Before we dare to open our mouths, let s make sure we re thinking about the same topic. Exactly what are we confronting?
We re stepping up to a:
a gap; a difference between what you expected and what actually happened
Of course, these gaps include missed commitments, disappointed expectations, and bad behavior. As far as this book is concerned , when we say gap, we mean gap , something that might be hard or even risky to discuss. Anybody can sidle up to a cheerful and eager employee and discuss a minor infraction. You don t need a book to take that kind of trivial action.
Instead, as we suggested in the first chapter, we ll be exploring challenges such as the following: What s the best way to confront your boss for micromanaging you? How do you talk to a friend about backbiting? How do you tell a doctor she s not doing her job? What does it take to discipline a violent employee? We call these crucial confrontations because the stakes are high. Handle them poorly and you could lose a job, a friend, or a limb.
We ll start our exploration of ways to initiate a crucial confrontation by sharing what we ve learned from observing people who had the guts to step up to a problem but then quickly failed. After all, knowing what not to do is half the battle.
The first technique is the result of good intentions and bad logic. It s called sandwiching. You honestly believe that you have two equally poor options (and no other choices). You can stay quiet and keep the peace , or you can be honest and hurt someone s feelings. You use sandwiching in an earnest effort to be both nice and honest. To soften the violent blow, you first say something complimentary , next you bring up the problem, and then you close with something complimentary again. Here is an example.
Hey, Bob, good-looking briefcase. By the way, do you know anything about the ten grand missing from our retirement fund? Love the haircut.
A close cousin to this circuitous technique takes the form of a surprise attack. A leader starts a conversation in a chatty tone, makes pleasant small talk, and then suddenly moves in for the kill.
The most unpleasant of these backhanded approaches is unadulterated entrapment ”where one person lures the other into denying a problem, only to punish him or her for lying. It sounds something like this:
How were things at school today?
Fine. Same old stuff.
Fine! The principal called and said you started a food fight in the cafeteria. Is that supposed to be fine?
Most people despise these indirect techniques. They re dishonest, manipulative, and insulting. They re also quite common.
Rather than come right out and talk about a problem, many people rely on nonverbal hints and subtle innuendo. They figure that s faster and safer than actually talking about a problem. Some deal almost exclusively in hints. For instance, to make their point, they frown, smirk, or look concerned. When somebody s late, they glance at their watches . This vague approach is fraught with risk. People may get the message, but what if they misinterpret the nonverbal hints? Besides, how are you supposed to document your actions?
February 10, 2 p.m. Raised my right eyebrow three centimeters. Employee nodded knowingly and started back to work.
Some leaders erroneously believe that they can play the role of good cop if only they can find a way to transform their boss into the bad cop. Parents play the same game by bad-mouthing or blaming their mates. By being the pleasant one, they argue, they re more likely to stay on civil terms with their direct reports or children. Here s the kind of stunt they pull: I know you don t want to work late, but the big guy says that if you don t, we ll write you up. If I had my way, we d all go home early for the holiday weekend .
This strategy is disloyal, dishonest, and ineffective . Anyone who wasn t raised by wolves can see through it. Nothing undermines your authority more than blaming someone else for requesting what you would be asking for if you had any guts. If you repeat this mistake, it won t be long before you re seen as irrelevant ”merely a messenger, and a cowardly one at that.
If you scour the bookstores, eventually you may stumble across a few problem-solving texts that make the following suggestion: Since people benefit from learning on their own, don t come right out and tell them about the actual infraction that has you concerned. Instead, allow room for self-discovery. Make the guilty person guess what s on your mind. Here s what this can look like:
Well, Carmen, why do you think I called you in so bright and early this morning?
I don t know, is it because I crashed the company car?
Hmmm, was it because I sabotaged the phone system?
Is it because . . .
This tactic is as irritating as it is ineffective. Despite good intentions, asking others to read your mind typically comes off as extremely patronizing or manipulative.
For every person we watched play games and fail, we were privileged to observe a skilled parent, supervisor, or manager in action. These people were something to behold. When we first chose to tag along after top performers, we were surprised to see how similar their styles were, independent of the industry. We expected to find muted, even sensitive behavior in high-tech firms, universities, and banks, but we anticipated something quite different in mines, foundries, and factories. We were wrong. Remember Melissa, the frontline supervisor in the plywood mill? She found a way to be both honest and respectful and quickly became the most effective leader in the plant.
To be honest, when we first watched Melissa, we thought that her style was ”how does one say it? ”gender-specific. So we asked if we could watch one of the mill s rather large and scary male supervisors, but one who relied on interpersonal skills rather than threats, abuse, and intimidation .
True to what we had learned about Melissa, Buford (the first hard-hat honcho we trailed) looked far more like Mr. Rogers than Mr. T. Despite the fact that the facility appeared to have been prefabricated in hell, Buford s style and demeanor could have fit easily into a white- collar boardroom. He acted far more like a schoolteacher than like the abusive leaders who surrounded him.
When we asked the plant manager why he thought Melissa and Buford were the best of the best, he said something we ll never forget: It s easy to find a leader who creates warm and lasting relationships but who struggles to get things done. It s not much harder to find a no- nonsense , hard- hitting leader who you might send in to put out a fire but who creates hard feelings. Consequently, when you find someone who can manage both people and production, you ve got a real gem.
How did these two skilled professionals solve problems while building relationships? How did they start a crucial confrontation? We re not sure how they came to have the same understanding, but it didn t take us long to realize that the skilled leaders and parents we were studying had somehow managed to stumble onto the same exquisitely simple yet important principles.