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Kerrying On

The Importance of Intent

When I was twelve years old and William “Pop” Noonan first invited me to operate his corner grocery store while he spent his Saturdays running errands, I quickly accepted the job—and then repeatedly botched it. I took so many missteps that I’m sure he would have fired me were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather.

For example, on the very first day at work, Mrs. O’Malley asked me for two pounds of cheese for the casserole she was making. I cut off a hunk from the bulk slab, weighed it, cut another chunk, weighed it, and continued whacking and weighing until there were two chunks and nine odd-shaped chips and clumps of cheese that came to exactly two pounds—just as requested.

Mrs. O’Malley took one look at the motley stack, shook her head and muttered, “Kids!” I was only a kid, so grandpa didn’t fire me simply because I didn’t know proper cheese-cutting protocol.

He probably should have fired me when I invited a couple of friends to visit me at the store one Saturday, and we produced and distributed our very own candy invention—chili powder gum. Noonan’s Grocery sold hollow gumballs and cans of chili powder, plus there were lots of kids coming and going. It was the perfect storm, and many a neighborhood kid was caught by surprise when he or she unsuspectingly bit into one of our concoctions. Despite the outcries of the neighborhood kids, Grandpa still didn’t dismiss me.

The biggest mistake I made came a couple of years later, when business for corner grocery stores had slowed to a trickle. Because of this, I agreed to help my friend Rick Eherenfield with his algebra during the long breaks between customers. I was a year ahead of Rick in math, and could be of some use to him. By my estimation, I was doing a nice thing.

Rick and I were in the back room noodling over his algebra assignment when the brass bell hanging over the front door rang. I jumped to my feet and ran through the swinging door that hung between the store and the back room and up to the counter. There stood Mrs. Kratz. Uh oh. Not Mrs. Kratz. She was one of those rare customers who still did all of her shopping at the corner store. One look at her resolve and I could tell that fetching and bagging her groceries was going to take a long time. Rick was waiting in the back room. We had algebra to do. And then there was the fact that Mrs. Kratz criticized my every move. The overall effect was to put me in a big hurry to finish the job and return to the back room where the meaning of X was still waiting to be discovered.

Mrs. Kratz was having none of it. “I’ll have a dozen slices of bologna,” she drawled. Next came a carton of cigarettes, needles for her sewing kit, and a package of Rit Dye for a faded shirt she was reclaiming. What did I prefer—dark purple or a slightly less dark purple? It plodded along like this for fifteen minutes.

Finally came the summing of the bill. I looked down on a paper bag that I had used to write the prices of her purchases, added them up, and pronounced the total: “Twelve seventy-three.” Mrs. Kratz made me sum it again. Then again. Eventually, she snatched up her two bags, I opened the front door for her, and the bell rang twice—Ding! Ding!—announcing my escape from her tyranny. I bolted to the back room and continued helping Rick with his algebra.

Three days later, Grandpa summoned Mom, Dad, and me to the store for a short visit. Once gathered, Grandpa explained that I had lost him his longest standing and most loyal customer—Mrs. Kratz. She complained that while serving her, I had been in such a hurry to get her out the front door that it was disrespectful. According to her, I kept looking at my watch and rapidly tapping a pencil. She had never seen such impertinence and would “never darken the door” of Grandpa’s store again. It was then that I learned that even though I had gone through all the motions and had helped a demanding customer, my intent toward her had been evident, and I had failed in my customer service duties. Even though I had been in a hurry because I wanted to help a friend with algebra (a nice thing), it didn’t matter. I would have to prove myself a worthy merchant once more.

The next Saturday, I set about the task of doing just that. First, I swept and cleaned the store—but that clearly wasn’t enough to tip the balance. Then I stumbled on a real opportunity to make amends. Sitting in the sink of the kitchenette was the filthiest frying pan in recorded culinary history. The pan wasn’t just stained; it was pitch black. Gunk and gook had been overheated and chemically bonded into an impenetrable layer that now covered the entire inner surface. Here was my chance to redeem myself. Restore this pan to its original shine, and surely I’d be forgiven for the Kratz disaster.

I grabbed a box of steel wool pads and feverishly scrubbed the pan until my fingers bled. Not to be denied, I donned rubber gloves and scrubbed until I finally uncovered a one-inch patch of shiny steel. Then, for six hours (between customers) I scrubbed the pan until the entire thing looked like it had just come out of its original box.

