Crucial Accountability QA

Christmas Relationships

The following article was first published on December 21, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a divorced father of two young children. The separation occurred two years ago. We are doing a very good job of co-parenting. My ex-wife, “Sue,” and I had agreed from early on that we would NOT be introducing people we are dating into the lives of our daughters unless it was well into the relationship (e.g., six months with the possibility of remarriage). This is to protect the children from the revolving door of people coming and going in their lives.

That lasted for about a year. The last two Christmases, my daughters have woken up to two different men in Sue’s house. It’s almost Christmas, and I am afraid it will be yet another man on Christmas morning, creating more confusion for the children.

While I can’t control what Sue does, I would like her to know that this could be harmful to our children as well as their future values or opinions of their mother. But by confronting her on this, I feel like I would come across as way too judgmental, and would open myself up to her criticism of my parenting, just like I am being of hers in this regard.


Dear Perplexed,

Let me start by acknowledging you for the spirit of your question. I’m sure that everyone who reads it will be inspired by the pure desire it shows to put your children first. I’m grateful for adults like you—and your ex-wife—who are willing to suck it up when their own emotions are raw and do what’s best for the most vulnerable people involved—the children. Bless you.

With that said, let me re-frame the problem. This isn’t about what “may or may not happen.” This is about what has already happened. You had an agreement. She appears to have broken it. That’s the conversation you need to have.

You are rightly sensitive that if you appear to be throwing rocks at her she might defensively throw some back at you. In other words, if you come across as moralistic, judgmental, or accusatory, you will be incapable of focusing on the real issue: the agreement the two of you made in the best interests of the children.

So be sure to be hyper-attentive as you begin and as you proceed in the conversation to creating safety for her. She needs to be affirmed, respected, and appreciated enough that she understands this is not about you judging her, but about you wanting to have a strong relationship with her while you attempt to do what’s best for the kids.

Remember, people feel safe when they know that a) you care about their interests and problems, and b) you care about and respect them. So you might begin like this:

“Sue, I want to discuss a concern I’ve got when it works for you to do so. I want you to know I have no other agenda than to keep the air clear between us so we can continue working well together for the children. First and foremost, I want you to understand how much I appreciate your efforts to work with me over the past two years. I know it hasn’t been easy. But you’ve been wonderful to work with. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Next, move into “Describing the Gap” between what you expected and what you got. Again, do so in a way that ensures she feels safe—that she interprets your intent correctly. Also, focus on the facts—not your interpretations or judgments of the facts:

“The issue is this: two years ago I think we agreed that we would not introduce new people to the children until we had a relationship that looked close to marriage. Is that right? I think we both felt at the time that this would help them appreciate the importance of commitment and would minimize instability in their lives. The past two Christmases the children have said that when they woke up in your house on Christmas there was a man who had slept over, greeting them in the morning.”

Now that you’ve laid out your concern—it’s time to encourage dialogue and reassure safety:

“Now, I realize that I might have some facts wrong. I realize also that even if this is what happened, your feelings and needs are an important consideration. I don’t want to be judgmental at all—or to keep you from something that’s important to you. But I want to be clear on our agreements with each other and continue to put the children first. So am I seeing this wrong? Is there something I’m missing here?”

At this point you follow the dialogue where it needs to go. Remember though, to keep the conversation focused on what you really want—what’s best for the kids. Not on your need to punish Sue for her behavior, or jealousy, etc. This is a conversation about a broken commitment, not a moral code.

Thanks again for your splendid example to me and others. I wish you the best in this accountability conversation and have every confidence your good heart will lead you right. And I wish you a Merry Christmas as well.


Crucial Accountability QA

How to Hold Employees Accountable Without Micromanaging

The following article was first published on November 2, 2004.

Dear Crucial Skills,

As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. If I’ve ever had to have a crucial conversation, I feel I can only do so with extreme delicacy. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Dr. Delicate

Dear Dr. Delicate,

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimizes collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement—from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person.

The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as, “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”—a choice where we see only two options—both of them bad. For example, “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.” In reality, there is often a third, better alternative; you can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?”

Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship . . . you can get both.

Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation.

When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened—I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best Wishes,


BS Guys

Does Santa Make You Selfish?

In our newly released video, Santa’s Elf holds out two tantalizing foil-wrapped chocolate Christmas bears to Emma and Alex. One chocolate bear is a wonderfully chubby eight inches tall. The other is tiny—the size and girth of a clothespin. “Sorry,” the Elf says, “we only have one big bear left.” He turns to Emma, the subject child: “Here, you choose—which do you want?” Will Emma take the big one and stiff Alex, or in the spirit of the season, will she decide it’s more blessed to give than to receive?

