Category Archives: Crucial Accountability

Crucial Accountability QA

Christmas Relationships

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

Dear Crucial Skills,

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph

Crucial Accountability QA

How to Hold Employees Accountable Without Micromanaging

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

Dear Crucial Skills,

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

Sincerely,
Dr. Delicate

Dear Dr. Delicate,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Wishes,

Al

Crucial Accountability QA

Transforming a Negative Environment

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a mid-level manager in human services, and support a twenty-one person staff. Nineteen of these team members have a professional approach to their work, manage their emotions appropriately, and are respectful to others. However, two team members are constantly negative, complaining, and disrespectful. I have addressed these behaviors with them, but they only improve for a little while before reverting back. I am continually amazed at how these two team members can negatively affect nineteen otherwise positive people. Over the years, I have seen this on other teams as well, where the negative member(s) adversely influence the positive members, even though the positive members are in the majority. Is there a reason that negativity trumps positivity?

Regards,
Discouraged

Dear Discouraged,

Thanks for a winning question. Infectious negativity saps the vitality from far too many workplaces. Your final question is especially interesting to me: Why does negativity trump positivity?

I’ll describe several reasons for why negativity spreads and persists, as well as suggest a variety of solutions.

1. Negativity trumps positivity because humans are designed to be risk averse. This makes sense, when you think about our survival instincts. Bad news signals danger and may require action. Danger signals are processed by the amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, instead of by the prefrontal cortex. These amygdala-mediated thoughts seize our attention and focus it on the danger. This is why even people who are normally positive pay more attention to negative than to positive information.

2. People pay attention to negative information because it violates the organization’s public relations bias. Most organizations and most leaders try to sugarcoat problems, hiding them from employees. The result is that employees are hungry for the truth—especially for the less-flattering truths they believe are being withheld from them. This means they pay special attention, and seriously consider, the negative information they hear—even when it comes from less-than-trustworthy sources.

Solution: The solution to these first two problems is to add more and more honest information to the pool. People who have questions and concerns will turn to darned near anyone for information. Make sure you are there first with honest answers.

3. Too many people count on others to speak up for them. They are too timid to speak up for themselves. The people who do speak up fall into two camps: those especially skilled at crucial conversations and those who aren’t. Those especially skilled folks know how to speak up in ways that are frank, honest, and respectful. Those who are especially unskilled are honest, but offensive, and may not even realize how negative they actually are.

Solution: Create opportunities and make it safer for people to raise questions and concerns. Don’t force the silent majority to rely on their least-skilled members to raise their concerns. In addition, train and coach the less-skilled communicators to be more skilled in how they raise their concerns—and direct them to raise their concerns with you.

4. The fourth reason that negativity spreads is different from the first three, because it deals with a different kind of negativity: disrespectful behavior. When someone is disrespectful, others often respond with disrespect—tit-for-tat. As a result, disrespect becomes a poison that spreads quickly through a team.

Solution: Every team has informal/implicit norms for what constitutes respectful behavior. When disrespect is seen too often, it may be necessary to make these norms more formal and explicit. This may require a team meeting, a few crucial conversations, or an actual code of conduct. You’ll need to decide how explicit the norms need to be.

However, the key to success isn’t the norms, but how they are enforced. You need to achieve 200 percent accountability: Team members are 100 percent accountable for being respectful; they are also 100 percent accountable for others being respectful. This means that team members, not you, hold each other accountable. It may require some coaching or training, but it is essential. You, as the leader, can’t keep these norms alive. They must be enforced by the team members themselves.

5. Negativity is a habit that’s hard to break. We’ve all observed this unfortunate truth. People commit to stop complaining, rumor-mongering, or being disrespectful, but then fall back in to their old ways.

Solution: Use our CPR skills to make sure you frame the problem correctly. Here is an example.

Content: If the problem is a single incident, then address the content. The content includes the facts about what you expected and what you observed. For example, “When you have a concern or hear a rumor, I expect you to bring it to me, so I can deal with it in a productive way. I hear you shared a rumor this morning—as if it were true—with several team members without checking it out with me first. What happened?”

Pattern: If your chief concern is with the pattern of behaviors, then address the pattern. The pattern is that the person has made a commitment or promise, and has failed to live up to it. For example, “We’ve talked before about sharing rumors without checking them with me first. I thought I had your commitment to stop doing this. I hear you shared a rumor this morning. If my facts are right, then you broke your commitment to me. Help me understand.”

Relationship: If your chief concern involves trust or respect, then address the relationship. The relationship may need to change. For example, “When you make commitments to me, and then fail to follow through on them, I begin to think I can’t trust you. And, if I can’t trust you, I don’t see how I can have you on my team. Help me understand.”

I hope these ideas help you deal with the negativity that spreads in your workplace. Let me know how they work.