When grandpa returned from his errands I couldn’t wait to show him his good-as-new frying pan. He took one look at the shining pan, smiled broadly, and gave me a hug. “How did you get off all the black stuff?” He asked. I answered by pointing at a stack of used steel wool pads. Then Grandpa hugged me again.

Time passed, I went off to college, Mom and Dad moved to Phoenix, Grandpa passed away, and I hadn’t seen the frying pan for years until one day, I spotted it in Mom’s pantry. She saw me looking at the pan and came over and gave me a hug.

“I kept the pan as a keepsake,” she said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of love,” she explained.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“The week before you cleaned this pan,” Mom explained, “I had given it to your grandpa as a gift. It was a new invention called a “non-stick” pan because it was covered with a special substance called Teflon that stuck to nothing. That’s what you scrubbed off the frying pan that day. Teflon, not gunk.”

“No!” I responded.

“Yes,” Mom explained. “Grandpa was so touched by the enormous effort you put in to redeem yourself that he wouldn’t let me tell you that you had ruined his brand new frying pan. Your intentions were pure and that’s all that mattered to him. He understood the importance of intent, so he honored your good intentions by not saying a word about the frying pan fiasco to another living soul.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I kept the pan,” Mom continued, “as a shiny reminder of his love for you.”

“And my love for him,” I added.

The pan itself had no real value. In fact, it’s actually been ruined past its value. But the intent behind my cleaning it, and the intent behind Grandpa’s keeping it have made it priceless to me.

Influencer QA

How to Influence High Employee Turnover

Dear David,

I work as a director for a center that serves children with special needs. We are part of the Department of Pediatrics of a public university/hospital system. I have been the director for two years now and have an issue I am not sure how to solve. We work for a public institution, so the salaries for the caregivers who work in the classrooms are barely above minimum wage and not competitive locally. Because of this, our center is a revolving door for caregivers who are a critical part of our team. I am unable to raise the salary, so how do I keep employees, find new employees on a regular basis, and keep up the morale of the center and myself? I feel so discouraged most of the time because it’s an issue I can’t control, nor will it change in all likelihood. I am seriously considering leaving.

Best Regards,
Turnover Troubles

Dear Turnover Troubles,

Many leaders find themselves in your position. They struggle with turnover within their essential, but low-paying positions. I’ve worked with many of these leaders, so—while my advice won’t be especially welcome, it is truly battle-tested.

I think you need to re-set your expectations of what’s possible. You may not be able to ever “solve” your retention problem. The turnover numbers within your group may always be higher than ideal. However, there is a worse problem than actual turnover: It’s what we call “spiritual turnover.” Spiritual turnover happens when people stop being engaged, involved, motivated, or psychologically present at work. Their bodies may keep walking the halls, but their souls have left the building.

These organizational zombies are far more costly than actual physical turnover. They prevent your team from achieving its mission, and create safety and customer-experience problems as well. I think your goal should be to keep your employees as engaged and positive as possible—even when you know that many of them will only be with you until they find a better-paying job.

Gather Information: Begin by gathering information from two groups: a.) Long-term employees who you value and respect, and b.) Past employees who have been gone for at least three months.

Ask the long-term employees about their motivations for staying. Find out what is working for them. Is it pride in their work? Friendships with other team members? The impact they have on the people they serve? Work to build on these strengths.

Ask the past employees about why they left, what they liked/disliked about the job, and what they are doing now. One of your goals will be to reduce unappealing elements of the job. But, just as important, look for patterns in their career steps. For example, are your employees “graduating” to a better-paying job within healthcare? Within your same hospital? Are they going back to school? Are they really getting better-paying jobs, or are they stuck?

Connect to Values: Employee engagement requires a strong connection to at least one of the following four values:

  • Development: Some find meaning in the growth the job offers—in the way it prepares them for the next step in their career.
  • Job: Some find meaning in the tasks or the craft of the job. They identify with the profession.
  • Customers: Some find meaning in helping the people they serve—in your case the children and their families.
  • Team: Some find meaning in being a valued member of a winning team—in close friendships and being counted on by others.

I’ll suggest a few actions you can take in each of these areas.