Words matter. A lot. The words you choose to frame a problem powerfully influence the way you and others feel about it.

For example, if Ethan takes a cupcake without asking, a parent who begins with, “Ethan, you disobeyed Mommy,” sets up an entirely different conversation than one who says, “Ethan, you have broken my trust.” A boss who says, “We have an unacceptable error rate,” has framed the problem as meeting the boss’ expectations. One who says, “Our error rate is putting patient lives at risk,” has framed it as a moral imperative.

Research shows that small tweaks in verbal frames can provoke resentment or invite commitment about the same issue! Reviewing that research made the VitalSmarts research team wonder, “What about Christmas?” Each of us could think of Christmas mornings where kids had behaved like ravenous hyenas, tearing through wrapping paper to get at the next indulgence. Yet, we could also recall instances of sweet, selfless generosity, where a child sacrificed hard-earned cash to bring a smile to someone they loved.

After surveying our various memories, we were left asking, “Overall, does Christmas make us naughtier or nicer? Or is it the way we talk about Christmas that determines the influence of the season?”

So we invited roughly sixty kids, ages six to eight, to a Christmas party. After enjoying a rollicking good time decorating, eating cookies, and playing holiday games, the children were invited to visit with Santa, two at a time. The first child was a subject, and the second was a confederate—our secret scientific helper!

In the first condition, Santa used his age-old script, “What do you want for Christmas?” Kids have been preparing for this dialogue since they were in diapers. All of them were armed with a Christmas shopping list for the Jolly Old Elf. When they finished, Santa said, “Thank you for visiting me! If you’ll go over there and see my elf, he has a surprise for you!” The kids gleefully complied. The pair of tots faced the elf who announced sadly, “Oh no! I’m almost out of big chocolate bears. I only have one big one left. One of you can have the large one and the other will get the small one.” The elf then turned to the subject child and said, “Here—you choose. Which do you want?” Few deliberated for long. Over two-thirds snatched the big one. One little guy didn’t even wait for the elf to finish. When his eyes landed on the gargantuan bear he seized it, exclaimed “I’m out of here!” and fled.

In the second condition, the children had the exact same experience but with one small change—just a few words. Santa greeted the kids warmly and asked, “What gifts do you want to give this Christmas?” Most of the kids couldn’t even hear him! They began to recite wish lists like a kidnapper dictating ransom terms. Santa would smile and say, “Those sound like great wishes! And are there any presents you want to give to someone?” After two or three attempts to clarify his bizarre departure from the sacred Santa liturgy, their eyes would widen, and they’d offer a few thoughtful ideas.

Now came the moment of truth. The subject and confederate would approach Santa’s helper. The elf would sadly announce the tragic chocolate bear situation. He would offer the choice to the subject child. This time, not only did most kids answer more slowly, they responded more generously. One little girl removed both bears from the elf’s hands, examined them closely, reading the label, “Hmm . . . melted chocolate. Hmm . . . . Here—you take the big one!” She smiled, gripped the little bear and skipped out of the room. Simply changing the Christmas “frame” influenced over forty percent of kids to behave more graciously!

When you’re talking about problems at work, decisions with family members, or goals with colleagues, the words you choose to frame the issues are very influential. We at VitalSmarts hope the words you use this holiday season will bring you great joy, meaning, and connection with those you love.


Crucial Application

Framing the Holidays

New research by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield shows that a few small changes in how parents talk about Christmas makes a huge difference in whether Christmas traditions make kids selfish or generous.

“We wanted to find out whether parents were unwittingly undermining their own goals,” said Maxfield. “Specifically, we wondered if the way parents talk about Christmas has a significant influence on whether kids become self-centered or empathic during the holidays.”

In the study conducted in October, twenty-seven percent of parents said they talk to their children more about giving than getting, yet eighty-six percent want their holiday traditions to support generosity and gratefulness.

So how can parents and families close the gap between what we say and what we do? Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield offer the following six tips:

1. Take children shopping for presents they will give.

2. Expect them to use some of their own money to buy gifts.

3. Involve kids in doing some kind of charitable work to get into the holiday spirit.

4. Help kids write a “gift” list as well as a “wish” list—detailing things they want to make or do for those they love.

5. Collect presents for a “Sub for Santa” or other holiday giving cause.

6. Make a donation of a valued toy or other possession for someone less fortunate.

View the results of our study in the infographic below or download a copy for yourself.


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.