Book Review & Notes on Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

Here’s my Book Review on Crucial Confrontations Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

What do NASA, the New York Times, Enron, Tyco and WorldCom all have in common? All of these organizations experienced major disasters in the past few years — from fatal explosions, to plagiarism scandals and accounting fraud. And all could have avoided these disasters if they had paid attention to one key attribute of their cultures: the way in which they manage crucial conversations.

According to Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler — the four co-authors of the international bestseller Crucial Confrontations — how people habitually handle crucial conversations is one of the most reliable predictors of both organizational effectiveness and, conversely, organizational disaster. NASA, WorldCom and the other organizations cited above are cases in point. In each instance, leaders allowed a “culture of silence” to flourish, which made the consequent disasters all too predictable. Yet none of these disasters happened overnight. And the precursors to each of them were witnessed by hundreds — even thousands — who noticed but said nothing. Why?

For Grenny and his colleagues, the answer is very simple. Utter silence in the face of potentially crucial conversations (conversations in which the stakes are high, emotions are running strong, and there are sharply opposing viewpoints) is typically the path of least resistance in any organization. Unless leaders go to extraordinary lengths to counter the tremendous natural pressure that people feel to remain silent, disaster is inevitable.

Unfortunately, the insult added to the heinous personal and financial injuries inflicted by these and other organizational disasters over the past few years is that these consequences were not only predictable, but in the authors’ view, were entirely avoidable as well.

Setting the Stage: the Columbia Disaster

Perhaps the most tragic recent example of the failure to undertake necessary crucial communications is the February 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. According to public testimony, in the days following what seemed to be an unexceptional lift-off, Rodney Rocha, a chief structural engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, along with several colleagues, determined that the stray foam strike that had occurred seconds after the Columbia’s launch bore further investigation. Other engineers apparently shared his concern, and so they asked that satellite photos be provided that would help them to probe the possibility of foam-induced damage.

Now, such photos are very expensive, and in a tight fiscal environment, few people want to be charged with spending money unnecessarily. So when Linda Ham, head of the mission management team, subsequently asked who it was who wanted to view the satellite photos documenting the foam strike, she was met with silence. No one spoke up. And so she put the request aside.

When Rodney Rocha later learned that his boss had not requested the satellite photos, he drafted an e-mail stating, “In my humble opinion, this is the wrong answer.” But, in the end, he chose not to send the e-mail. Again, silence.

What causes this culture of silence? The authors point to some very obvious explanations. First, few people enjoy raising bad news. And most people view such tasks as confronting a colleague, pointing out flaws, or raising product concerns to the management team with a considerable amount of dread.

Second, organizational cultures often support or even actively encourage this silence. For example, the former head of NASA, Daniel Goldin, ruled with such an abrasive and punishing demeanor that, according to many observers, “people were afraid to tell Mr. Goldin things he didn’t want to hear.”

In the years prior to Columbia’s tragedy, NASA’s leadership had made deep cuts in critical safety programs. Of course, every organization has to trim its costs at times. But according to the authors of Crucial Confrontations, what keeps such cost-cutting from becoming dangerous is that managers have to know when to push back when they’re asked to make cuts that could have life-threatening consequences. Unfortunately, at NASA, that pushback never occurred.

In the author’s view, the death of the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, was the inevitable result, not of leaders who actively suppressed potentially embarrassing information, but of leaders who failed to foster a culture in which crucial conversations about potential risks could take place without the threat of reprimand or other serious repercussions.

And there are other, more recent, examples. The high-profile accounting disasters that took place at Worldcom, Enron and Tyco were also not only the result of bad leaders acting in isolation. These incidents required hundreds of passive accomplices who noticed irregularities but said nothing. The fact is, say the authors, that corporate ethics are not maintained exclusively by top executives, but also by hundreds of other ordinary employees willing to step up and confront individuals when they first venture into ethically grey areas.

By now, it should be very clear that stepping up to crucial conversations and handling them well can have a huge impact on our lives. So how do we do it?

What is a Crucial Confrontation?

Before we get into the authors’ specific practices and techniques, we need to establish a common understanding of the term “crucial confrontation.”

When Grenny and his colleagues use the word “confrontation,” they’re using it in the following way: To confront means to hold someone accountable, face-to-face. Although the term can sound abrasive, that’s not at all what the authors have in mind. In fact, when confrontations are handled correctly, both parties talk openly and honestly. Both are candid and respectful. And as a result problems are resolved and relationships are ultimately strengthened.

When to Have a Crucial Confrontation

Sometimes, when you’ve carefully considered the potential consequences of triggering a crucial confrontation, it is a better option to remain silent about something that’s bugging you. “For example,” write the authors, “let’s say you’ve had difficulty working with a certain vendor and the process could have been much smoother, but it was just a one-time project and you probably will never see that person again. In that case, it may be better to avoid rehashing a bunch of issues that will never come up again.”

But if your relationship is likely to be an ongoing one, say the authors, then that’s clearly a different story. Holding your tongue probably isn’t going to work in that case. If a failed expectation or a broken promise is really bothering you, you’re probably not a good enough actor to hide your true feelings over the long-term. You may try to choke them down, but they’ll bubble up to the surface in unhealthy ways. If you don’t talk it out, you’ll probably act it out.