Development: I hope your past employees have moved on to better jobs—and that they see their time with you as having helped their careers. One approach you might take is to turn your team into a world-class farm team for your hospital (or for professional schools). Make sure your employees get the training, experience, and coaching that will help them be most valuable to other departments. Create opportunities for employees to showcase their skills and to learn more about opportunities they can strive for. Your employees will value their time with you, because they see what you are doing for their careers. Employees will want to join your team, because they know it’s a great way to enter into a career in healthcare.

Job: My experience is that teachers take a lot of pride in their profession—and are also quick to point out obstacles that prevent them from practicing their profession. Often the best way to tap in to this source of motivation is by removing distractions and disruptions so that your employees can focus on what they do best. In addition, set high professional standards, and involve the whole team in holding each other accountable for achieving them. It’s hard to take pride in your work, if the standard isn’t high.

Customers: My guess is that most, if not all, of your employees take pride in the impact they have on the children and families they serve. Build on this pride by making these connections more visible, more personal, and more frequent. Find ways to track the impact your employees are having, and share and celebrate this impact. Create face time between your employees and children’s families.

Team: Make sure your employees feel like a valuable part of your team. Find ways to have them work with partners or in small groups. Create opportunities for them to get to know each other—and discover similar interests beyond work. Make sure each person knows that others on the team are counting on them, and value their contributions.

I hope these suggestions will help. Again, I think employee engagement is a better measure than turnover for leaders in your position.

Best of Luck,
David

Change Anything QA

Changing Behavior in the Classroom

Dear Steve,

I teach a class of eight- to nine-year-olds in church. They are high in energy and enthusiasm, but low in self-restraint. How do I encourage and teach and inspire them while keeping order? I’ve thought about helping them establish class rules of conduct, but am short on ideas for rewards or consequences.

Sincerely,
Bouncing Off The Walls

Dear Bouncing,

It seems like you’re experiencing that age of wonder, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and wild, unbridled enthusiasm (i.e., wall bouncing). It seems that eight to nine is a magic number because just a couple of weeks ago, I was working with a group of eight to nine executives who suffered from the same problem. I think I have a couple of ideas that will work with high energy kids . . . and executives.

It’s not uncommon to want to move immediately to rewards and consequences when faced with this type of challenge—it’s both easy and fast. However, it’s often not as effective as you would hope. You also spend a lot of time wrapped up in discipline rather than teaching and inspiring. My suggestions will require a little more patience, but should yield better results over the long-term. Here are three big ideas to add to what you’re currently doing:

  • Focus on practice.
  • Build some wiggle room into your rewards.
  • Create audibles.

Focus on practice. Focusing on practice in this case means practicing to focus. Kids come from a variety of different home environments, each with their own set of norms and expectations. Some children will come to your class more calm and with a higher capacity to focus. Others—not so much. The difficulty is that those with a higher capacity to focus will soon conform to the norm set by those that don’t. Many children simply don’t know how to focus, so you will need to help them develop those skills. Take time in your class to deliberately practice paying attention.

Start with shorter time periods and work your way up to longer ones. Let them know that you’re going to practice and allow room for them to fail as they practice. They will need help and coaching throughout the process, and probably won’t get it right the first time they try. Make sure to use a large timer in the process so they can get a sense of how long they need to focus. If necessary, give them something to focus on, and keep track of their progress so that they can see their improvement.

With this approach, you’ll want to introduce challenges to make it fun. Things like, “Our record is two minutes. Let’s see if we can do two minutes and ten seconds.” Or, “Let’s start off with the quiet game. The first person to make a noise makes the timer start over for the whole group.” If you make it a game, they’ll find it’s more fun to practice. Then, you’ll get the group involved in encouraging one another in the process.

Build some wiggle room into your rewards. Let’s be honest. We’re talking about eight- to- nine-year-olds—they are inherently wiggly. And when pent-up for any extended period of time, they will eventually explode in a fit of flailing arms and legs (and that’s the mild version). So a smart approach is to create opportunities to let it all out. This can actually be a great reward for good behavior. I became familiar with a church class run by a neighbor of mine who had music she used to allow the kids to “go wild” to for the duration of the song. Another teacher would choose a child that had demonstrated good focus during the class to lead his or her classmates in a series of wiggle exercises of his or her choosing. There is a movement (pun intended) being championed by Nike and others to get kids active in the classroom for short bursts to break up some of the longer teaching segments. I think similar to them, you’ll find that these types of breaks will be a great reward for the kids, and help them focus by providing an outlet for their need to move.

