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.


Crucial Conversations QA

When It’s Your Word Against Your Boss’s

Dear Crucial Skills,

About a month ago, my director was investigated for violating policy. I provided information against her in this process. During the investigation, my director told my coworkers that the allegations were all lies. This caused my coworkers to view me as a troublemaker and a liar. I suspect she said the same to the heads of our company. As a result, she has been able to keep her job and I feel like my credibility is damaged. How do I move forward from here?

Credibility Crisis

Dear Credibility Crisis,

Some decisions are hard. This one isn’t. You’ve got to go.

The only way I would temper that advice is if you think there is a possibility you are wrong. If the following are facts and not fear-based stories you are telling yourself:

1. Your director violated the policy.

2. The violation is a serious ethical breach—not some trivial technicality (e.g., she used company funds to refurnish her beach house vs. she used an outdated company logo in a PowerPoint presentation).

3. Your senior leaders believe you lied in your testimony against your director.

4. Your colleagues likewise believe you lied.

. . . then you are in as compromised a social situation as you could be.

You’ve got two problems here. First, you are working in an organization that seems either unable or unwilling to hold high standards. Do you really want to work in that kind of place? And second, you have none of the social support you will need to get things done and to be rewarded for doing so.

You owe it to yourself to put yourself into circumstances where you will be honored for your integrity, where you will be able to do your best work, and where you will be recognized for doing so.

I wish I had a magic answer that would allow you to remedy the situation. But I would be less than a genuine friend if I suggested I have ever seen a situation like yours end well. Your choices are a quick exit or a slow meltdown. A graceful redemption isn’t in the cards.

However, if objective and informed people among your colleagues disagree with #1-4 above—then improvement is possible. For example, if:

1. Your director’s actions are more of a gray area.

2. The policy isn’t morally significant.

3. Your senior leaders disagree with your view, but don’t believe you lied.

4. Few of your colleagues are especially aware or see this as an honest disagreement between you and your director.

. . . then there is room for hope. But only if you are willing to hold a truly humble, open, and honest crucial conversation with your director. You will need to come to this conversation curious. You will need to suspend your judgments and be open to new information that might revise your view of her actions. But you will also need to come prepared to be honest if the new “meaning” you acquire does not change your view. The only path forward is through this conversation in which the two of you open up the possibility of gaining new insight into each other’s actions, motives, and perspectives.

I wish you the best in this profoundly important decision.


Trainer QA

Does our Style Under Stress have any connection to our personality profiles?

The Style Under Stress Test asks participants to pick a specific person or situation where they have a hard time staying in dialogue, and then directs them to answer all the questions in regards to that specific person or situation. The results of the test are not a measure of personality i.e., scoring high on “violence” does not mean you are a “violent person,” but rather it measures our tendencies and skills in a specific situation. Put yourself in a different situation and you’ll behave differently.

Sometimes we use personality type to justify our extreme Style Under Stress (silence or violence). We might say things like, “Of course I treated him that way. I’m an INTJ. That’s just who I am.” Or, “Yes, I said that. But it’s because I’m a ‘yellow’.” I sometimes use these as examples of helpless stories in the introduction of Master My Stories. Specifically, I bring it up on the slide that says “When it matters most, we often do our worst—and we feel like we are doing the right thing.” We behave badly when the stakes are high, then we justify the behavior with our personality type, without realizing we have other options that will help us return to healthy dialogue. This is a quick example that participants might not have thought of, and pointing it out usually gets a good laugh.

From the Road

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

When people outside of work find out that I spend a lot of time teaching groups, they often ask about the more challenging situations I encounter. “What are the biggest pitfalls? And how do you recover when you run into these problems?” I tell them, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Some time ago, I attended a presentation from a nationally acclaimed photographer about the ABCs of photography. He expressed the idea that photography is a form of communication, and like language, has its own alphabet. While language uses letters to communicate ideas, similarly, photography uses assembled elements to create meaning in a visual format.

In the middle of sharing this deep philosophical explanation about how to effectively communicate through photography, he was interrupted by a question from the audience. “Are you conscious about ensuring all the elements are present before taking the shot?” Interesting question, but not as interesting as his answer. He explained that he used to take a photo, realize it hadn’t turned out the way he’d expected, and he wouldn’t be able to understand why. But since then, he’d learned to bring the photo to a mentor who would then look at it with him to figure out what to do differently next time.

