Read an Excerpt
Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior
By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, David Maxfield
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2013 VitalSmarts
All rights reserved.
Choose What and If How to Know What Conversation to Hold and If You Should Hold It
I made a Freudian slip last night. I called my husband by the name of my first boyfriend. It was embarrassing.
I did the same sort of thing. I meant to say to my husband, "Please pass the potatoes," but I said, "Die, loser; you've ruined my life!"
Problems rarely come in tiny boxes—certainly not the issues we care about. Those come in giant bundles. For instance, your boss promises you a raise and then recants. This is the second time he's promised you something only to go back on the promise, except this time he dropped the bomb in a meeting, and so you couldn't complain on the spot. When you stopped him in the hallway to bring up the issue, he told you that he was in a hurry and said you should "stop being insensitive to my time demands." You asked if you could talk later, and he said, "Hey, I didn't get the money I deserved either."
Let's try a home example. Your in-laws just walked in unannounced while you were eating dinner. You've talked to them about giving you a heads-up, particularly if they plan on dropping in at dinnertime, and they still prance in on a whim. What problem do you address?
You don't have enough food to go around. That could be easy to discuss. They've repeatedly promised they would notify you but are constantly breaking that agreement and losing your trust. That is likely to be hard to bring up. Finally, after turning down your invitation to join you at the table, they pout and whimper in the corner. That could be really difficult to confront.
In each of these cases, you're left with two questions that you have to answer before you open your mouth: What? and If? First, what violation or violations should you actually address? How do you dismantle a bundle of accountability problems into its component parts and choose the one you want to discuss? You have a lot to choose from, and you can't talk about them all, at least not in one sitting. Second, you have to decide if you're going to say anything. Do you speak up and run the risk of causing a whole new set of problems, or do you remain silent and run the risk of never solving the problem?
Let's take these two questions one at a time. We'll deal with the if question once we've resolved the what question.
The question of what you should discuss may be the most important concept we cover in this book. When problems come in complicated bundles, and they often do, it's not always easy to know which problem or problems to address.
For example, a teenage daughter swears to her father she'll be home from her first big date by midnight but doesn't come home until 1 a.m. Here's the pressing question: What problem should he discuss? "That's easy," you say. "She was late." True, that's one way to describe the problem.
Here are several other ways: She broke a promise. She violated her father's trust. She drove her father insane with fear that she had been killed in a car wreck. She purposely and willfully disobeyed a family rule. She openly defied her father in an effort to break free of parental control. She was getting even with her father for grounding her the weekend before. She knew it would drive her father bonkers if she stayed out late with a guy who sports a dozen face perforations, and so she did that.
Although it's true that the daughter walked in the door 60 minutes after curfew, this may not be the exact and only problem her father wants to discuss. Here's the added danger: if he selects the wrong problem from this lengthy list of possible problems and handles it well, he may be left with the impression that he's done the right thing. However, if you want to follow the footsteps of our positive deviants, you have to identify and deal with the right problem, or it will never go away. This still leaves us with this question: What is the right problem?
Signs That You're Dealing with the Wrong Problem
Your Solution Doesn't Get You What You Really Want
To get a feel for how to choose the right problem, let's look at an actual case we recently uncovered during a training session for school principals. It's from a grade school principal's experience. During recess a teacher notices the following interaction. Two second-grade girls are playing on the monkey bars. As Maria pushes Sarah to hurry her along, Sarah shouts, "Don't you ever touch me again, you dirty little Mexican!" Maria counters with, "At least I'm not a big fatty!" This is the precipitating event.
The principal calls the children's parents, describes what took place, and explains that the school will be disciplining them. Maria's parents are fine with the idea and thank the principal, and that's the end of the discussion. Sarah's mother takes a different approach. She asks, "Exactly what form of discipline will each child receive?" The principal explains that the discipline will suit the nature of the offense.
