Dear Crucial Skills,
A member of the team I lead is convinced he’s an excellent worker, top performer, and unfairly overlooked for a promotion. The problem is none of that is true, but he refuses to accept this. He sometimes does great work but is inconsistent. He’s also often nowhere to be found, for hours at a time. How do I hold him accountable when his self-perception is so wildly different from reality? I ask all the right questions, but we still go in circles when we talk with me pointing out weaknesses and him claiming perfection.
Dear Perception Gap,
The mistake you’re making is that you’re coming into your Crucial Conversation unprepared. You’re coming in with stories, conclusions, and judgments but little or no fact. So is he. If the conversation sounds like…
Him: “I’m an excellent worker, a top performer and deserve a promotion!”
You: “I agree that you do good work sometimes, but you’re inconsistent and often disappear.”
Him: “No, I don’t! I’m always available and keep all my commitments!”
You: “Actually, you don’t.”
… then you’re stuck in the “competing conclusions” trap. The only way to break this argument over vague generalities is to back up and start over. This time, with facts.
Thirty years ago, when Crucial Learning was young, Chris (not his real name), one of my employees, asked to have a private meeting. My chest tightened as I could tell he wasn’t happy with me about something. When I closed the door and we both sat down, Chris looked at me sternly and said, “Joseph, no one here likes working with you. You’re arrogant and argumentative.”
I was thunderstruck. My initial inclination was to say, “No, I’m not!” But even in my defensive dizziness I realized that would have been argumentative. So, I bit my lip, took a deep breath, and scrambled for where to go next.
I eventually came to see that Chris was right. But in the moment, I was not only defensive, I was mystified. It was easy to reject what he was saying because he gave me no evidence to support it. That enabled me to tell myself a story about him that allowed me to dismiss everything he was saying: “Chris doesn’t like taking orders from someone younger than him. This is about his ego!”
My self-protective story evaporated when I stumbled on a productive response. “Chris, if you see me as arrogant and argumentative, I must be doing something to deserve that judgment. Can you give me some examples?”
He nodded. That was when I noticed the green spiral-bound notebook sitting in front of him. He opened it and began citing examples—complete with dates, topics, and participants—of when I had cut people off in meetings, shaken my head before they had made their points, failed to ask questions to clarify others’ perspectives, and a host of other offenses. The more he read, the more I melted into his point of view.
Gathering the facts is the homework required for an effective Crucial Conversation. Our problem is that our brain is an efficiency optimizer. Given that storing minute details is resource intensive, our brain focuses on retaining conclusions and judgments but does a lesser job of holding the facts that support our judgments. For example, I go to a restaurant, I’m made to wait 25 minutes past my reservation time. The maître de doesn’t seat me until I point out the delay. Two of the wine glasses on the table have spots and there is food debris from previous diners. The waiter doesn’t acknowledge my table for twenty minutes, gets four of our six orders wrong, doesn’t make eye contact, delivers food that is cold, etc., etc. Six months later someone asks me if I like the restaurant. I can remember that I didn’t like the place, but I can’t recall most or all of the specific observations that contributed to my judgment.
The same is true of our judgments of people in the workplace. We’ll make an observation or two, draw a conclusion, then retain the conclusion but little of its basis. “I just don’t trust her, it’s just a gut feeling!” No, it isn’t. It’s a conclusion based on lost information. And you’ll never know if the conclusion is right, wrong, or something in between until you retrieve and interrogate the facts you used to draw it.
Crucial Conversations require both diligence and humility. We must be diligent in recovering the facts that supported our judgment, and we must be humble enough to acknowledge their paucity if our evidence is light.
The only hope of progress with your team member will be moving the conversation to a mutual exploration of concrete history rather than competing conclusions.