Create audibles. Along with the previous two ideas, you’ll want to have a strategy to deal with the times that the class falls back into old behavior patterns. And it’s not a matter of “if,” it really is a matter of “when.” The Boy Scouts of America have a great way of dealing with kids when they get too rambunctious. To bring attention back, the leader holds up his or her right hand with three fingers extended straight up. When scouts see this, they are supposed to stop talking and respond by making the same sign. Everybody recognizes this sign and knows what to do when they see it.

With younger kids, I’d recommend something similar, but adding an audible command. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head.” You can use all kinds of variations on this such as clap your hands, stomp your foot, pull your ear lobe, make the high-five sign, etc. So mix it up and be creative—the kids will love seeing the new things you come up with.

Something like this will allow you to see who’s responding and who still needs help. If you find some are not responding as quickly, you may want to add some additional information to your audible. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head. Okay, it looks like we’re still waiting for so-and-so, and what’s-their-bucket.” It usually takes a couple of rounds of commands before you’ll get the entire class, but with practice, they will get better at it.

Hopefully, implementing these ideas will help bring the bouncing under control . . . or at least reduce it to a manageable dribble. Remember, consistency is the key in these situations. Good luck and carry on with the impactful teaching assignment you’ve undertaken. I’m sure there are many grateful parents associated with those kids.

Sincerely,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship

Dear Emily,

I have an older sister who I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. I often find myself getting frustrated with her because of her actions. I know that I have a deeply rooted story about her—that she is very self-centered. I’ve asked myself why a reasonable, rational, person would do what she does and I can always come up with an answer for that scenario. But when I see all of the scenarios as a pattern that has persisted my whole life, I have a really hard time telling another story besides my negative one. I’ve tried talking to her about specific situations and we usually come to common ground but it always happens again. It’s hard to point out the pattern without sounding as if I am keeping a list of her mistakes. She also gets very defensive because she sees it as attacking. I’m not perfect either so have no right to point out her flaws. I want to get along with her and enjoy spending time with her but honestly find dealing with her tedious and exhausting. What can I do?

Best Regards,
Exhausted and Discouraged

Dear Exhausted and Discouraged,

I have an older sister that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. She is brilliant, informed, dynamic, opinionated, and oh so very different from me. One of the very best parts of our relationship, which is very dear to me, is that we don’t see eye-to-eye. Invariably, when we are together, I learn something new, either about the world or about myself. Either way, her different view of the world is a blessing in my life.

I share that not to say “be like me” or “too bad your sister isn’t as cool as mine.” Instead, I simply want to point out all the baggage that comes with a phrase like “we don’t see eye-to-eye.” When did seeing eye-to-eye become the goal? When did not seeing eye-to-eye become a bad thing, or something to be overcome or worked around? Diversity of opinion, thought, approach, and experience can enrich us if we let it.

As I read your inquiry, I wanted to know more. I wanted all the details of specific things your sister had done so I could judge: is she really self-centered or are you stuck in your own negative story, a story that is blinding you from the reality of who your sister is? I kept thinking about variations of that question: is your story about your sister accurate? And then I realized… it doesn’t matter. You have done exactly what you need to do: you identified your story as a story, you challenged your story, and then you went and discussed your story with your sister. That is more than 99 percent of people out there manage to do.

But you’re still stuck, right? And why? Because crucial conversations don’t solve every problem. Because crucial conversations don’t take away a person’s right to choose how he or she will behave. Your sister, despite your conversations, still gets to choose who she is, who she wants to be, and how she will behave. Your choice is to decide what kind of boundaries you want to put in place, in your life and in your relationships.

Here is a suggestion of how to think about your way forward. It’s a variation on what we teach in Start With Heart that I have found helpful.

Think about your interactions with your sister. Try thinking of a specific interaction that didn’t go well, that was (as you described it) tedious or exhausting. Got it? Okay, now as you are thinking about that interaction, ask yourself: what do you really want? My guess is the first answer is to not be exhausted! Maybe you want peace or enjoyment. You want to be able to laugh and share. You want to feel energized and validated.