His answer caused me to reflect on my many classroom experiences. I’ve had my share of less than desirable outcomes. And one of the most frustrating things is knowing a class hasn’t turned out well, but not knowing the reason why—especially early on. I came to the conclusion that we ought to be doing the same thing with our classes that the photographer was doing with his photographs. We need to take a mental picture of what’s going on so that we can analyze it and do better. We should take stock of the classroom—prior to running into a problem. What’s happening with the group? What are people doing or not doing? How is the physical space set up? Is it conducive to learning? In essence, what do I notice that cues me to stop and reframe before moving on?

Then we can share these mental photos with mentors. We can compare the not so good ones to the better ones and figure out the difference. Most especially, we can use them to cue ourselves for better outcomes in the future.

Good luck! And remember to post those mental photos on the VitalSmarts Trainer LinkedIn and Facebook groups.

BS Guys

How to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change

In our latest BS Guys video, we asked two boys to approach smokers on the street. Their goal was to get the smokers to consider quitting. They used one of two strategies: “tell” or “ask.” In the tell condition, they did what many have tried before—they told the smokers why they should quit. In the ask condition, the boys asked the smokers for a light. It was fascinating to see how the smokers responded.

When you’re trying to influence people who need motivation, but not information, don’t offer more information. Instead, use questions to create a safe environment where they can explore motivations they already have.

For example, suppose you want your spouse to improve his fitness. How would he respond to a lecture? He’d get defensive, right? So instead, try asking a question. “If you wanted to increase your fitness level, what changes would you need to make? And what would make those changes difficult or unpleasant?” This question creates a safe environment where he can examine the facts he already has.

The problem with reminding people of facts they already know is that it feels patronizing or controlling. People’s natural response is to resist and exert their independence. Psychologists call this “reactance.”

Think about how we usually try to get smokers to quit. Most smokers already have a grasp of the facts. They’ve read the warning labels and they’ve seen the public service announcements. More lectures aren’t likely to be very influential. So we wanted to test the power of influential questions.

We hired two boys to be our confederates. They approached smokers on the street to see if they could get them to consider quitting. In the tell condition, they used the traditional lecture approach, and then asked the smoker if they’d like information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers responded resentfully, and fewer than half took the paper with the information on how to quit.

In the ask condition, the confederates carried fake cigarettes, and asked the smoker for a light. The smokers’ reactions were dramatic. None offered a light, and none ignored the request. Instead, they stopped what they were doing, and began lecturing the kids on the dangers of smoking. The question prompted strong anti-smoking tirades—from the smokers themselves!

Then the kids asked a second influential question: “If you care about us, what about you?” Then they offered the information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers committed to trying to quit.

Did the smokers really quit? We don’t know. However, when the ad giant Ogilvy & Mather originated this study in Bangkok, Thailand, calls to the helpline went up 40 percent on the day of the experiment—showing that the influence extended beyond words to action.

Try this technique the next time you want to help someone take on a difficult change. Instead of repeating facts they already know, try asking questions. The goal is to allow them to explore their own motivations without feeling pushed by you. Below are a few questions you might try.

“What is it that makes you even consider changing?”
“If things worked out exactly the way you want, what would be different?
“What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”
“If this change were easy, would you want to make it? What makes it hard?”

Good Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Seeking a Promotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a cofounder of a company that recently brought in a new CEO who I don’t know well. I want to talk to the CEO about taking an executive role in the company and obtaining his mentorship. The problem is I feel very strongly about this position and my contribution, and tend to get emotional about it. I know I’ve made a very significant contribution to the company’s growth, but I’m also fundamentally insecure about my skills. I also don’t have the resume that investors are looking for. The new CEO is a very level-headed person who doesn’t get emotional about anything, and I don’t want to lose credibility with him as I negotiate my role in this growing company. Can you give me some pointers for preparing for this conversation?

Looking for a Promotion

Dear Looking,

Of course you get emotional about your role in the company you cofounded! This company is your brainchild; you’ve invested your blood, sweat, and tears. Any conversation about your role going forward is high stakes indeed. And strong emotions are often the biggest barrier to effectively influencing others. As you take stock of the company’s needs, and of the skills you need in order to fulfill an executive role, you are wise to seek the new CEO’s mentorship. So how do you have the crucial conversation with the CEO about taking on an executive role?