Good Luck,
David

Crucial Accountability QA

Parenting a Strong-willed Teenager

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have the privilege and frustration of being the mother of a strong-willed teenage girl. It seems my child popped out believing she was an adult and in charge. She is very verbal and says it like she sees it—for good or ill. I realize that teenagers are emotionally driven, however I’m struggling to know how to respond to her routinely rude comments. I love my child deeply but she needs a filter; her words can be very hurtful. Unfortunately, I am not the only target of her meanness. I’m concerned that she will burn bridges if she does not take greater care with her words. Any advice?

Sincerely,
Struggling

Dear Struggling,

A business associate of mine told me about his son going off to a distant university. The father became very emotional. He told me how difficult his son was to raise; his son was rude to others and had angry, emotional outbursts. His father responded with anger and punishments.

When the son left for college, he told his Dad, “I hate you and hope I never see you again.”

Later that semester, a school counselor assigned to new students called to tell the father that his son had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. As the father learned more, he discovered that the behaviors that his son exhibited and irritated him the most were common symptoms of Asperger’s. My friend started crying as he told me that if he had known his son had a physical/emotional problem, he would have treated him differently. He would have tried to help him, not punish him. My brokenhearted friend wondered if he would ever be able to heal the badly damaged relationship he had with his son.

In sharing this sad story with you, I’m not presuming that your daughter has this or a similar issue; I am urging you to consider whether or not there is an ability component to her behavior. This is a preliminary diagnosis before beginning the problem-solving process.

Being a teenager with a still-developing brain that is overdosing on hormones and adrenaline, is almost the definition of an ability problem. But, compare her to her peers. You mentioned that your daughter is “routinely rude” and needs a filter. Is she unable to think about what she is saying, or just unwilling to? If her behavior is more belligerent or extreme than other teens, or if she seems unable to empathize with those she insults, seeking counseling or professional expertise might be the solution. You may avoid a lot of unnecessary pain for both you and your daughter by taking this path.

On the other hand, if her actions seem within the bounds of normal teenager behavior, then I would recommend some Crucial Accountability strategies.

First, get your heart right; Start with Heart. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Don’t think in terms of character traits; think of specific behaviors, actions, and words. Maybe something like, “I want my daughter to refrain from saying rude, hurtful remarks. I want her to express herself in respectful ways, even when she disagrees with something being said or done.”

Now, get your head right; Master your Stories. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational decent person say those things?” If that seems like a bit of a stretch for a teenager, you might ask, “Why would a decent kid say those things?” Maybe she’s frustrated and angry. Maybe she’s rebellious and lashing-out because she wants to be her own person and test the limits. Maybe she wants to hurt others to keep them from getting too close. Maybe she got up on the wrong side of the bed and her stars are out of alignment. Having considered many possibilities, ask the hard question. Which of these is true? Realize the hard answer is, you don’t know. So don’t assume you do. Maybe you ought to talk to her and find out, so you can address the real problem and not the symptoms.

Begin the conversation by Describing the Gap. Factually describe her behavior and compare it to what you expect. Make sure you address the pattern of behavior you have witnessed.

You might say “At dinner tonight, when we were discussing the new bussing schedule, you told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I am ‘so lame’ I shouldn’t be saying anything at all. Earlier this week in the car you called your sister an idiot. And on Saturday, you said you didn’t want to go to her boring soccer game and that she was the worst one on her team. I’m seeing a pattern of hurtful remarks. I expect you to be respectful to others, even if you disagree with something.”

Next, ask a diagnostic question to understand why she is behaving this way. “What’s going on? Help me understand. Why are you saying these things?” Be intentional as you Make it Safe and create dialogue with your daughter.

Taking these steps will help you avoid the costly mistake of assuming your daughter’s pattern of hurtful behavior is a motivation problem.

If you decide the problem you face is a matter of motivating your daughter to change her behavior, then use the Crucial Accountability process to get compliance. Share with her the consequences of her rude remarks. By focusing on the negative natural consequences of her behavior, you not only educate her but you motivate her to change as well.

If these efforts don’t create a willingness to improve, calmly and respectfully explain the consequences you will impose on her when she speaks rudely to others. Be specific. “The next time you are disrespectful to me, like saying I’m lame or I don’t know what I’m talking about, you will lose your phone privileges for twenty-four hours. This also applies to others, like when you call your sister ‘stupid’ or say that she’s the worst player on the team.” Set a follow-up time within the next twenty-four hours to review her behavior. In your interaction with her, always model the respectful behavior you expect from her.

Praise her good behavior and hold her accountable for unacceptable behavior. Don’t ever ignore her hurtful behavior. Be consistent—every time, all the time. I wish you all the best as you succeed in doing the hardest job on the whole planet—being a loving parent.

Ron

Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with New Job Expectations

Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been doing a job for 14 years, making improvements and reevaluating each year to make it more efficient and produce better results. The two teams I have been dealing with have always expressed satisfaction with my work. We now have a different management team with a different philosophy; they want me to do my job in less than half the time, assisting 50% more clients than I had previously. They want me to just “get the job done” and are not concerned about quality. How do I deal with this without sacrificing personal integrity?