Now, next step (and here is where the variation comes in): what do you really want for your sister as she is right now? Sometimes when we simply ask ourselves “what do I really want for the other person?” the answer is all wrapped up in the changes we want him or her to make, the person we want him or her to become. We say things like, “I want her to be less self-centered.” But the key to drawing and maintaining healthy boundaries is to acknowledge who she is right then and ask, what do I want for her, as she is right now, and what do I want for my relationship with her, as she is right now? This doesn’t mean people can’t change and that we can’t have influence. Life is not about being frozen in a specific point in time. It does mean that we need to accept who people are today, where they are today, and then make a decision about what relationship we want to have with them today.

I have found that as I do that, I am able to recognize and enjoy the positive aspects of a current relationship because I can place a boundary between me and the negative aspects of the relationship. This might mean that I don’t do certain things with certain people and it absolutely means that I don’t expect certain things from certain people. Instead, I am able to better enjoy someone for who they are. I let go of the expectations or hopes I had for what our relationship should be or could be, and acknowledge the relationship for what it is.

I may be reading far more into your words than what is there… and yet in them I feel a sense of hurt and loss, that your relationship with your sister isn’t what you want it to be and you are carrying that with you. Chances are you are carrying the weight of that disappointment into every interaction you have with her. So, my suggestion is to lay down the weight, see her as she is, and decide what type of relationship you want to have with her—just as she is today.

Best of Luck,
Emily

From the Road

Music You Can Dance to, and Other Hidden Training Tips

Music is a big part of my training experiences. Anytime I’m laying out the flow for a training design, or stepping in front of an audience, I have a song playing in my head. Setting the tone, driving the pace, bringing everything together. I’ve used music as a pre-session and break filler, and even, on occasion, as examples in training (I find the best examples tend to be in ¾ time).

So, no surprise that as I’ve been putting together my REACH presentation on trainer tips over the last couple of weeks, there was a song playing in my head. I was about halfway through the presentation when the lyrics from this song became very clear (not always the case) and triggered one of my favorite sayings from my past: “Most of the significant problems you face can be solved in the lyrics of songs.”

I hadn’t reflected on this sage advice in a long time, so I started to wonder: is this as applicable today as it was in those lovelorn late-teen to early-twenties years? Could it apply to training problems? I decided to put it to the test. For those of you who enjoy a good “hum-along,” here is some advice that I was able to tap out as I considered a couple of common training challenges.

Training Challenge: A participant asks if it’s all right to miss the afternoon.
Response: Should I stay or should I go? If I go there could be trouble.

Training Challenge:
Participants want to stay with their table groups instead of pairing up with a learning partner.
Response: It takes two to make a thing go right. It takes two make it outta sight.

Training Challenge: How do I memorize everybody’s name in the session?
Response: Well I remember, I remember, don’t worry. How could I ever forget? It’s the first time, the last time we ever met.

Training Challenge: No one seems to be responding to the questions you ask.
Response: Yeah, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.
So next time you feel stuck, it might help to turn on the radio and, “Oh, oh, listen to the music!”

P.S. Can you identify all the songs referenced above? Comment below and log your guesses.

Influencer QA

Motivation or Ability?

Dear Joseph,

I have an employee who is not aware of conversation protocols we all take for granted. He talks on and on without noticing the other person wants to leave the conversation. He questions people excessively, demanding exact details and when they don’t provide what he wants, he tells them how disappointed he is. He misses cues—taking things literally that were meant figuratively—and generally just doesn’t seem to “get it.” When I recommend he work on communication skills and supply resources for doing so, he denies he has a communication issue. The issue is affecting the morale of other team members, and people are starting to avoid him. How do we help him see the need for change?

Sincerely,
Communication Gaps

Dear Communication Gaps,

You raise a very interesting question—one that has got my “spidey sense” tingling. You’ve laid out a set of clues that I suspect is making many of our readers jump to the same conclusion I am. But before I go there, let me suggest a principle.

When you want to address someone’s behavior, your first task is to diagnose. You must try to determine whether their current behavior represents a motivation problem, an ability problem, or a mix of the two. When your employee talks long past others’ interest, is he doing that because he doesn’t care about others’ needs, or because he simply doesn’t see the cues? When he tells you he has no communication issues, is it because he is knowingly arrogant, or sincerely unaware? Or some of both? How you answer this question can point you in completely different directions for a response.

And that’s where my “spidey sense” comes in. You describe a pattern of behaviors—including missing social cues, obsession with detail, inability to differentiate substantive from irrelevant information, missed conversational subtlety (sarcasm, figurative references)—that sound like classic symptoms of Asperger syndrome or something on the Autism spectrum. Here’s a description you can use to see if other evidences of Asperger’s fit what you’re experiencing.