Start with heart. As you contemplate having this conversation, ask yourself, “What do I really want? For myself? For the new CEO? For the company?” Of course you want the company to be successful. You also want to support the CEO and help him succeed. In addition, you want to occupy an executive position and be effective in that role. Keep in mind that you are not a beggar or a thief. You are not asking for a position you do not deserve, nor are you expecting a role that benefits you and hurts the company. You want to add value and make a meaningful contribution. These are good motives—helpful motives. As you focus on these thoughts, your brain will be in gear and your emotions will dissipate.

Create mutual purpose. An important beginning to this crucial conversation is to help the CEO understand your intentions—your motives. You might want to say something like, “I want to talk with you about my role in the company. I am absolutely committed to making the company succeed. I also want to do everything within my power to help you be successful in your new role as CEO.” Such a strong declaration will do a lot to make it safe for the CEO to discuss the topic with you openly.

Next, share your meaning. As with bringing up any sensitive topic, I would encourage you to share the facts. Help the CEO understand your history with the company and the many contributions you’ve made. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or shy. You are not bragging or “tooting your own horn.” You are giving the CEO important information he needs to make decisions about how to best utilize your abilities. Then tell your story by sharing with the CEO your honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Our tendency is to ‘spin’ our histories by embellishing our strengths and understating our weaknesses.

I once worked with a colleague who was always trying to ‘sell’ me. When advocating his point of view, he emphasized the reasons to do what he wanted, and left unmentioned the downside. I grew to discount his statements and distrust his motives. You do not want to do this. Identify where you see yourself as the most capable and where you need more development. This kind of honesty, openness, and insight will help your CEO appreciate the kind of person you are and trust your candor. Next, make your proposal. Explain the position you want to fill and its responsibilities. Ask that the CEO mentor you and help you strengthen the areas you’ve identified for improvement.

Finally, ask for the CEO’s input. You’ve put a lot of meaning in the pool; now is the time to get his. Ask questions and listen. How does he see the situation? How does he view the fit between you and the executive position?

This appeal will not necessarily guarantee that you end up with the position you desire. However, this approach will increase the likelihood your emotions will not get in the way, and there will be greater mutual understanding.

Good Luck,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: My Favorite Gift

One brisk December morning as my five-year-old son Taylor and I skittered across the local mall’s icy parking lot in search of gifts for his two older sisters, Taylor turned to me and asked, “What was your bestest and most favorite Christmas present ever?” I have contemplated the answer to that question over the years since. Despite the fact that as a child I had perched over the toy section of the Sears catalogue (much like a monk musing over a sacred manuscript), my favorite gift never made it into Mr. Sears’ marvelous book. In fact, it was never sold in any store. More curious still, it sat in a box, unopened for almost fifty years. To appreciate this magical gift, you have to know a little bit about how the human mind works.

Although nobody completely understands how anything as complicated as the brain actually functions, I like to think of it as thousands of tiny shelves that sit in long rows inside our head. On these shelves sit millions of even tinier boxes. And inside these boxes you find memories. Some of the boxes remain unopened and unattended for years and the thoughts left inside evaporate like dry ice on a hot summer day. Other memories remain active and vital because we pull a box off the shelf, open it, and relive the experience.

Of course, every time we crack open a memory box we change the contents ever so slightly. That’s because when we visit a memory, we add a little here and snip a little there. With each new peek into the box we make subtle alterations until one day, all that is left is the memory of a memory of a memory; little more than a faint and blurred copy. The original is gone forever.

But not always. Every once in a while the most amazing thing happens. A mysterious force knocks a box off one of our memory shelves—a box that has sat untouched for years suddenly bursts open. And when it does, you relive a precious moment—unchanged and straight from your childhood. That’s what happened to me one December morning a few years ago. I was preparing for my granddaughter who would soon be making a Christmas visit. As I fussed and fidgeted and tried to make the house safe for a curious child, I spotted a small shiny object on the floor, just under our living room couch. As I drew closer I could see that it was a dime.

“We can’t have that lying around!” I muttered to myself, as I dropped to my hands and knees.

At that very moment, a song that I had learned in the first grade started playing on the radio: “Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat. . . .” The image of the shiny dime coupled with the haunting melody of a childhood song pushed an untouched package off my memory shelf.


As the lid from this tiny box popped open and the contents tumbled out, I was suddenly six years old. The dime I had been staring at under the couch magically transformed into a dime lying under my grandfather’s candy counter.

