Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Violated Agreement

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you do when someone violates an agreed upon decision-making process?

Four other supervisors and I recently made a process improvement decision. Two weeks later one of my peer supervisors called a meeting that I assumed was a chance to review progress on implementing these decisions. I sent one of my staff who was perfectly capable of reporting our progress. She returned and said this supervisor drove a whole new set of process decisions in the meeting. I called this supervisor to ask why she had done this and she said simply, “I forgot we had an agreement.” My concern is that she not only forgot, but she also drove a bunch of decisions that should have required the consent of the other supervisors. I apologized to my employee for “setting her up” like that.

How should I approach this supervisor? Should I involve my boss?

Violated Expectations

Dear Violated Expectations,

Please allow me to shotgun a bit here. Your situation allows an opportunity to teach a few very important points about crucial conversations. I hope you’ll find some of the points I make relevant to your problem.

First and foremost, I worry that you might be telling yourself a story that is exacerbating the problem. In “Crucial Conversations,” we teach how the emotions we feel are created by us, not by what happens to us. A strict reading of your note suggests that this is the first time something like this has happened. If that is true, then you are at risk if you draw generalized conclusions about the untrustworthiness or insensitivity of your peer. If she said, “I forgot” and apologized, you may be the problem if you are harboring a grudge about it and drawing a deeper conclusion than that this was an innocent mistake. If this is not the first time this has happened, or you have accumulated other “data points” to suggest this supervisor is untrustworthy, then we can move on to the next potential pitfall.

The second thing you might need to remedy is the error of confronting the wrong problem. In “Crucial Confrontations” we teach that the first thing you have to do is be sure you confront the right problem. If things like this have happened before, then the conversation you should be having focuses on the pattern of violating agreements–not the most recent instance. If you confront only the most recent instance and the person explains it away, then you’ll walk away feeling obligated to accept the explanation without feeling satisfied with it. The reason? You confronted the “content” issue rather than the real “pattern” or “relationship” concern you harbor. Again, a strict reading of your note suggests that after your peer said, “I forgot” you let the issue drop. You allowed the conversation to turn from, “I thought our agreement was not to change process without all four supervisors present” to “Why did you change the process we had agreed to previously?” Can you see the difference? The first is a decision-making process conversation. The second is a content issue related to a decision you thought you made. There’s a difference. And when you accepted “I forgot,” you allowed the topic to change to the wrong problem.

Finally, I hear a lot of “expectations” in your question but not a lot of explicit agreements. For example, it sounds like you “expect” that all four supervisors will agree on process changes. You “expected” that the meeting you sent your rep to was about implementation status. If you did not make these expectations explicit and even document them, then you may have been part of the problem. It is absolutely essential in emotionally and politically risky situations to be crystal clear on how decisions will be made, who will do what by when, and how you’ll follow up. If you are not carefully specifying and appropriately documenting these key decisions, you leave room for your expectations to be violated and for you to tell yourself stories that villainize those who contribute along with you to violating them.

My advice at this point is (assuming this is a single instance concern):

1. Master Your Story – ensure you are seeing your role in creating this problem–that you are seeing it as a single instance problem and not a deep character flaw in your peer–and soften your emotions accordingly.

2. Have a crucial conversation about the decision-making process first with the specific peer, then with all four supervisors. And document the agreement in a brief e-mail!

Best wishes,


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