If you conclude someone has the ability to behave appropriately but chooses not to, you’ve got a motivation problem. You can respond by helping them understand how their behavior affects others. You can impose consequences. You can help them see how it will undermine values they already hold. There’s a lot you can do to influence motivation.

If, on the other hand, the person lacks ability, you can offer training or coaching. But now we must nuance even the diagnosis of ability problems. There is a difference between ignorance and disability. In the first case, your employee has the basic cognitive and motor capacity to behave differently, but has no training in doing so. If this were the situation, your challenge would be to find a way to convince him of his behavioral problem and then engage him in an acceptable process of development.

If, however, he is in the second case, the situation is much more difficult. With Asperger syndrome, and even with other Autism spectrum disorders, development is possible. However, it comes with much more profound practice and feedback than your typical skill building class. If your employee has a challenge of this kind, and has not been diagnosed, you are in a tricky situation for attempting to influence change. You will have a much more difficult time helping him see his own behavioral gaps. And, any intervention you suggest to help him address the gaps would have to measure up to the special hurdles he’ll face in developing greater interpersonal sensitivity.

If this were my dear friend, I would do three things:

  1. Validate whether Asperger’s might be involved by looking more broadly at his behaviors and Asperger syndrome indicators.
  2. Lovingly broach the subject of his behaviors and their coincidence with this condition.
  3. Suggest further diagnosis.

Given that he is an employee, you have extra HR considerations I urge you to review. And within those boundaries, I would find a way to be as helpful to him as I could.

I wish you the best,
Joseph

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Speaking the Unspeakable

The following article was first published on March 22, 2006.

A couple of decades ago, I started a long and painful battle of trying to help save American manufacturing. In a quest to find out what needed to change in the good old U. S. of A. where companies were routinely losing jobs and market share, I interviewed hundreds of managers and employees. The first question I asked was, “If you could change one thing around here, what would it be?” The very first person I talked to responded without hesitation. “Get the skilled trades to work six hours a day. We currently pay them for ten to twelve hours, but they don’t work much. Get them to work six hours and we can turn a profit.”

This seemed a bit harsh. Surely there were a lot of people who put in an honest day’s work. Surely there were plenty of model employees. And indeed there were. However, it wasn’t long until I learned that a lot of people—managers, employees, and yes, even many skilled craftspeople themselves—were worried. Despite the rhetoric spoken at every election about the unbeatable American worker, they worried because many facilities were embarrassingly less productive than their offshore counterparts. They produced at a rate far lower than the best. Output per employee (the gold standard of productivity) ran as low as 40 percent below best-in-class.

The solution seemed obvious: people needed to know about this enormous gap. We needed to shout from the rooftops about the impending doom. Then maybe we could get back on track. But then I remembered—that first guy I interviewed had leaned forward and whispered his recommendation to me, despite the fact that we were alone in an office. He was nervous about bringing up the topic in public.

In fact, this was always the case. Dozens of people brought up the issue, but nobody mentioned it in front of others—or with much volume. After all, to say that a certain group of employees wasn’t putting in a full day could be viewed as insensitive and insulting. To further explain that many were delaying their efforts on purpose—in order to fall behind schedule and then earn overtime wages—well, that was politically incorrect. Never mind that it was largely true—you couldn’t say it aloud.

I argued with the executives I was working with that we needed to gather every single employee under one roof and announce that at the current production rates, it wouldn’t be long until all of us would be working for minimum wage. That should get some attention. They chose to say nothing. Later, when I worked with a facility that had just lost the right to manufacture half of the parts they had been assembling, I called for a funeral. I wanted to put each part that would now be manufactured off shore in a coffin and parade the dead hunks of metal around in order to mourn their loss. Nobody was having it. You couldn’t make a big deal about lost work. You couldn’t even talk about it.

I was growing so frustrated with this shared silence that a couple of years later, when I was working in still another plant and it came time to negotiate the contract, I implored the HR folks to hammer home the issue of productivity. But it never happened. Yield and output per employee discussions were actually disallowed. Eventually, after much bitter debate between management and the union, nobody was even permitted to say the word “productivity” aloud. It could only be referred to as “The P Word” (I’m not making this up). If things continued to deteriorate, one day most, if not all, of their manufacturing jobs would be lost, and yet nobody could talk about one of the primary causes.

