carefully study how to hold others accountable, and then actually use the skills you’ve learned, you don’t have to rely on intimidation, threats, and abuse. You can deal with deviations and disappointments without feeding the hog.

And, unless you’re the hog, that’s a good thing.

You can also go to our YouTube channel to see a video version of The Law of the Hog.

Crucial Conversations QA

Tackling the Right Crucial Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you respond to work colleagues who complain that management never asks our opinion? I agree it’s good to get insight from management on how and why things are the way they are. But my coworkers seem to forget there are some things administration just can’t get everyone’s viewpoint on—because a consensus would never be reached.

I feel our administration does keep us in the loop as much as they can, and these childish attitudes from my coworkers are more frustrating and demoralizing than what they’re complaining about.


Done with Complainers

Dear Done,

Charles Kettering is often credited with the saying, “A problem well stated is half solved.” When it comes to crucial conversations, knowing what conversation to have, and whom to have it with, is more than half the battle.

The situation you find yourself in plays out hundreds of thousands of times a day in offices across the world. A coworker has a problem with someone else—whether with management, other coworkers, or a direct report—and rather than addressing that concern with the person, they come to you. There are a lot of names for this: venting, complaining, whining, etc. At VitalSmarts, we call them “drive-bys.” Rather than getting to the heart of the difficult conversations they need to have—in this case, expressing their concerns with management about hearing employee input—they drop into your office, share all their concerns, and look for sympathy. Then they leave, feeling they have said what they needed to say. In reality, they have completely dodged the crucial conversation they are responsible for having.

The question then is: what do YOU want to do about it? You have a few options and which one you choose will completely depend on what you really want—for yourself, for the other person, for your relationship, and for the organization.

Option 1: Commiserate

This is the easy option. You nod your head, and say soothing things like “I know. That is so tough.” You listen, and listen, and listen . . . until the other person finishes speaking. Then, you sagely say “It is what it is,” and you both go back to work.

The obvious downside of taking this option is, nothing changes. Ever. The pattern will repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And worse, you sacrifice your integrity as you pretend to agree with something just for the sake of keeping the peace.

Option 2: Defend

This option can be almost as easy, and certainly more fun, than option number one. In this scenario, you get to become the standard bearer of an administration done wrong. When you next see your coworker headed toward your office with a couple of tall, skinny, caramel macchiatos and a need to vent, you can gather together all of your righteous indignation and explain to your coworker that they have it all wrong. Management is great. They are doing their best. We as workers need to grow up and accept our role in the grand economic schema.

The obvious downside of this option is that you may end up alienating your coworkers and probably won’t be getting any more caramel macchiatos. Worse, you have taken on a responsibility that isn’t yours—defending management. Your responsibility is to own your voice and share your views. You don’t need to play defense just because a coworker chooses to play offense.

Option 3: Coach

In this option, you recognize that the real conversation that needs to be had—the right conversation—is between your coworkers and leadership. You are not a player in this conversation. But you can be an invaluable coach.

As a coach, your job should be to share a different point of view (in this case, yours) and suggest that your coworkers would benefit from having a direct conversation with management about his or her concerns. Now, we all know what the response will be: “Management never listens to us so what is the point of talking to them about how they never listen to us?”

This is where a great coach makes the difference. Most of us would say: “You’re probably right.” But a crucial conversation coach would help them see that this “management never listens” line is a story he or she is telling themselves. Help your colleague consider what it is he or she really wants and how best to share it, while listening to the other side as well.

Too often we think only about using crucial conversations skills in our own crucial conversations. We fail to recognize the power we have to teach, coach, and support others in using these skills.

So, don’t get caught up in thinking this is your conversation. It is not. But, it is a conversation you can help someone have. Understanding what the right conversation is, and whom it is with, will often get you more than halfway to a successful resolution.

Good Luck,


Crucial Conversations QA

Changing the System

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m president of my church choir’s advisory council. The choir has long had a “slush fund” that is used for various choir-related expenses, but it is not administered by the advisory council. I would like to change this, but am unsure of how to approach the “owners” of the fund. These are members of the choir who make decisions on whether money can be spent without any general choir input.

Recently, they denied the advisory council’s request for a small amount of money saying it was an “inappropriate” use of funds. I don’t want to turn this into the Inquisition, but the advisory council members think we should all have more input. Any suggestions as to how to approach our colleagues and gain their cooperation?

Looking for Guidance

Dear Looking,

This situation may seem very unique, but it isn’t. I think many of us have felt the need to change an established system that is supported by entrenched interests. How do we make these changes? And how do we involve people who believe they will lose power, money, prestige, etc. as a result of these changes?

