One of my problems is that I internalize everything. I can t express anger; I grow a tumor instead.
When two Stanford researchers pulled up to a plywood mill in the foothills of northwestern Washington, they were surprised to see an ambulance parked out front. The harsh glare of the rotating warning lights set an ominous tone for the first day of what would become several months of research.
The two experts were part of a team of investigators who were studying ways to handle missed commitments and failed promises at work, at home, and at play. For instance, how should you confront an employee who is chronically late, a colleague who bad-mouths you behind your back, or your teenage daughter who just announced that she s going to the senior prom with a boy you suspect is Satan s grandnephew?
That day the two researchers were beginning an exploration into the murky world of corporate accountability. First they would examine how leaders typically handle missed commitments and violated expectations. Then it would be their job to uncover and teach the best way to confront those problems. They would learn what to say to a burly forklift driver who violates a safety regulation, a boss who continually micromanages her direct reports , or a coworker who is ragingly incompetent.
As the researchers entered the manager s office, one nervously asked, What s with the ambulance? Imagine the manager s chagrin. Here were the two experts he had hired to create the plant s new supervisory training program, and the ambulance pulling away from the front gate was carrying an employee who had been beaten up . . . by a supervisor.
Funny you should ask, he muttered. It seems that Leo, our night-shift supervisor ”and I d like to point out that he s a prince of a guy ”anyway, Leo got into an argument with an employee who hadn t followed a quality process, and . . . well, you know how things go.
Actually, I don t, the researcher answered . That s what we re here to study.
As the blood drained from the manager s face, he continued . This whole situation is a bit embarrassing. It appears that Leo punched the fellow, and now he needs stitches.
Let s look at another scenario. Sarah, the head nurse at the Pine Valley Medical Center, stands frozen as doctors discuss the treatment of an elderly patient. Years of experience have taught Sarah two things: One, the patient probably needed an immediate and large dose of antibiotics, and two, even though the doctors were discussing a treatment that didn t involve antibiotics, Sarah would keep her mouth shut.
Years earlier, fresh out of college, Sarah had cheerfully disagreed with the three doctors she had been assisting. They stopped dead in their tracks and looked at her as if she were a cockroach on a wedding cake. Her colleagues stared in horror . In one poignant moment that was forever burned into her psyche, the rules had been made clear to Sarah: Don t disagree with a physician ”ever. Now, nearly two decades and hundreds of confirming incidents later, she stands by wondering: Will the doctors do what I believe they should do, or will they come to the same conclusion too late? She doesn t wonder if she should speak up. Sarah s expectations weren t met, and she then resorted to silence.
Although Leo and Sarah work in completely different jobs, they faced the same issue: What do you do when other people aren t doing what they re supposed to be doing? How do you deal with broken promises, violated expectations, and good-old-fashioned bad behavior?
In Leo s case the infraction had been straightforward: A machine operator repeatedly failed to follow a routine quality process. Leo pointed out the problem, one word led to another, and now the guy was on his way to the hospital. Sarah s case was more ambiguous. Two physicians were about to do something not merely ineffective but flat-out wrong, or so she thought. She wasn t completely certain, but she was pretty certain. And if she was right, the patient might die. How should she confront the two physicians? And once she did, where could she find a new job?
Leo and Sarah aren t alone in their turmoil. For instance, how would you typically handle the following?
An employee speaks to you in an insulting tone that crosses the line between sarcasm and insubordination. Now what?
Your boss just committed you to a deadline you know you can t meet ”and not-so-subtly hinted he doesn t want to hear complaints about it.
Your son walks through the door sporting colorful new body art that raises your blood pressure by forty points.
An accountant wonders how to step up to a client who is violating the law.
Family members fret over how to tell granddad that he needs to live up to his promise of no longer driving his car.
We all face crucial confrontations . We set clear expectations, but the other person doesn t live up to them ”we feel disappointed. Lawyers call these incidents breaches of contract. At work we re likely to dub them missed commitments; with a friend, broken promises; and with a teenage son, violations of common courtesy .
Whatever the terminology, the question is the same: What do you do when someone disappoints you? Leo went for option 1: He chose violence. Sarah opted for another alternative: silence. Surely there s a third option. Surely there s a method that falls somewhere between the stark, polar worlds of fight and flight. Actually, that s precisely what this book is about. We examine better ways of dealing with failed promises, disappointments, and other performance gaps. We ll explore how to step up to and master crucial confrontations. But first, let s start with a definition.