I recently took a new position as a specialist reporting to the VP of HR, who doesn’t have much specific knowledge about the regulations that affect my job.
My predecessor, whom I’ll call “Brian,” was promoted to another department. He is generally well liked and is viewed by everyone—including my boss—as having done a fantastic job. Unfortunately, as I’m digging into his past work, I’m finding many areas of regulatory compliance where Brian’s work was far below the standards.
At first I tried to just quietly correct these mistakes, but I can’t always do so without involving others. In order to ensure we meet regulations completely, I’ll have to let others know they’ve been doing things wrong and need to change.
So far I’ve tried to defend Brian as much as I can. How can I get this issue in the open without appearing to be simply tearing down my well-liked predecessor?
New Kid on the Block
Dear New Kid,
You’ve demonstrated a great heart by your sensitivity to the good name of your predecessor. And you’re right to do so. It’s so easy to be concerned with self on entering a new job and find ways to criticize previous occupants in order to differentiate your brand. You’ve definitely taken the high road.
Now, let’s help you stay on the high road. In Crucial Conversations, we point out how when we face challenging interpersonal situations it’s easy to frame our circumstances as an unnecessary “either/or”—what we call a Sucker’s Choice. In your case, you seem trapped between being honest about past mistakes and being respectful of Brian. I think it may be a false tradeoff, and if you handle it well, you ought to be able to do both. Here’s how:
1. Hold the right conversation. First of all, you need to ensure that your boss a) sees the need for change; and b) offers required leadership. If you don’t have your boss’s support, you’ll be swimming against the tide and may be completely subverted if your boss concludes you’re just out on a grudge errand against Brian. So this is clearly the first crucial conversation you need to hold.
2. Contrast to clarify intent and respect. One of the most powerful skills in Crucial Conversations is one we call Contrasting. In our research we found effective communicators naturally use this skill because they know that during crucial conversations they are at serious risk of being misunderstood. Simply put, Contrasting is a Don’t/Do statement in which you clarify your intentions or your respect FIRST by pointing out what you DON’T mean to say, then what you DO. You want to begin by acknowledging what people are likely tempted to believe from what you’re saying and pointing out how this misrepresents your true thoughts or feelings. Here’s how you might use Contrasting with your boss:
You: “Over the past few months I’ve noticed a number of important irregularities in regulatory compliance in previous years. I’d like to discuss those with you because in order to bring us into compliance I believe I’ll need some level of support from you. Is that okay?”
Boss: “I’m surprised to hear that. My impression was that Brian was top notch. Is this just a style difference?”
(Here comes the Contrast)
You: “Well, I’d like to lay out the problem for you, but first I want to reassure you of something that has been keeping me silent for months. I have been so worried that I would appear critical of Brian that I’ve been trying to bring things up to par without pointing out the reason. I want you to know that I have seen plenty of things that Brian did exceptionally well, and I can only hope to live up to the level of trust and respect he’s developed in the team. So please know that I have no desire to disparage Brian. I also want to make sure I’m complying with the regulations the job requires.”
Boss: “Okay, so what’s up?”
Notice what you’ve done here—you’ve offered evidence that you care for Brian’s reputation (i.e., you DON’T intend to tear him down) and yet you want to do your job right (i.e., you DO intend to contribute to proper standards). This use of Contrasting can free you up from dancing around the issue.
3. Maintain understanding through repeated Contrasting. If during the course of the conversation you find your boss appearing defensive on Brian’s behalf, recognize this as a sign that he or she misunderstands your intent. Stop the conversation to offer another Contrasting statement to separate your comments from his or her misperceptions of your intent.
4. Share the facts. Once you’ve clarified your intent and your respect, you’ll have to lay out your facts. Do your homework. Bring in both anecdotal examples of the problems you’ve encountered as well as valid cumulative data showing the breadth of the pattern. You’ll need both to help persuade a boss who resists criticism of Brian.
5. Invite dialogue. After laying out your concerns, open yourself up to dialogue. Be willing to let your boss challenge your facts and your conclusions. It could be that you have misunderstood local requirements, alternative methods, etc. Don’t go in with a goal of convincing your boss that you’re right, or you’ll be far less convincing. Be willing to be wrong but intent on speaking the truth as you see it.
6. Agree on who should do what by when. Once you and your boss agree on the scope of the problem, identify how the other crucial conversations should be held. Clearly you’ll have to let those whose support you’ll need know what has to change. Your boss will likely have a role in announcing support with this group. Ensure the group involves only those affected—that helps protect Brian’s reputation from unnecessary tarnish.
Best wishes as you contribute to improved performance while demonstrating due respect to all of your colleagues. If your heart is in the right place, you’ll find a way through.