To help diagnose whether you may be clamming up when you should be speaking up, the authors suggest you ask yourself the following four questions:

  • Am I acting out my concerns? You may think you’re suffering silently, say the authors, but chances are you’re not. In all likelihood, you’re acting out your concerns in subtle — or even not-so-subtle ways — and that only makes matters worse. Your non-verbal behavior will speak for you unless you take charge of the conversation you need to have.
  • Is your conscience nagging you? You may keep telling yourself that things are OK — especially if others around you are similarly witnessing problematic behavior but saying nothing — but you know in your gut that something just isn’t right. Listen to that inner advice, say the authors. It’s a sign that your silence isn’t warranted and it’s time to step up to the plate.
  • Are you downplaying the cost of not taking action (i.e. the devil you know), while exaggerating the potential dangers of speaking up? You may be trying too hard to persuade yourself to stay away from a confrontation because you fear it will be painful. When you catch yourself thinking this way, Grenny and his colleagues offer this advice: “Don’t confuse the question of whether the confrontation will be difficult (of course it will be difficult!) with the question of whether you should deal with the issue at hand.”
  • Do you feel helpless? Sometimes we feel like nothing we say or do will help. Either someone around you is impossible to talk to, or you’ve already employed all your problem-solving prowess and the situation still isn’t improving. In truth, the problem is less often that others are impossible to deal with, and more just that we aren’t sure how exactly to approach them. The authors have watched countless people deal with some of life’s most difficult problems, and succeed, because they knew what to say and how to say it. According to the authors, if you improve your crucial confrontation skills — even just a little — you’ll choose silence far less often and begin to succeed far more often than you fail.

How to Have a Crucial Confrontation

Once you’ve picked out a problem, decided to say something, and considered the possible influences behind it, now it’s time to take action.

But before you open your mouth, say the authors, it’s vital that you’re totally clear in your mind as to exactly what you’re confronting. At this point, what you should be addressing is “the gap, or difference, between what you expected and what actually happened.”

When skilled leaders describe a problem — the gap between what they expected and what they observed — they take PRIDE in the way they deliver the first part of their message. PRIDE stands for: Private; Respectful; Immediate; Detailed, and End with a question. Let’s now deal with each of these elements in turn:

Private

Always discuss problems in private, say the authors. No matter where you may encounter a problem, retire to your office or another secluded setting where you can talk one-on-one to avoid embarrassing a colleague.

Don’t Chastise the Group. Don’t deal with individual problems in meetings by chastising the entire group. According to the authors, this “cowardly” tactic is doomed to fail in two ways. First, the guilty may miss the fact that they’re the targets of your snide comments. Second, the innocent resent the fact that they’re being thrown in with the guilty.

Respectful

When you first approach a problem, don’t assume the worst of the other person. Nothing feeds the hog more than rushing full speed into a problem because you’re just certain that the other person is guilty as sin. If we remember to assume the best we’re more likely to walk up to a person and carefully and accurately describe only what we’ve observed.

As long as we’re giving others the benefit of the doubt and otherwise doing our best to treat them with respect, we’re halfway home.

Here is another tip that can help us keep the conversation civil:

Use Tentative Language. Since you’re not sure what has prevented the other person from keeping the promise, make sure your language is free of absolutes. Trade “You said” for “I thought we agreed.” Swap statements like: “It’s clear that” for: “I was wondering if.” Since you’re probably unsure of what really caused the problem you should have an open mind. Be curious, not conclusive.

Immediacy

Skilled problem solvers don’t beat around the bush. They don’t shrink to silence and then pray that the problem will heal itself. Instead, they deal with problems directly and immediately. By stepping up to problems right away, they can be addressed while they’re still fresh and readily resolved. Moreover, if you don’t say something right away, you’re giving your unspoken approval of the behavior. This only serves to lower the standard and make it even harder to say something the next time the problem arises.

Detailed Be Specific.

Not only must you approach people immediately when problems arise, but when you do step up, you must explain your concerns in very clear terms. Constantly prodding people with ambiguous expressions such as “shape up,” or the ever popular, “get a better attitude” will not get you the results you’re looking for. Whatever the root cause, lack of clarity is a problem solver’s worst enemy. People can’t have a fair chance to improve if they don’t know the specific details of the infraction.

End with a Question

Lastly, it’s very important that you always remember to end with a question. When bringing the problem solving discussion to a close, even if it’s just a very quick chat, you should try to end with a diagnostic question such as: “Is there anything else I should know?” Asking a question maintains respect by turning what could be a monologue into a dialogue. If you’re genuinely curious, this will come off as an honest inquiry, not as a veiled threat or accusation.

Once you’ve asked the question, listen for information about root causes of the problem. Specifically, you’re trying to determine whether the problem is due to a lack of motivation, ability, or both.

Avoid “Groundhog Day”

Let’s imagine for a moment that a salesperson who reports to you has a history of promising clients discounts that cut too deeply into your profits. You talked to her about this practice and she agreed to toe the line. But five minutes ago you overheard her deep-discounting again.