Get the facts. I would begin by learning the history behind the current arrangement. The creation of the “slush fund,” which seems peculiar now, probably made a lot of sense at the time it was established. For example, maybe it was part of a contract the church negotiated when hiring key choir members. Determine the original rationale for the arrangement and evaluate whether those reasons still make sense.

Enlarge the decision-making group. The change you are suggesting should not devolve into a power play between your advisory group and the current owners of the fund. Instead, the interests of the entire church should be foremost. This means involving a broader group of respected decision makers who aren’t identified with your group or the current owners of the fund. This more objective group will have greater credibility with the whole church.

Involve the current owners in the decision. Don’t let them feel excluded or disrespected. Make sure they have a seat at the decision-making table. They will be the best advocates for the current arrangement, and the decision makers need their perspective.

Maintain respect. When changes are made, the people who created or supported the prior arrangement are often made to look bad. In this case, using words like “slush fund” paints them as corrupt. I doubt they are corrupt. The facts are that they created and managed a system that has worked—at least to some extent—for years. They shouldn’t be vilified for this. If the church can create a new system that works better, that’s great. It doesn’t mean that the old system was somehow evil, unfair, or incompetent.

Give time for the transition. Don’t pull the plug in a sudden way. Instead, create a gradual, orderly transition. For example, if the current owners already have a two-year plan for the funds, go ahead and approve it. Let them take their plan to completion, and then get their involvement in creating the next plan. If the transition is abrupt, it may be seen as a money grab, instead of as a long-term structural improvement.

I hope these ideas help.


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From the Road

Post Training Coaching-From Learner to Doer

Most of us who teach Crucial Conversations love to coach our trainees. Often this happens in the classroom during the training process, but sometimes we get the opportunity to coach one-on-one after the primary learning has taken place. This can be a great opportunity for us and the trainee if we approach it correctly. There are two key steps we will explore here: encouraging the one-on-one process and the actual coaching process itself. Our goal should be to help the trainee prepare to take action in his own impending crucial conversation—transitioning from learner to doer.

If you don’t normally have people contact you for this type of coaching, but would like to offer it, here are a couple of tips. After the acid test activity in Get Unstuck is complete, let the class know you are available after the two class days for one-on-one coaching. Let them know that you have a sign-up sheet handy and that they can book time with you now based on their availability. Reinforce this point at the end of day one, the beginning of day two, and in the wrap-up. Typically, if they don’t sign up in class, they never will. It’s also important to let them know you will respect their confidentiality—assuming you can legally do that—and that they do not have to share personal details with you. Make sure they know your goal is to get them from learner to doer.

Once you’ve begun the coaching process, the next step is to establish Mutual Purpose. What exactly does the trainee expect from the coach? What do I expect of the trainee? What am I willing to do as the coach? Starting with Mutual Purpose allows us to have clear expectations of each other and be clear about what we are trying to achieve. In this process, we also have to make sure the trainee has realistic expectations of himself. A little bit like Goldilocks, the expectations shoule be not too low, not too high, but just right. As Joseph has said many times, “We can’t talk our way out of something we behaved our way into.” If the trainee is expecting a miracle conversation, we need to help him/her be realistic. If the trainee is aiming too low, we need to help him/her use CPR to identify the right conversation to hold.

Many trainees leave our classrooms feeling a bit overwhelmed. They are unsure where to start or which skills to apply in their own crucial conversations. As you already know, it is impossible for even the best learner to leave the classroom as a master of all the skills. As coaches, we can help our trainees by determining which skills have the greatest application right now. This allows them to focus on learning and applying a manageable amount of what they learned and then add additional skills in the future as their confidence builds.

Please share your ideas below.

Trainer QA

What should I do if I have an entire group that is very bitter and resistant to change?

What should I do if I have an entire group/team attending the training that is very bitter and angry with management and resistant to change?

This is a great question. Let me share a few tips that may be helpful to think about.

1. If you have the opportunity to work with this group in their intact work team, I recommend engaging them in the activity on page 165 of the toolkit (page 139 of the trainer guide)—the optional Team Application for Master My Stories in Module 7. It’s probably one that they didn’t do in the Crucial Conversations class—so it will be new to them. The key for you is to make it safe for them to fully engage and use their skills to speak honestly, openly, and with respect.

2. Get them to acknowledge the costs of the status quo. What’s the cost of doing nothing? What’s the cost if they aren’t open and honest with one another?

3. Have them share success stories. While it can be daunting to take on a huge entrenched problem (like an angry, bitter culture that’s resistant to change), it can be helpful, motivating, and even inspiring to hear how others’ small steps have yielded results. Seek out opinion leaders and encourage them to share where they’ve been successful.

