Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
We have a secretary to a director who is a control freak. She comes across as very efficient to management, but she won’t allow the rest of us to do our jobs without meddling. This slows me and others down a lot.
Those of us who have attempted to confront her about this situation just end up on her “black list” and are then treated with contempt, making our working relationships even more miserable.
Some have considered going to her boss, but she is very careful to come across as the epitome of perfection to him. Because of that, I think many are wary of saying anything to their managers or the director for fear of payback. What is the best approach for us to take to resolve this situation?
Stumped and Miserable
The first thing that might be keeping you stuck is your “story.”
One of the best predictors of success in a crucial confrontation is not your skills, but your story. It’s a difficult thing to stand apart from the story we tell and look at it dispassionately. But those who have the most control over their emotions, their actions, and their lives are those who can poke at, laugh at, observe, and change their own stories.
The first skill we teach for “Master My Stories” is learning to separate fact from story. The “facts” in your situation may be that this woman asks for a lot of information, offers criticisms, or requests to be involved in things that you wouldn’t expect her to.
The “story” you’re telling yourself is that she’s doing this because of a character flaw–she’s a “control freak.” You also see her as duplicitous–pretending to be one thing to senior management while coming across to the rest of you as another. Furthermore, your story characterizes her as petty and vengeful–someone who puts you on her “black list” if you challenge her.
This is a classic villain story. The danger in telling these kinds of stories is that it justifies us in doing almost anything in return. If we feel weak, it justifies our inaction–“How could anyone confront someone so rotten?” If we feel strong, it justifies our retribution–“She deserves what we’re doing to her!”
Something else I notice about your story is the way it portrays you and others. You are in the “victim” role here. What’s happening is not your fault. Some of you have even tried to confront this person–and been punished for it. All you want is to do your jobs well, and you have to deal with this annoying person who drags down your efficiency.
Now, please let me apologize if I sound like I’m trying to justify her and pick on you. I’m not. My guess is that she does have some unhelpful habits. But your influence with her will forever be limited not by her defensiveness but by the stories you’re telling about her and you. So long as you see her as a villain, you will “act out” that view of her in ways that make her feel unsafe with you. So long as you see yourself as an innocent victim, you will continue to be blind to the role you’re playing in limiting your effectiveness with her.
Those who are best at crucial confrontations work hard to change their victim and villain stories. They assault these stories vigorously until they reshape them to show how a reasonable, rational, and decent person might do what this other person is doing.
For example, “Perhaps she believes her greatest value is to stay informed for her boss.” (Structural Motivation) “Perhaps no one has ever respectfully shared with her the consequences of her requests in a way that would help her see how she is hurting rather than helping her boss.” (Social Ability) “Perhaps she thinks her current methods are the only way to be effective.” (Personal Ability) Brainstorming different possible sources of influence will help you better understand why people do what they do. And the better you understand others’ behavior, the more effective you’ll be at influencing it.
The second thing that might be keeping you stuck flows from the first. If she has “blacklisted” people in the past, it’s possible she did so because she’s an arrogant control-freak who is abusing her position to avoid self-examination. It’s also possible that those who confronted her were ineffective at “making it safe” for her because they saw her as a villain.
If the latter may have some truth to it, then you may be able to succeed with her by making it safe. Help her to understand your respect for her and the positive motives behind your desire to talk. Then share the natural consequences of her current actions in a way that she will care about. Demonstrate enough commitment to her interests to explore ways to help her please her boss while avoiding behavior that hinders your efficiency.
If she feels safe enough with you, she’ll be willing to listen. And if you see her as a reasonable, rational, and decent person, you have some chance of making her feel safe with you.
Good luck! And thank you for your question. It helped me once again examine the stories I tell myself about people I am trying to influence well.