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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.

BS Guys

The Four Ways You’re Being Manipulated (and How to Stop It)

The following article was first published on May 5, 2015.

You and I are shockingly easy to manipulate. Decades of social science experiments show that we can be induced to donate or steal, stand for justice or proliferate racism, vote or stay home, torture or pity.

It’s time we stopped reading social science for fascinating facts about humans in general, and started using it to navigate our own lives. It’s time we acknowledge how little control we have over our own behavior—and start taking control of the things that control us. Only then will we be the real agents of our own behavior. Only then will we be able to live up to the morals, goals, and aspirations we most cherish.

A great place to start taking control of the things that control you is to become an Influence Spotter. As you move about in public, engage with media and interact with others, pick one influence tactic at a time and spend a week learning to spot examples of it. Our research shows that you are least subject to manipulation when you are most conscious of its attempt. For example, if you know someone is raising her voice in order to intimidate you, you may feel a bit less intimidated.

Here are four great “spotting” exercises to begin with. They come to us from Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura. In Bandura’s latest book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, he describes four common ways people like you and me are manipulated into supporting and doing despicable things. To help bring them to life—see if you can spot them in our most recent Behavioral Science Guys experiment.

1. Minimizing the behavior. This is often accomplished by using sanitizing euphemisms to describe what we’re doing that sanitize it. There’s a reason CIA officials insist on referring to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture.” In our experiment, we test whether having a confederate urge teens to “sweeten their score” causes more to compromise their morals than if we call it “lying.”

2. Minimizing consequences. In our experiment, the confederate helps subjects minimize the consequences of their choices with advantageous comparisons—for example, “It’s not like we’re killing someone here!” For years, tobacco companies attempted to salve consciences by refuting connections between smoking and cancer. The murkier they made the connection, the less repugnant their product appeared. We sometimes minimize consequences in our own minds when we make choices inconsistent with our values—for example, “One ice cream cone won’t cause a heart attack!”

3. Dehumanize victims. Last year, the world was in an uproar about the apparent North-Korean-backed cyber-attack on Sony Studios. The alleged goal was to stop the release of “The Interview”—a comedy depicting an assassination of Kim Jong Un. Absent from all of this moral outrage is appropriate disgust at a comedic representation of the assassination of a sitting head-of-state. Why no outcry? Because we see Kim Jong Un as a ruthless buffoon. He is a caricature not a human—so we give ourselves permission to act toward him in ways we would not toward say, President Obama. Imagine our reaction if another country produced a television sitcom celebrating the kidnap and torture of our sitting head of state. Manipulating the representation of victims is one of the most common tactics practiced on you.

Sometimes it’s used in reverse. For example, a study showed that voters are 90 percent more likely to favor protecting a species called the furry-nosed otter than the same creature if called the sharp-clawed otter. Change Sheep-eating Eagle to American Eagle and we are 75 percent more likely to take it under our wing. In our experiment, some teen subjects were told they were competing against a team called “The Rats” while others were told it was simply “Team B.” On hearing their name, one boy wryly commented, “That’s an unfortunate name.” Notice also that as we debate the use of various coercive methods in the US, we refer to those whom we practice them on as “enemy combatants.” An unfortunate name if you want people to consider your humanity.

4. Finally, the granddaddy of all manipulations: moral justification. We are in peril of disconnecting from our conscience when we begin to justify our means with noble-sounding ends. In our experiment, some subjects were offered the chance to donate their winnings to a children’s charity (we did, in fact, make the donation). They were told that the fictitious other team was keeping their winnings for themselves. As subject kids cheated, it was common to hear, “It’s for the children!” Dr. Bandura pointed out a painful hypocrisy in our own experiment: “You are justifying lying to kids in order to pursue knowledge—how do you feel about that?”

When we loaded our subjects (if you just noted that “subject” is a dehumanizing word you’re already influence spotting!) with all four manipulation tactics they made more than three times as many dishonest choices. Think about it! These aren’t bad kids—these are normal kids being subjected to powerful influence tactics. Their choices were far less about them than about the things controlling them. Which is why you and I need to learn to take control of the things that control us.

