Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Holding Your Ground

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been with my company for five years and consistently receive “exceeds expectations” ratings on my performance reviews. I recently found out that a newly hired business partner is planning to take over my office. There are a handful of open offices in our area that he could take without interrupting another employee, and this individual will not be in the office on a daily basis. I have worked very hard to get where I am and do not feel it’s right for a new employee to make me move.

I get upset every time I think about this situation because I do not want to get pushed around, but I fear I will become emotional and rude if I speak up. I feel completely insulted that someone would think their title allows them to kick another employee out of their office. Can you give me some advice on how to approach the situation calmly, yet effectively?

Not looking to move

Dear Not looking,

I can tell you’re frustrated because you feel like your options are limited. You can bite your lip and take it, and then move and lose. Or, you can speak up, blow up, and then move and lose. As I try to explore these and other options, I acknowledge that I don’t know all the facts, so I’m basing my advice on my experience with similar issues.

My approach to addressing this challenge is rooted in a poem that comes from Mathematics Theory. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but the poem has a great point:

“What one does is only one of many things one might have done;
to appreciate the thing selected one must know the things rejected.”

Realizing I could have the facts wrong—and hoping you’ll forgive me if I do—I think there are a couple of good lessons we can learn from exploring your situation from several perspectives.

Action: You don’t speak up. If you’re like most people, you can’t keep your emotions and your words inside. Or, as we say in Crucial Accountability, “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” So you sprinkle a negative comment here or there when talking with your friends and that leaks out as gossip. You find yourself frowning at and avoiding the new business partner. Probable outcome: you move and your reputation is hurt because of the gossip and your bad attitude.

Action: You speak up with emotion. Forget about the namby-pamby courteous stuff. This is about what’s right and what’s just. You storm into your boss’ office and tell him or her all the good reasons you should stay and make the case that the new person should take a different office—all in one breath, no pauses, with fervor. If you take this approach, there are several possible outcomes:

1. Your boss listens and says, “Oh, I thought you knew the new partner has a son with disabilities in the facility across the parking lot. I thought it would be nice if he could see him when his son had recess or outings.” (A challenge that occurred at VitalSmarts a few years ago.) Probable outcome: You move, your reputation is a bit tarnished, and you feel guilty. You have a new problem, this time with your boss.

2. Your boss listens and says, “Are you finished? Look, I didn’t want to do it, but corporate policy requires that a business partner must have a window that is over sixty square feet in size. Yours is the only office that qualifies. What can I tell you? It’s policy.” (By the way, this policy is real in some organizations—you can’t make up stuff like this.) At least now you know what the real problem is and you can tackle the real issue if you choose to do so. Probable outcome: You move, you feel frustrated about red tape and bureaucracy, and your reputation is likely a bit tarnished. When people blow up only a little, other people start looking for this behavior a lot.

3. The boss says, “Whoa, don’t badmouth the new business partner; he doesn’t even know I’m moving him to your office. I made the decision; and it’s final. Now quit your whining.” Probable outcome: You move and it’s pretty clear what your boss thinks and you have another challenge to deal with—relationship and trust issues with your boss.

While some of these outcomes might occur no matter how skilled your approach, I know with 100 percent certainty that you’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll make it safe to have future tough conversations if you start this one in a positive way. This leads me to your third possible action.

Action: You speak up with candor and courtesy. You look at this situation, ask the humanizing question—”Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?”—overcome your fears, practice in private with a friend, then set an appointment with your boss and explain the situation.

It could sound something like this: “Jan, I read your e-mail saying the new business partner is moving into my office and I am moving to office 2C. I’m wondering how that decision was made and if it’s final. I think there are several reasons for me to stay in that office and have the new business partner take a different office. Can we talk?”

Your boss responds: “Oh, I didn’t know it was an issue. If you like, stay where you are.”

For an instant, you hesitate. You have eleven good reasons you should stay put and she’s not asking for them, but you swallow all of them and say thanks. You realize you assumed you knew the reasons for the office change—this caused you to get upset and potentially rude. However, you prepared and practiced, spoke up, and found that there wasn’t really a reason. Probable outcome: you stay in your office and you maintain your reputation.

Of course, there are other variations of these three actions—don’t speak up, speak up with emotion, speak up with candor and courtesy—but this is the point I want to reinforce: when facing a crucial conversation, we have three options:

1. We can avoid the issue, but our feelings generally leak out as gossip and we don’t get the results we want.

2. We can attack and unleash pent-up frustration and demands, but even if we get what we want in the short term, our actions almost always tarnish our reputation.

3. We can address the issue with candor and courtesy and fill the pool of shared meaning with information from all sides of the issue. When we engage in dialogue, we are likely to get the best result—even if it isn’t always the one we wanted—and we are likely to maintain our good reputation and strong relationships.

I hope my advice will help you hold the right conversation to achieve the right result.


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3 thoughts on “Holding Your Ground”

  1. Philip G. Boysen

    This happened to me, and it was not a single event, but part of organizational restructuring. At first, I was furious due to 1.) I had negotiated for the office when I took my position, and 2.) it was time to cry “age discrimination”. When I calmed down I realized that the CEO had a ring of “new” appointments that he wanted in his line of sight. I changed my focus to finding a suitable space. Although I have lost that image of being in the “leadership suite”, I am now in the best office I have ever had! The CEO expressed appreciation for being a team player and “getting it”. My office location has changed, but my stature has increased.

  2. Sydney Ann Zaremba

    Gee, at least this person still has their position. With all the restructuring going on, I say, get over it and be happy to have an office at all.

  3. Ralph

    “Not looking to move” might find some value in some introspection time. Why are you being moved really? Is it really just a political thing – a question addressed well by Al’s response. Are you being moved because the leadership is tired of your general fixation on fairness instead of personal accountability and productivity? Like Al, I don’t know you or the situation, but I always try to look inward first.

    I am not a fan of the “be grateful you have a job” line. Even at 10% unemployment we still have 90% employment, right?! However, I’ll agree with part of Syndney’s comment – even in “full employment” fewer people than ever now have actual offices. Is the opinion of others in our organization really based on office space? Or can your levels of performance overcome any petty size-comparisons?

    Very best wishes to you in coming to a great solution to this challenge!

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