4. Finally, remind them that even if they try and just do a “pretty good” job of using the skills (vs. a perfect job), they can still get better results. Sometimes simply changing a few words, or the intent of an approach can dramatically alter how the other person reacts.

Good Luck!

Influencer QA

Communicating with Apathetic Teenagers

Dear Crucial Skills,

I just watched Joseph Grenny’s “How to Hold Those You Love Accountable” video and although I thought it was good, I would like to know how to deal with teenagers who don’t see things as clearly. Both kids in the example well up in tears and seem extremely mature in their response.

What happens when you take this same approach and they just roll their eyes, say they don’t want to talk about their feelings, and to just get on with it? What about when they’ve heard it all before from adults who really wanted to empathize and they simply like doing drugs or throwing parties? They see the benefit (popularity, hot girls, easy rush, etc.) and wish the old folks would just stop nagging. They’re right and you are wrong. What do you do then?

Giving Up

Dear Giving Up,

With your permission I will speak very personally. You are asking a question that strikes at the heart of what parenting has meant to me. My opinions about your situation have been informed by twenty-seven years of learning to have intimate relationships with imperfect people. People like me.

For those who haven’t seen the video, I shared a story of a young man at an alternative high school who was addicted to drugs and was caught using them in school. I also described how one of my teenage children threw a massive party at our home while my wife and I were away. The point I wanted to illustrate is, if we try to address accountability with those we love in the absence of emotional connection, we often provoke defensiveness. However, if we pay the price to connect emotionally first, they are more likely to feel naturally accountable for the effect their actions have on others. True accountability is the fruit of emotional connection. Anything less is little more than compulsion.

Trust me, my life hasn’t been a series of photo ops. It’s been more valley than peak. I feel your pain when your best efforts seem to yield no influence. And I know the agony of watching those I love squander sacred potential. So, what do you do when, in spite of your best efforts to empathize, connect, listen, and validate others, the result is a shoulder shrug? Here are my beliefs about how to create healthy relationships with imperfect people.

1. I am responsible for influence, not results. The instant I measure my “success” by others’ choices, I am living a lie. The lie is that I can—or should—control others. I can’t. I shouldn’t. The very wish to do so is the root cause of every form of misery for myself and others. It leads to anger, despair, depression, compulsion, and pride. During our children’s infancy, we parents get seduced into the delusion that we can mold them as we please. The truth is, we are responsible to offer a worthy example, provide coaching, give support, and surrender the rest.

2. Everyone learns on their own schedule. Over the years I’ve created enormous stress for myself and family members, by unconsciously planning the lives of my children on a normative schedule. I had tacit expectations of where they should be by age eight, twelve, sixteen, eighteen, and so on. Mind you, I wasn’t aware I was doing this. It was more of an expectation I absorbed by comparing myself with “successful” parents around me. It wasn’t until one child after another deviated from that plan that I became aware I had it in the first place. It showed up in feelings of panic or discouragement. It showed up in behavior like bargaining, bribing, and criticizing. I have arrived at a very different place today. I feel an immense respect for the uniqueness of each of my children. I have enormous faith that they are learning creatures and that they each need to learn in their own way and on their own schedule. If you’ll allow a very personal aside, I also believe this learning schedule exceeds this life. I get to take part in that learning at times, but my role is much smaller than the illusory one I have so often coveted.

3. Influence can only be granted, not taken. My children grant it to me at their pleasure—and tend to do so only when they believe they can trust my intent. In the worst of cases, children surrender enormous influence because we’ve convinced them of their own incompetence. They adopt every habit and aspiration we advocate because they can hardly distinguish the boundaries of their own identity from ours. The other extreme happens when they resent your attempt to violate their agency so much that your attempts to control become the issue. You unintentionally impede their ability to learn from their mistakes because they are distracted by their resentment of your intrusions into their choices. Healthy influence happens when children are fundamentally convinced your only intent is to help them accomplish their own worthy goals, not to impose your own. This redefines parenting as a process of enabling their discovery of their own uniqueness, worth, and mission. And it gives you a small but privileged view of that unfolding. At times they’ll make monumentally stupid decisions (as did you and I). With adult children, we slow their learning when we either fight these choices or rescue them from them. Instead, our role is to help them know we believe in them, and be ready to offer feedback and counsel when—and only when—they give us permission to do so.

I hope you don’t hear any of this as glib. I know the pain of parental disappointment—and even agony. I’ve come to understand, at times, that making the choice to love is making a choice to suffer. But that suffering need not turn to misery if I understand my role. When I do, I increase the likelihood of experiencing the surpassing joy that comes from being such an intimate part of another person’s life.

With love,