Now, let me hasten to add that I am not taking a position here on decisions like the manufacture of cigarettes, the use of water boarding, or deception in social science experiments. I have my own feelings on those topics and I suspect you do as well. What I am suggesting is that as you and I sort out our opinions, there are things we and others do that cloud and confuse the moral calculation. If you want to stay connected to your conscience, the best course is to learn to spot these manipulations—both self-imposed and external—and reframe the choice in an honest way.

“I am breaking my commitment to myself by ordering a Mucho Grande Mocha Latte. Do I want to do that?”

At times, the answer may be yes. But at least it will then be a thoughtful yes.

Join me in creating a better and more conscious world by becoming an Influence Spotter.

Good Luck,
Joseph

Crucial Application

Corporate Culture Chasm: VitalSmarts Research Finds Bosses Are Out of Touch with the Day-To-Day Experiences of Their Employees

Our latest study found a concerning gap between what managers say they want their company culture to be and what employees say is really valued by these same bosses. Specifically, leaders say they want innovation, initiative, candor and teamwork, but what employees feel is really valued is obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers.

Overall, the study of more than 1,200 employees and managers, found that employees have a much more negative view of their corporate culture than their bosses. And, the more senior a person is in the organization, the more positive their perception of their company culture.

And these perception gaps matter—a lot. When employees believed that what was really valued was obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers, they were 32 percent less likely to be engaged, motivated and committed to their organization. This perception also had a dramatic impact on their performance. They were 26 percent less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating and executing.

To see more results from our latest study, download our infographic below.

Culture Chasm Inforgraphic_071916

Influencer QA

Vital Behaviors for Entrepreneurs

Dear Crucial Skills,

In reading Influencer, it’s clear the process starts with identifying the vital behaviors that drive the change you’re looking for. Having access to data that has pre-identified the correct vital behaviors for a given problem is of great use.

My challenge is to grow my sales very quickly. I am a one-man manufacturer’s rep organization that depends on full commission sales. I have a wealth of experience and have been successful working for others but this is my first entrepreneurial venture. The way I see it, there are vital behaviors I can influence on myself and the bigger challenge is changing vital behaviors of customers.

Any insight would be most appreciated.

Sincerely,
Entrepreneur

Dear Entrepreneur,

This is a great question. The Influencer approach asks you to invest everything in just a few behaviors and then employs influence strategies from the six sources of influence to improve these behaviors. Before I answer your question, I’ll review a few broad points.

What Makes a Behavior Vital?

There are many factors that can turn a behavior from “important” to “vital.” I’ll highlight three conditions:

Vital behaviors lead directly to results. An executive in Florida told me he knew the vital behavior for winning Dragon Boat races (a large outrigger canoe driven by 20 paddlers). When I asked about the behavior, he answered: “Paddling.” He explained that when racers debated about technique or strategy someone would inevitably shout, “Shut up and paddle!” and that’s when they’d win. Many vital behaviors are similarly obvious. They are the most direct route to the results you care about.

Vital behaviors break self-defeating patterns. Let’s look at the life cycle of the Guinea Worm. African villagers drink water infected with Guinea Worm larvae; the Guinea Worm hatch and grow inside them; after several months the worm emerges, causing excruciating pain; to lessen the pain, villagers soak their burning limbs in the water source and re-infect the water. A team from the Carter Center found the three vital behaviors that broke this self-defeating cycle: 1. Filter the water before drinking; 2. Don’t put infected limbs in the water source; and 3. Hold everyone accountable for these first two behaviors.

Vital behaviors cause many other positive behaviors to follow. Vital behaviors are often the most difficult to adopt. However, if you can get people to perform them, many other positive and easier behaviors follow. For example, when Mike Miller tried to build a culture of accountability at Sprint, he focused on just two vital behaviors: 1. Hold bosses accountable and 2. Hold peers accountable. He didn’t need to add “Hold subordinates accountable” because this behavior followed as a result of the vital behaviors.

