Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Looking for Equality in Pay

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I just found out that another manager in the same profession but with less qualifications and a smaller job is making $14,000 more than I am. If I confront my boss, I’m afraid she will ask where I received the information, but I’m not willing to answer that question. It shouldn’t matter. What to do?

Underpaid and uncertain

A Dear Underpaid and Uncertain,

This is tricky because the answer is very situational. So let me throw a few things at you and invite you to grab any that are relevant.

First, I’m curious about why you can’t share your source. The purpose of dialogue during crucial conversations is to fill the “shared pool of meaning.” This means that you find a way to reduce defenses enough that you and your boss can speak freely about your salary concerns. If you want your boss to understand how you feel, she’ll need to have access to the data behind your current thoughts and feelings of inequity. You’ve got to be able to “share the facts.”

I try to avoid getting into the trap of having information in my head that I can’t admit to having by cautioning those who want to share “gossip”—or even hard data—with me but don’t want me to attribute it to them. When they’re about to open their mouths, I say something like, “Please don’t put anything in my head about someone that I can’t candidly discuss with them.” This lets the speaker know that I expect him or her to take responsibility for what he or she is about to say. There are times when I’ll agree to keep names anonymous—but I want at least to have the freedom to acknowledge that this data is in my head when it affects my feelings, thoughts, and behavior toward another person or group. It keeps me from being the source of my own mistrust and political behavior.

With that said, here are some situations you may face as your share your facts.

– Your boss may want to appropriately change the conversation. If the person who shared this information with you violated a company policy by doing so, your boss will rightfully try to divert the conversation to a discussion of that point. And you can’t avoid it because that is an equally important issue to your concern about pay equity. If this is your situation, you have an ethical responsibility to return to the person who shared the information with you and confront his or her dishonesty.

– Your boss may want to inappropriately change the conversation. If there is no policy against sharing salary information, then you should head off the change of conversation at the outset. Begin with your boss by saying “Some information has come to my attention that I’d like to share. I don’t think it’s right for me to say who shared it because they don’t want to be involved. Also, the source isn’t the real issue in my view.” Having taken this stand, you’re more likely to be able to stay focused on your salary concern.

– Your boss may ignore your attempt to focus the conversation. If even after you frame the topic your boss tries to change the topic to discovering your source, ask her to justify the change of topic. For example, “Earlier I suggested the source wasn’t relevant to my concerns about pay equity. The real issue is whether or not this is true and fair. And you’re now asking for the source. May I ask why that is important?” If she has a legitimate reason, you’ll be obligated to respond. If she is simply irritated that this issue is in the open, she’ll be less capable of convincing you that you need to disclose.

Now, once you’ve teed up the topic, you need to be open to dialogue. That means you need to be open to changing your mind.

It could be, for example, that your “story” about the pay differential is wrong. For example, any difference could be smaller than you heard. Or, there may be legitimate reasons for the pay differential. Or, there could be reasons—but not reasons that you accept. Be open to listening and be open to being influenced. If you aren’t, you’ll create a more defensive climate where your boss will be less open as well. Listen a lot. Ask a lot of questions. When you fully understand, then respond from a position of knowledge.

Finally, be sure to focus on what you REALLY want. I watch many people provoke resistance in salary discussions because their goal is “more money for me!” This violates safety and mutual purpose and drives your boss to silence or violence. Your goal must be to gain fairness, not just get more money. “Fairness” is a higher value that most people are motivated to achieve—and one you’re likely to get your bosses’ agreement to address.

Best Wishes,


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