The next day Sarah's mother shows up unannounced, catches the principal in the hallway, and proclaims in loud and harsh tones that she doesn't want the school to discipline her daughter. She'll take care of the discipline on her own. The principal explains that the school is bound by policy to take action. In fact, tomorrow Sarah will be separated from her friends during lunch and required to take her meal in the media room under the supervision of a teacher's aide. That's the prescribed discipline. Sarah's mother then announces that tomorrow she'll be picking up her daughter for a private mommy-daughter lunch at a nearby restaurant.
There are several problems in this scenario. When the principals in the training session hear about the incident, many become emotional. "That's an easy one to figure out," some suggest. "You turn it over to the district discipline committee. Besides, since there are racial issues involved here, you could get the mother in trouble for interfering." Of course, the goal here isn't to cause the mother grief, so what should the principal do?
As the principals settle down to discuss the problem in earnest, they bring to the surface an assortment of issues: "First, there's the problem of meddling. She has no right to ask about the other child's discipline. It's a private matter." "No, the bigger issue is that she is demanding to take away the school's right to discipline. That's simply unacceptable." "Plus the kid's going to be rewarded with a special lunch instead of being punished. Who wants that?" "How about the fact that the mother is rude and manipulative? That can't be good."
Finally, one of the assistant principals brings up an issue that everyone seems to think is important: "I'm worried that the parent and the school won't be partnering in solving the problem. I'd want to work with the mother to come up with a plan jointly. Otherwise, she might begin to characterize the school officials as the enemy, and the child will soon agree."
Once this important issue is highlighted as the main problem, a discussion can be held to resolve it, and the principal can get what it is he or she really wants: a working partnership with the parent that will help benefit the child. Solutions to any of the other problems would not have accomplished this, and people would have remained frustrated.
So take note: if the solution you're applying doesn't get you the results you really want, it's likely you're dealing with the wrong problem entirely.
You're Constantly Discussing the Same Issue
Before we deal with the aggressive mother, let's look at another problem. This time you're working with the owner of a real estate firm in a rural community.
"The woman who works the front desk is constantly coming to work late," the owner explains.
"Have you talked to her?" you ask.
"Repeatedly" is the response.
"And then what happens?" you continue.
"She's on time for a few days, maybe even a week, and then she starts coming in late again."
"Then what do you say to her?"
"I tell her that she's late and that I don't like it."
This situation presents a terrific example of what separates accountability experts from everyone else. The owner has the courage to converse with the desk clerk. That separates him from the worst. However, the fact that he returns to the same problem each time puts him far below top performers. This is an indication that there is some other infraction that needs to be discussed: the front desk clerk isn't living up to her commitments, she's disrespecting company policy, etc.
In summary, if you find yourself having the same accountability conversation over and over again, it's likely there's another, more important violation you need to address.
You're Getting Increasingly Upset
As you continue your conversation with the realtor, you say, "Obviously, the fact that your clerk comes in late is the behavior that catches your attention, and that's what you talk to her about. But what is the real issue here?"
"I'm not exactly sure. I do know that it's starting to bug me a lot—more than it probably should."
"Are you becoming more upset because the problem's escalating?"
"Not really," the broker responds hesitantly.
Finally, you ask, "When you're angry enough to complain to your wife, coworkers, or best friend about this repeated infraction, how do you describe it?"
A light goes on in the broker's eyes as he excitedly states, "It's killing me that she's taking advantage of our relationship. She's my neighbor, she's helped me out a lot, and now she doesn't do what I ask because she knows that I won't discipline her since we're good friends. At least that's how it feels to me."
That's the violated expectation the broker needs to confront. He's becoming increasingly upset with each instance because he's never dealt with the issue that is bothering him. Being late is the frozen tip floating above the chilly waters. Taking advantage of a friendship is the iceberg itself.
Confronting the Right Issue
As you can see from these examples, learning how to get at the gist of an infraction requires time and practice. Feeling pressured by time constraints and hyped up by emotions, most people miss the real deal. It takes grade school assistant principals 20 minutes or more to discuss the assortment of challenges presented in the case of the aggressive mother. In fact, most never come to the realization that it's the lack of cooperation that they probably ought to discuss. Many can't get past their emotional reaction. They want to stick it to the feisty mother, and, frankly, that's exactly what many would do.