How Do You Find the Vital Behaviors?

There are many strategies for finding and testing vital behaviors. Look for experts who have already identified and tested the behaviors. Look for positive deviants—people who are already succeeding at the behavior. Or, track your own successes and failures to determine what works for you.

Whatever the vital behaviors you choose, set a challenging goal and measure your improvement. In addition, track the results you care about. Analyze and adjust to fine tune the vital behaviors.

Answering the Question

I’ve used the “find the experts” method to identify vital behaviors related to your success as a manufacturers’ rep. Specifically, I searched the Internet for about an hour. I broke your task into two elements: 1) you are a first-time entrepreneur. There are behaviors that separate successful from less successful entrepreneurs. 2) You are a manufacturers’ rep—a unique job with unique behaviors.

Entrepreneurial Behaviors: I visited a credible site, Harvard Business Review, and entered the search terms: entrepreneur “manufacturers rep”.

One article popped up and it had a few nice rules of thumb:

  • Use your own experience. 71% of entrepreneurs start ventures that solve problems the founders have grappled with personally.
  • Take action quickly: Entrepreneurs don’t get bogged down in research or planning. They move quickly to action. They try simple and inexpensive solutions and adjust on the fly.
  • It’s about hustle, not proprietary advantage. This isn’t always true, but it’s true for you. As a manufacturers’ rep you won’t have proprietary advantage, so your success depends largely on your hustle.

Though helpful, these points aren’t vital behaviors nor are they very specific to your job.

Next, I went to Google Scholar and entered the search terms: “manufacturer’s rep” skills.

Most of the hits were academic articles that describe the economic reasons a manufacturing firm might choose to distribute its products through manufacturer’s reps. But I focused on a single article that seemed to point toward behaviors, The Independent Rep As A Source Of Competitive Advantage: An Actionable Scale For Rep Selection (Gruben and Coe, 2003). A few key points:

  • Manufacturer’s reps are most commonly used to sell niche products that are simple and inexpensive within a fragmented marketplace. Often they sell commodities that are used in specialized applications.
  • Suppliers contract with reps because of the reps’ extensive contacts and tight relationships with multiple customers. Commonly the customer has greater loyalty to the rep than to the supplier.
  • A customer’s loyalty to their rep is not based on the products but the customer service. The article dissects the customer-service behaviors required of a manufacturers’ rep.

We are now getting close to vital behaviors. You need to: 1) Create a wide network of buyers; 2) Fill small-batch orders accurately and on a just-in-time basis, and 3) Provide excellent customer service.

Now if these are the three best practices, how have you grappled with them as a customer or employee? What are the problems you believe you can focus on solving? If it were me, here are the vital behaviors I would start with:

  1. Build my network: Each week contact at least five viable potential customers for products I already represent.
  2. Fill orders: Contact each of my customers at least once a week in a nonintrusive way to make sure I understand their current needs.
  3. Customer service: Have face time with at least one important customer per week. Meet personally with each customer at least quarterly.

Summary

I researched the field; I read a few articles to find best practices; I examined myself to consider the obstacles and approaches I would take to act on the best practices; and finally, I would hustle to drive these behaviors through the roof, meanwhile tracking my sales to see if it’s working. I’d continue to analyze and adjust my vital behaviors, especially during the first few months, until I found what worked for me.

Best of luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

No Time for Dialogue

The following article was first published on September 12, 2007.

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a first-line supervisor at a hospital and was fortunate enough to attend a Crucial Conversations training. I enjoyed it thoroughly and got some good tips on dealing with crucial conversations.

The problem we run into in the hospital is that we do not always have the luxury of spending time on dialogue when a crucial issue arises due to circumstance that require immediate intervention. These often are situational and necessary to prevent less than optimal patient outcomes.

How do we relay this to the people we are communicating with? It is always our goal to keep the trust of our staff members, but often things become clouded with their emotional response to a situation that had to be addressed immediately.

Thanks,
No Time to Talk

Dear No Time,

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank you—not only for your question, but for the incredible work that you and your fellow healthcare professionals do each day. Your concern for the patients you care for reminds us all of the best that is in us.