Regards,
Frustrated with Management

Dear Frustrated,
When managers make this kind of demand, it feels like a kick in the guts. It’s as if the new management team is discrediting your experience and the improvements you’ve worked so hard to achieve. You’ve put a lot of yourself into your job, so it’s hard not to take it personally. And, when they increase your workload as much as they have, it feels as if they are devaluing the job itself—“Since your job isn’t worth doing at all, it’s certainly not worth doing well.”

And yet, taking this demand personally would be a mistake. It’s very unlikely the new management team was thinking about you and your personal performance when they made this change in priorities. I’ll suggest a few, more dispassionate, ways to respond.

Explore Others’ Paths. Begin by seeking to understand the facts and logic behind the new direction. Hold off on evaluating the feasibility of the specific changes until you understand why the new management team believes new priorities are needed.

For example, I worked with a management team that discovered they could double their sales and triple their profits if they switched from producing top-quality external siding to lower-quality interior siding. Employees felt lousy about producing lower-quality material, until they understood it was what the marketplace wanted. The lower-quality material would be used inside walls, where its flaws would be hidden. In this case the change was a success. The operation expanded, and everyone benefited.

Reinvent the Process. Try to reinvent how you manage this new volume of clients. Tweaking the existing process probably won’t be enough. It will likely require a disruptive innovation. For example, instead of increasing the speed with which you work with clients over the phone, maybe the solution is to ditch the phone, and use a website where clients solve their own problems.

Learn from Positive Deviants. A positive deviant is a person who faces the same challenges as everyone else, but has somehow achieved breakthrough results. Check to see if there are any of your peers who are meeting the new numbers without sacrificing essential quality elements. If there are any, go and observe them. Ask them to observe you as well. You may discover insights that will radically change your results.

I saw this a few years ago when I was working with a team that transcribed physician’s notes. The department had just introduced voice-recognition software, but hadn’t seen the productivity increases they’d expected. The team looked for positive deviants, and discovered three members of their team who had become four times more productive than the rest—but no one knew why. They observed each other, and quickly figured it out. These exceptional three had independently programmed Microsoft shortcuts that sped up their work. Once they shared these shortcuts with the team, everyone’s productivity quadrupled.

Track a Balanced Scorecard of Outcomes. My guess is that you and the management team are focused on somewhat different outcomes. They are looking at volume and margins, while you are looking at quality and complaints. The mistake would be to track one set of outcomes without also tracking the others. You’ll want to track both the desired outcomes and the potential risks.

Notice that I’m emphasizing tracking and measuring. Verbal warnings about potential risks never carry as much weight as actual data. Maybe the results will confirm your warnings, or maybe they will confirm the management team’s hopes. Or maybe the data will land in the middle, and everyone will see the need for more work. Remember, it’s not about winning or losing an argument; it’s about getting facts and data on the table, where they can serve as common ground.

Yeah But . . . What if these tips don’t work? What if, after giving it your best shot, you conclude that the new management team doesn’t value the work you do? If this is the case, I believe you have three options.

1. Stay in your current job, but feel as if you are sacrificing your integrity. This won’t work—at least, not in the long run. You will hate your job, and your feelings will show on your face and in your actions.
2. Change to a job they do value.
3. Or find another organization that values the kind of work you want to do.

Good luck,

David

Crucial Accountability QA

Respecting Part-time Coworkers

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a middle-aged, part-time worker by choice and work very hard while I am at work. I have a great attendance record, I’m dedicated, meticulous, and take initiative without drawing attention to myself. I try to do everything I can to make my coworkers’ jobs easier. Per my supervisor and coworkers, I am a “great team player.” However, I am still bothered by some comments along the lines of “she’s just a part-timer,” and I don’t get the same treatment as full-time employees regarding things like perks, raises, etc.

What can I do to help my employer and coworkers understand that I am part of the team and contribute just as much as they do without causing hard feelings?

Signed,
Part-time Worker

Dear Part-time,

There are three different levels of crucial conversations that can be addressed. They are: content (a specific problem or issue), pattern (a repeating problem), and relationship (the way we work together, or the way we relate to each other). Issues of respect, like the one you raise, are relationship issues. Instead of solving a single problem, you want to Finish Reading

Crucial Accountability QA

The Silent Spouse

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on February 2, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,
Whenever my husband and I get into a conversation that he doesn’t want to continue, he will resort to a comment like, “You always have to have things your way,” and will refuse to continue the conversation. This approach leaves issues unresolved and interferes with other areas of our life. How can I get around this?
Signed,
Unresolved

Dear Unresolved,
When we teach Crucial Conversations Training and ask for the kinds of challenges people face, this issue comes up in several ways. Some talk about being married to a mime. Others comment that their spouse seems Finish Reading