Along a similar vein, most parents who pace the floor nervously as a teenage daughter breaks curfew can't see beyond the hands of the clock, when in truth what really has them concerned is the fact that the girl didn't have the courtesy to call them, let them know she'd be late, and bring a merciful end to their tortured worrying. Many don't even realize that this is what is troubling them.
The ability to reduce an infraction to its bare essence takes patience, a sense of proportion, and precision. First, you have to take the time to unbundle the problem. People are often in too much of a hurry to do this. Their emotions propel them to move quickly, and speed rarely leads to careful thought. Second, while sorting through the issues, you have to decide what is bothering you the most. If you don't, you'll end up going after either the wrong target or too many targets. Third, you have to be concise. You have to distill the issue to a single sentence. Lengthy descriptions of violated expectations only obscure the real issue. If you can't reduce a violation to a clear sentence before you talk, the issue almost never becomes more understandable and focused as a conversation unfolds.
Helpful Tools to Get to the Right Conversation
Let's say that despite your best efforts, you keep returning to the same infraction. Your emotions are getting worse, not better, and in retrospect you believe that you're choosing to talk about what's easy, convenient, or obvious but not what's important. In short, you have every reason to believe that you're repeatedly dealing with the wrong issue. How do you turn this bad habit around? To hit the right target, use the following tools.
This acronym can help give direction to an accountability conversation as well as eliminate Groundhog Day. The first time an infraction occurs, talk about the content, what just happened: "You drank too much at the luncheon, became inebriated, started talking too loud, made fun of our clients, and embarrassed the company." The content of a violated expectation typically deals with a single event—the here and now.
The next time the infraction occurs, talk pattern, what has been happening over time: "This is the second time this has occurred. You agreed it wouldn't happen again, and I'm concerned that I can't count on you to keep a promise." Pattern issues acknowledge that problems have histories and that histories make a difference. Frequent and continued violations affect the other person's predictability and eventually harm respect and trust.
Warning: It's easy to miss the pattern and get sucked into debating content. For instance, your boss repeatedly leaves your agenda items to the end of the meeting—meaning that they typically get abbreviated or dropped altogether. You've spoken with her about it before. This time when you bring it up, she explains how full the agenda was and how you need to be more flexible about urgent issues. If you give in to that explanation, you've missed the point. Your concern is not today's meeting (the content issue); it's the long-standing pattern. Sometimes the pattern sneaks up on you, and a new issue arises. You point out the problem, and the other person begins to either rant or pout, something that's starting to happen a lot in your conversations with him or her. It's becoming a pattern. Accountability savants notice this pattern of behavior and find ways to address it before moving back to the original topic.
As the problem continues, talk about relationship, what's happening to us. Relationship concerns are far bigger than either the content or the pattern. The issue is not that other people have repeatedly broken promises; it's that the string of disappointments has caused you to lose trust in them: you're beginning to doubt their competency and doubt their promises, and this is affecting the way you treat one another: "This is starting to put a strain on how we work together. I feel as if I have to nag you to keep you in line, and I don't like doing that. I guess my fear is that I can't trust you to keep the agreements you make."
If your real concern is around the relationship and you discuss only the pattern of behavior, you're likely to find yourself feeling dissatisfied with the outcome. Even worse, you're likely to experience Groundhog Day: you'll have the same conversation again later. To understand the various kinds of content, pattern, and relationship issues that routinely pop up during accountability conversations, consider the following two factors: consequences and intentions. Each provides a distinct method for first unbundling and then placing a priority on violated expectations.
Accountability issues are almost never contained in the behavior of the offender. They're much more likely to be a function of what happens afterward. The problem lies in the consequences. For example, a staff specialist who works for you has promised to complete a financial analysis by noon. She miscalculates how long it will take and delivers the job to you three hours late.
Excerpted from Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, David Maxfield. Copyright © 2013 VitalSmarts. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.