Most of us have seen enough emergency room TV dramas to know that healthcare professionals don’t always have the luxury of time. There are life and death choices that must be made without sufficient information or time for consideration and discussion.

People across numerous industries face a similar problem—not enough time to fully dialogue when, and sometimes because, the stakes are so high. We may find ourselves in positions where we feel compelled to make a decision without enough time or input. In these situations, when dialogue is limited and not every concern can be addressed before acting, team members may feel left out or marginalized. So what do you do when there isn’t time for dialogue?

Let me share a couple of thoughts with you.

First, decide how you will decide ahead of time. Most people typically understand that because of time constraints or pressures, dialogue is not always possible. ICU nurses, anesthesiologists, and respiratory technicians all understand that they will be involved in life or death situations when seconds make a difference.

However, although we realize such situations will inevitably occur, we often do a poor job of planning for them. We don’t set clear expectations around how decisions will be made in those critical moments—will this be a consensus decision with everyone agreeing before we implement it? Are key decision makers merely going to consult with the rest of the team and then announce the decision? Will the decision already be made and be passed on as a command? If we haven’t carefully considered, chosen, and then communicated how we will make decisions in time-sensitive moments, we create situations in which team members feel resentful and undervalued because their input was not considered. By clarifying up front how decisions will be made, and inviting dialogue about the decision-making process before a crisis, we make sure that all team members are confident in the process for handling crises.

Next, never use the refrain “we don’t have time” as an excuse not to dialogue. Most of us are hurtling through life at a pace that would astonish and exhaust our great-grandparents. As we pick up our pace, we tend to overestimate both the time it will take to effectively dialogue and the cost of slowing down. We think, “I just don’t have 45 minutes to sit and talk to her about this,” not realizing that, with effective skills, many issues can be resolved much more quickly.

We also begin to think that if we take the time, the consequences will be severe. When a patient is lying on a stretcher bleeding out, the costs of slowing down are as high as they can get. But, more often than not, we think to ourselves, “I can’t take time for this right now because I have eight patients waiting to be seen and I need to get through in time to pick up my son from soccer practice and make it home in time to change clothes before going to parent-teacher conference night at my daughter’s school.” While occasionally whether or not we have time for dialogue is a factor of our circumstances, it is also often a reflection of our motive. Make sure you’re not making excuses when you should be holding a crucial conversation.

Finally, use your skills for good, not for avoidance. I’d like to make this last important point of clarification. Those who are skilled at dialogue never use their skills to avoid conversations, but rather to hold them effectively. Sometimes that may mean effectively delaying a conversation until a more appropriate time, but it never means dismissing the issue altogether. As people practice and use dialogue skills, they commonly find that they are holding fewer and fewer “crucial” conversations because they handle problems quickly and effectively as they arise, rather than waiting for them to simmer and erupt.

Best of luck,
Emily Hoffman

Crucial Accountability QA

Being Micromanaged

The following article was originally published on September 8, 2004.

Dear Crucial Skills,

My boss has started micromanaging me. She constantly asks me for updates. One morning, by 10 o’clock, I had already received ten e-mail messages from her and it took me an hour and a half just to reply to her requests for updates! To add to things, she’s related to the vice president so I feel like if I try to bring this up and it goes awry, my working days could be numbered. This management style has started to affect my sleeping and eating habits and even my self esteem.

Any suggestions on how I can gently bring this up to her?

Signed,
Frazzled

Dear Frazzled,

Micromanaging is almost always a crucial conversation someone is acting out rather than talking out. A leader is feeling nervous or vulnerable and acts it out through incessant hovering and controlling. The result is that the direct report often feels hurt and resentful and acts it out through withdrawal or other displaced hostility. The solution is to talk it out. Unless and until you can have a conversation about trust and autonomy, this game will get worse and worse.

So, here are three pieces of advice I hope will help you and others step up to this kind of crucial conversation.

