Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How do you confront someone’s wrong behavior when nobody else has ever brought it up? To make matters worse, how to you bring it up when the person has been continually promoted in spite of this behavior? How could you convince someone to change when they’ve been rewarded for years in spite of what they’re doing?
Dear All Alone,
Yuck! It’s never fun to feel like you have to pay for generations of neglect by those who should have been better leaders. And yet, that’s life, isn’t it? Our research suggests that 10 percent of people in most companies are having the crucial confrontations for the other 90 percent. The good news is that by having them, you are also benefiting yourself!
Here are three thoughts to consider when dealing with someone no one else has confronted.
1. “Is It Just Me?”
Before stepping up to the crucial confrontation, be sure to use the “Choose If” skill. Ask yourself whether you are the only one who seems concerned about the person’s behavior. If you are, then perhaps you have unrealistic or idiosyncratic expectations. And you just need to change your expectations. If, on the other hand, others are clearly concerned–as expressed in gossip, unexplained transfers of the problem person, etc.–then you’ve got a real issue here. Perhaps you should confront it.
2. Master Your Story
This is a tricky one. Often you find yourself feeling incensed at this person’s horrific behavior and just wish you could unload all your frustration on him or her for this long-term inconsideration. If you feel this way, slow down a bit. You need to realize that this is not someone who is intentionally acting up and enjoying every minute of a free ride. Other people are as responsible for this person’s misbehavior or performance as the person is. They have enabled it for years and this person may honestly believe he or she is doing just fine. Change your story by acknowledging some of the social influences that have brought you to this situation–and you’ll feel a bit more respectful of the person you’re about to confront. For example, an African American manager we know of confronted a colleague about racist behavior very respectfully because she realized this was behavior other colleagues had allowed to go on for fifteen years. This made her more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until she gave him a chance to change.
3. Be Aware of the Story this Person May Tell about YOU
Most of us don’t want to believe we have a problem. We’ll do anything to make the bearer of bad news out to be the real problem rather than revise our view of ourselves. In the circumstances you’ve outlined, you’re especially vulnerable because you appear to disagree with everyone else in the company! When you share this negative feedback, avoid becoming the “villain” by doing two things:
a) Make it especially safe. Express respect and share your positive intentions thoroughly.
b) Don’t bear the burden of history. Start in the present. If you confront the whole historical set of problems and violations, you’ll almost inevitably end up the villain. And you’ll take more responsibility than you need to. Instead start in the present. Confront the “content” issue first–an immediate example of the behavior concerning you. See if you can come to agreement about the consequences of this behavior and its impropriety. If so, you’ve made progress. If future violations occur, you can move to the pattern and relationship confrontations later.
I admire you for raising the concern and wish you the best as you become the first true friend this person has had in years in your organization.