How could anyone fix this? I didn’t have a clue.

Now, travel with me around the world to find a solution I discovered quite by accident. It’s twenty years later, and my partners and I are studying what is known as entertainment-education. It’s a branch of communication theory that has had a remarkable impact on change theory. Two of us met with Professor Arvind Singhal of Ohio University in his office in Athens, Ohio. He energetically explained what recently happened in northern India, not far from his hometown.

After watching others fruitlessly fight the devastating impact of a caste system that had been deeply rooted for hundreds of years, professor Singhal and other change agents decided to take a new path. Inspired by the work of Everett Rogers, they created a radio soap opera as a means of changing long-held norms. Here’s how radio waves were aimed at shared values.

Three times a week, listeners would tune in to the adventures of a handful of engaging characters who faced many of the same problems the listeners themselves faced every day. However, the writers behind these radio programs were interested in more than mere ratings (and their ratings were quite high). They wanted to encourage people to talk about the debilitating caste system. It was high time it was abolished, but as long as there were people who had been cast as “untouchables,” and as long as untouchables were largely a taboo topic, the system would continue.

Nobody preached anything on the show; the characters simply lived through problems the writers wanted to address. At the end of each program, a renowned figure from the region would recap the events by asking pointed questions such as, “What will they do next?” “How should they handle this tough problem?”

After each episode, people would gather at work or at a pub or around a well and talk about what was taking place in the show. Everyone wanted to discuss the latest goings-on. The impact was nothing short of sensational. Dr. Singhal tells of a family who routinely listened to the show and was inspired to make a bold move. The oldest daughter in the family was soon to be married. They decided to use the wedding celebration (which lasts for several days) to take a stand on the caste system by inviting untouchables.

To avoid a total scandal, the family encouraged their unlikely guests to clean up for the celebration and even bought them some new but inexpensive clothing. The first day of the celebration, the father, surrounded by friends and family, asked one of his unexpected guests to bring him a glass of water. (These are people who are not allowed to cast a shadow on others.) The guest did so and the father then “ingested” something poured by an untouchable.

The server then offered water to the rest of the guests. Several took it, others said they weren’t thirsty, and still others got up and left. As the celebration continued, the family took more and more steps to involve these “untouchables” until they achieved a more widespread acceptance. Multiply these powerful events by thousands of people across hundreds of communities and eventually values change. In fact, this radio drama alone eliminated many of the debilitating practices in the region in less than a year.

Why were these creative change agents able to succeed where others had failed? Because they found a way to get thousands of people to openly talk about what previously had been an undiscussable issue. Audience members identified with the radio characters, talked about their challenges, and came to agreements about the need for change.

At the heart of this effort, lies one key principle: You can’t change something you can’t talk about. If you want to see long-held but debilitating traditions go away, you have to find a way to hold what had once been “undicussable” crucial conversations.

Now, let’s go back to the manufacturing problem I referred to earlier—one that has recently led to the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs in Middle America. What if we had talked openly twenty years ago about what leaders referred to as the “opiate of overtime”? What if we had been able to go public with the fact that thousands of people were purposely slowing down in order to maximize their own income?

To this day, political candidates and talk show hosts wring their hands in public about the loss of American jobs, but nobody dares talk about what really happened. Sure, we now go head on with employees who do the same job offshore for far less money, but how will we ever know what would have happened had we been able to improve our output numbers to competitive levels? And how would we ever improve without making the problem part of the public debate?

This challenge cuts across every area of our lives. If you’ve ever broken into a sweat over the prospect of having the “sex talk” with your pre-teen, then you know what it’s like to step up to a topic you’re not quite sure how to discuss in the open. Or, how about this one? If you’re a nurse watching a doctor fail to follow protocol and possibly put a patient at risk, you know how difficult it can be to speak openly about something nobody else talks about. Even more likely, you know what it’s like not to say anything. Who is stupid enough to bring up a taboo topic?

So, what’s a person to do? I won’t be developing a radio show anytime soon, but I’ll never again work on a problem that people can only whisper to me as they glance around nervously without first examining what it’ll take to move the topic into the public spotlight. When it comes to widely held social norms, you have to get a whole lot of people talking about the need to change. That’s the only way you can make it safe to first talk about and then resolve chronic problems.