Tip #1: Hold the Right Conversation. Don’t let this get sidetracked into a discussion of how a project is going or other diversions from the real issue. The topics you need to explore thoroughly with your boss are:

• How much confidence do you have in me in my key areas of responsibility?
• What level of communication is both efficient and sufficient between us given your level of trust in me?

If in exploring her confidence in you, you discover there are serious concerns, you can then turn the topic to ways you can create evidence for her that more trust is warranted. If you find she has great confidence but just requires much more communication, move on to the next two tips.

Tip #2: Make It Safe For Your Boss (and you). When you open the conversation, head off any misunderstanding she may have of your motives by declaring them candidly. If you fail to do this, she’ll hear you as being critical of her, or worse, wanting to have country club freedom and no accountability. Help her know you just want to be as productive as possible, to feel proud of your work, and to gain her confidence by performing up to expectation. For example, you could use the contrasting skill we teach as follows:

“Could we talk for a few minutes about how we work together? I’ve noticed a couple of things that are keeping me from being as productive as I can. It’s a bit sensitive, and I worry about sounding like I’m not supportive of you, or that I know better than you how things should be done. I don’t feel that way at all. And yet, I think it’s worth talking about because it could help me do a better job for you and create a climate where I can feel good about my work. Would that be okay?”

Tip #3: Finally, Make It Motivating. You can help your boss want to deal with this by sharing concrete examples of how her behavior has created problems she would care about. When you hold an accountability discussion (confronting gaps between what you expect and what you observe–for example in your boss’s management style) with someone you think won’t care about your concerns, you need to work hard to see how the issue you’re raising is creating problems for him or her. One of the reasons we’re so ineffective during crucial accountability discussions is that we’re so absorbed in thinking about how the problem affects us that we give no thought to how it’s affecting the other person. Those who are most skilled at holding others accountable are able to influence others by helping them see consequences they already experience that they can change by changing their behavior. For example:

“I know one thing that’s important to you is that I meet your deadlines. That’s important to me, too. The level of reporting you sometimes ask of me makes that somewhat difficult. For example, one morning I had ten requests for updates from you by 10 a.m. I know that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that the hour and a half I spent answering those was time taken from getting the job done.”

Or, “You ask me at times how I like my work. And you know, I really do. But there are times I spend a whole evening in a funk because I think you don’t have confidence in me and I’m not sure how to earn it.”

If you help your boss see how her behavior is creating consequences she doesn’t want, she’ll not only feel safe with you, but she’ll also be more motivated to make changes.

Good luck,
Joseph

Kerrying On

Verbal Violence: Is There Room for It in the Workplace?

One day, during a particularly boring stretch at church, I leaned back and noticed, for the first time, the laminated beams supporting the chapel’s roof. The beams reminded me of my summer job after my freshman year of college when I worked at a plant that made (any guesses?) laminated beams.

I didn’t really earn that job; I sort of cheated my way in. It began when I stopped by the mill where my dad had worked for the ten years before he and mom moved to Arizona. I didn’t move south with them (I went off to college instead), so I was sleeping on my grandfather’s couch and putting around in his 1943 Dodge. I desperately needed a paying job so I could (1) return to college in the fall and (2) not be a hobo.

“We don’t have any openings,” Leo, the plant manager, brusquely stated.

“Thanks,” I responded. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “Dad says ‘hello.’”

“You aren’t Pat Patterson’s son, are you?” Leo asked.

“I am.”

“Hey!” Leo barked to a lanky fellow who had just walked into the office. “This kid here is Pat Patterson’s son. He’s going to work with us this summer.” And that’s how I landed the job.

When I started work the next day, Leo introduced me to Clyde, a massive, six-foot-six, grey-bearded, perpetually scowling and complaining fellow in his mid-fifties. The guy surely would have carried the nickname “Grumpy,” had the Disney cartoon been fashioned after a story known as Snow White and the Seven Tight Ends. Clyde was making use of his muscled frame by stacking boards onto a pallet. I was assigned to be his helper. To get me started, Clyde wrote down a list of board lengths on a small blackboard. From several stacks of varying-sized boards that he had placed around us with a forklift, Clyde was to find the first board on the list and place it on an empty pallet. I was to find and stack the second board, and so forth.