When I was a boy my grandpa owned a corner grocery store and every day on the way home from elementary school I’d stop by to see him. Grandpa was always as interested in the characters portrayed in my childhood primer as I was. “Spot ran away, and Sally and Puff are looking for him,” I’d explain. “Really?” he would ask with genuine interest. “Do you think they’ll find him?”

Grandpa always wore a lime green apron that looked clean and stiff and official. As the sole proprietor of our only neighborhood store, I thought he was about as important as any person alive—maybe as important as a brain surgeon, a judge, or even a fireman. I loved my Grandpa as much as I loved anyone or anything. Grandpa loved me in return. He was proud of everything I did. When I earned a gold star at school, he acted as if I had invented penicillin. Even when I didn’t do very well he’d smile warmly and tell me not to worry.

Sometimes Grandpa would use me as a prop. On rainy days (which was most of the time in Bellingham, Washington), I’d stop by the store and he would go through the same routine. Grandpa would be chatting with a grownup customer and as soon as I’d walk up next to him he’d mention how miserable the weather was. Then he’d look out at the drizzle and say, “You know, I wish the sun would come out. Not so much for myself but for my grandson.” Then he’d pat me on the head and explain, “I’ve seen the sun before, but my grandson never has!” Everyone would laugh.

On this day—that is, the day that fell down from my memory shelf—I was on my hands and knees doing what little boys do when they’re at their grandfather’s grocery store, next to the candy counter. I was looking for coins. Sometimes grownups would drop a penny, and if you were lucky, you’d end up with a tasty treat. Only this time, I spotted a shiny new dime. Ten whole cents!

I can still remember what I bought—one licorice whip, one red-hot jawbreaker, two sour cherries, one raspberry vine, and ten Whoppers—Whoppers were two for a penny. Grandpa smiled wide as I scampered out of his store. You would have thought that he was the one with the pocketful of candy.

Since I was still a child when this took place—and still believed in miracles—the next day I ran out the back door of school, raced down the hill, burst into Grandpa’s store, and dropped to my knees in search of treasure. Then I crawled around and looked and sniffed, and probed, and hunted until—guess what? I found another dime. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! This time I bought my older brother an Oh Henry! candy bar and myself five pieces of penny candy.

And so it went. Every day I’d drop to my hands and knees, find a dime, and marvel at my good luck. Sometimes I’d only spend five cents, and the next day I’d buy a fifteen-cent kite. All through that spring and well into the summer I bought Fudgesicles on hot days, kites on windy days, and candy bars when I was thinking of my brother. And every single day Grandpa would smile wide as I ran from the store with my treasures in hand.

This was the box that fell from my memory shelf when I knelt to pick up a dime the day my granddaughter was coming for Christmas. The entire rush of thought—complete with Whoppers, kites, and licorice whips—passed in a flash.

As I arose from my hands and knees nearly fifty years after finding that first dime, the adult inside me returned. “Why Grandpa!” I thought to myself, “You put those dimes there didn’t you!” Sure enough, at age seventy-two, he had gingerly lowered himself to the floor and secretly hidden a dime in a different spot each morning. He didn’t do it for the thanks. He never told me what he had done. He did it because he loved me.

I had a friend growing up who was given some of the most amazing gifts for Christmas. The year he turned sixteen his parents gave him an entire automobile. Not just a leather steering-wheel cover, or one of those smelly cardboard pine trees you hang on the rearview mirror—but an entire car. If his five-year-old son were to ask him about his “bestest and most favorite” Christmas present ever, I bet he would talk about that shiny red Chevy. But for me, my favorite gift fell off a shelf after it sat untouched for nearly fifty years. It was wrapped in childhood innocence and when the lid popped off and the contents tumbled out, it bathed me in the warm glow of my grandfather’s love.

Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, I open that glorious box and look at the kites and penny candy and relive the joy. Sometimes the box falls down all by itself. I’ll be walking down the street when a person wearing lime green clothing passes by me and bumps the box. Plunk. And you know what—I think sometimes my Grandpa from somewhere far away whispers, “Happy Christmas!” and the breeze from his sweet voice gently nudges the box.

Whatever causes the package to tumble, the result is always the same. I taste the sweet Fudgesicles, feel the tug of a kite, and imagine my Grandpa on his hands and knees—hiding a dime for his beloved grandson. And even though my “bestest and most favorite” present was never listed in any department store catalog, that extraordinary box—that memory box filled with Grandpa’s love—is far more precious to me than anything ever shaped by human hands.

I shall cherish it forever.