You gather your composure and then bring the problem up in a way that is Private, Respectful, Immediate, and Detailed, and you End with a question.

“Louise, I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t sell the product below the set formula,” you might say. “But I just overheard you promising a price that was clearly out of bounds. Did I miss something?”

Louise explains that she really, really, really needed this commission. Now what? You have a choice of two problems to deal with and it’s vital that you pick the right problem to confront! First, there’s the obvious price violation. Second, Louise didn’t live up to her commitment to you.

If you only talk about the price formula, the authors jokingly say that you’re just like Bill Murray in the famous movie Groundhog Day. You keep going back to the same beginning — where you’re forced to relive the same problem over and over again. Savvy leaders know better. They deal with the bigger problem. Instead of simply talking about discounting pricing (although you may still want to hold that discussion later), you need to talk about failing to live up to a commitment. That’s the real issue.

Dealing with Strong Emotions

Emotions change the very nature of a problem-solving discussion. You can’t simply ignore them and hope things will get better.

Anyone who’s ever had a crucial confrontation (and we all have) realizes that a person’s behavior during the first few seconds of the interaction sets the tone for everything that follows. “You have no more than a sentence or two to set the climate,” warn the authors. “If you set the wrong mood, or fail to address emotional issues properly, it’s very hard at that point to turn things around.”

The authors offer some best practices for dealing with strong emotions:

  • First, ensure your safety. If the other person is out of control or close to it, exit the situation.
  • Second, dissipate the emotion. Remember: deal with emotions first, content second. Avoid the traditional emotional pitfalls. Don’t get hooked and respond in kind. And most importantly, don’t throw out your feelings of concern for the other person. It’s okay to be shocked, upset or alarmed. Just don’t get angry.
  • Third, explore the cause. According to the authors, the best method to both calm a person and get the problem to the point to where it can be solved is to try to get into his or her head. We can do this by openly asking people to share their thoughts and feelings, and actively listening to what they tell you.
  • Fourth, take Action. As the other person begins to calm down, jointly solve the problem. If you can’t, find someone who can.

The Enormous Benefits of Confronting Others

Let’s imagine for a minute that people can learn how to respond in healthier, more effective ways. This means, of course, that they are willing to embrace the teachings of Grenny and his Crucial Confrontations team. They have to know how to deal with strong emotions, describe problems in ways that don’t cause defensiveness, tackle new issues as they arise so they don’t have time to fester out of control, and always end with a question.

So here’s the big question: Is the effort worth it? Will people who learn how to master Crucial Confrontations merely feel like they’ve just graduated from “charm school”? Or will the world change in significant and lasting ways? Just how big are the stakes here?

The hidden costs of unresolved issues, of employee-management attacks and counterattacks, may well be costing your company a fortune and you’re not even aware of it. For example, if you oversee a manufacturing operation, the cost of registering and processing complaints, employees pausing to bad-mouth leaders, or even deliberately destroying raw materials and sabotaging machinery could be enormous.

When management eventually learns how to hold people accountable, it’s little wonder that so many organizations are able to make immediately measurable improvements. Your hidden costs may well be so high that even minor changes in management and employee behavior can make for enormous changes in results. The results really do speak for themselves:

  • After teaching Crucial Confrontations skills to employees of a large telecom company, the authors found that an 18 percent increase in the use of the skills corresponded with a 40+ percent improvement in productivity.
  • When a group of IT professionals improved their Crucial Confrontations practices, overall quality improved over 30 percent, productivity climbed almost 40 percent, costs plummeted almost 50 percent, while employee satisfaction swelled 20 percent.
  • After taking a pre-measure of employee skills in a large company, the authors taught the management team and all employees how to hold Crucial Confrontations. Within four months, people showed a 10 percent improvement in their habits of confronting tough issues. To no one’s surprise, customer and employee satisfaction, productivity, and quality showed similar improvements.

Impressive results, to say the least!

Conclusion

If you feel stuck — in a relationship, in your career, at home — chances are there’s a crucial confrontation that needs to take place. These techniques and principles will give you the skills you need to tackle these challenges head on — principles that, if practiced well, are guaranteed to yield major improvements in areas like productivity, quality, safety, diversity, change management, and personal relationships.

After more than 25 years of research in two-dozen industries involving over 25,000 individuals, the authors of Crucial Confrontations have proven that:

  • All relationships, families, teams, and organizations have problems.
  • The difference between good organizations and the best is not how many problems they have. The difference is how respectfully and rapidly they get problems solved.
  • People’s ability to confront emotionally and politically risky topics — i.e. their willingness and ability to have crucial conversations with each other — is the number one predictor of rapid problem solving.

Far too many leaders say they believe in principles like accountability and execution but struggle with how to put these concepts into action. Crucial Confrontations takes us beyond warm and fuzzy ideals and conceptual solutions; it offers proven techniques and practical tools that anyone can — and should — use.

One Response to “Book Review & Notes on Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler”
  1. Kerry Anne Cassidy August 5, 2014

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