“Any questions? Clyde asked.

Before I could reply, Clyde fetched a board and we were off and running. At first I was worried because I couldn’t always tell the lengths apart, but I seemed to be doing okay. Every once in a while Clyde would send me to a different stack, until, board-by-board, we eventually completed the job. I smiled widely, thinking I had done well.

“You see where the stack ends?” Clyde asked me as he shook his head in disgust. “The empty space means you skipped a board and now I have to unstack the pallet until I find your #%&*# mistake.”

As unnerving as it was to be cursed at by an oversized Disney character, it only got worse. Clyde grabbed a massive board from the pallet, threw it on the floor, and cursed me some more for screwing up. He then grabbed, threw, and cursed twenty-two more boards until he worked his way back to my mistake. Finally, still using scary threats and age-inappropriate language, he restacked the pallet correctly. I wanted to die.

Seeing the distressed look on my face, Clyde stopped cursing, smiled, and laughed heartily. It had all been a show. He actually wanted me to foul up so he could yell at me and pitch a fit because “All employees needs a good kick in the pants to provide them with proper motivation.” And thus ended my first on-the-job leadership lesson. It was powerful, memorable, and totally wrong.

I didn’t need a kick in the pants. I was sleeping on my grandpa’s couch. I was by nature an uptight overachiever. I was desperate to do well on the job. Desperate. And yet Clyde thought I needed to be motivated—through verbal violence no less. And he’s not alone.

“I yell at my employees because it’s the only thing that works,” say a surprising number of leaders I’ve consulted with over the years. Parents often take a similar path with their kids. “They only respond to threats. So, I mostly threaten them.” Of course, when you interview the employees or the kids, they don’t subscribe to Hunter Thompson’s theory of leadership. That is, they don’t believe that the newest and hottest motivational tools are fear and loathing. They prefer respectful reasoning.

It’s a good bet that many people employ verbal violence as a motivational technique because they see it in action so often. Coaches yell at their players in front of thousands of fans—with little or no visible repercussions. When you ask them why they routinely use verbal violence, they pull out the, “It’s what they needed,” card. Or worse still, “It was good for them.” So when you discuss leadership in company training sessions, many justify their aggressive verbal violence by pointing to successful coaches who win because, “threats and insults are often your best tools.” People actually say that.

It’s true that there are times people do need to be motivated—maybe the work is noxious or boring, or they have different priorities. Maybe they simply don’t want to work. It doesn’t matter. But raising your voice, threatening, and otherwise verbally abusing others is never the correct tool. And for those of you who work in sophisticated, white-collar careers where visible, verbal violence isn’t tolerated—abusing others through subtle looks of disgust, sarcastic hints, and thinly veiled humor is equally abhorrent. Violence, in all of its sordid forms, is never acceptable.

I realize that I’m preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t dream of verbally assaulting another human being. But then again, you see so many others being verbally aggressive—from TV leaders, to coworkers, to people like Clyde who are purposely, even studiously, abrasive—it makes you wonder. So let’s remind each other why both blatant and subtle forms of verbal violence are never the right choice.

First, you can emotionally damage people by verbally abusing them. To quote Eric Idle: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” Second, employing verbal violence turns you into a person you don’t want to be. Remember that soul-sucking boss you loathed? Roll your eyes in disgust one more time and you’ve become that guy. Third, when nothing you do to motivate others actually works, you can always fall back on the company’s disciplinary procedures. You start with a verbal warning. Then comes a written warning, etc. Never does the company’s discipline process state: “First yell, then curse, and then throw a big board.”

So, if you’re toying with the idea of tearing into someone who “needs it”—don’t. Even if the other person was hired through egregiously nepotistic methods, he deserves your respect. Even if he left out, let’s say, an essential board and ruined the job, yelling will only make matters worse. Yelling a lot makes matters a lot worse. It all comes down to a simple ditty: Verbal abuse—never put it to use.

Words to live by.

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