How to Make Crucial Conversations Part of Your Culture
by David Maxfield
I work for a global manufacturing company. We are in the process of redefining our workplace culture and recognize that one of the key business behaviors we need to develop, at every level, is the ability to effectively have crucial conversations. What recommendations do you have for creating a workplace ‘movement’ that influences the frequency and effectiveness of crucial conversations?
Your question is one we’ve studied, tracked, and evaluated over many years. The good news is that you can succeed at making the behaviors to “speak up” and “hold others accountable” into organizational norms. The other good news is that, when you do, it has a profoundly positive impact on all aspects of performance.
I’ll describe the approach we use to build these norms.
Begin with a compelling business case
Work with senior leaders to identify a tangible goal that is undeniable and irresistible, a goal that everyone will unite around. We ask them to select a priority that is important enough to demand at least 20 percent of their time. Then we ask them to make sure the link between “speaking up” and achieving the goal is clear. Below are a few examples:
- Hospital: Achieve hand hygiene compliance of 95 percent or better. You must speak up whenever you see someone fail to wash his/her hands.
- Factory: Manage capacity and resource constraints in a way that prevents any delays in deliveries to customers. You must speak up whenever you see a situation that could put a customer delivery at risk.
- Mine: Eliminate accidents that cause serious injuries and deaths. You must speak up whenever you see unsafe behavior or an unsafe situation.
Having a specific goal for “speaking up” will smoke out two kinds of people: People who don’t want to have to speak up and people who don’t want others to speak up to them. The fact that the goal is compelling, undeniable, and irresistible means leaders can have an on-the-bus or off-the-bus conversation with these resisters.
Socialize the business case
Sometimes the business case is obvious. But usually it’s important to have leaders discuss the case with groups of opinion leaders. Here are some of the questions we have the leaders ask to get the conversations going.
- Our Brand: What are we known for? Why do customers come to us, instead of to our competition? What is it about our goods or services that allow us to charge premium pricing? What kinds of failures would put our brand/reputation at risk?
- Our Environment: What threats and opportunities does the organization face? What changes in the environment (to customers, technology, competitors, regulations, workforce, etc.) do we need to master?
- Our Ability to Execute: What are our organization’s strengths and weaknesses? Strengths: Successful change, positive project execution, organic growth, etc. Weaknesses: Stalled initiatives; areas of stagnant growth; investments that are underperforming; projects that miss budgets, timelines, or specs; imperfect collaboration between units, regions, or functions; customer service issues; etc.
These conversations help leaders explain their business strategy and specific priorities. Below are two examples:
- Healthcare System: The senior team described their brand as, “A destination health provider that serves a multistate region.” This strategy guided their capital spending: they purchased an insurance company, bought more than a dozen community hospitals, and built a cancer center, heart center, spine center, and children’s hospital. It certainly took more than 20 percent of their time. The CEO described “speaking up” and “universal accountability” as the essential glue that binds everything together.
- Manufacturing Manager: This leader described her brand as, “We use mass customization to appeal to multiple niche markets.” Her plant needed to deliver personalized products with the cost and scale of mass manufacturing. She developed an incredibly flexible and responsive system where the lynchpins were “speaking up” and “universal accountability.”
Notice how these business cases present Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability as “means to an end” rather than as “ends in and of themselves.” They position these skills as essential, not nice to have.
Ask leaders to lead
It’s tempting for leaders to delegate initiatives to skilled support functions, such as Human Resources or Learning & Development. But norms are set from the top, so leaders need to be more actively involved. Below are three actions we ask leaders to take.
- Involve both formal and informal leaders. Senior leaders must influence through others. In particular, they need the understanding, commitment, and buy in from two groups: formal leaders and informal leaders. Formal leaders include anyone with supervisory responsibilities; informal leaders include opinion leaders, employees who may not have any formal authority, but have the trust and respect of their peers. Senior leaders need to spend a disproportionate amount of their time with these two groups.
- Develop an accountability/measurement system that keeps people’s feet to the fire. Senior leaders must hold themselves accountable for results.
- Build motivation and ability within your chains of command. We ask leaders to lead the influence efforts. That’s why we have them facilitate the discussions that explain the business case. We also ask them to lead (or help lead) any training that’s involved. These investments of time and prestige will convince others of the priority they set on speaking up.
Combine all Six Sources of Influence™
I don’t have the space here to review the methods taught in our book, Influencer. But I will remind you that initiatives that combine four or more (preferably all six) Sources of Influence are ten times more likely to succeed. As a quick reminder, the Six Sources of Influence are:
- Personal Motivation: Will—Is speaking up seen as a moral imperative?
- Personal Ability: Skill—Do people have the skills to speak up in the toughest situations?
- Social Motivation: Encouragement—Do people’s managers and peers ask and encourage them to speak up?
- Social Ability: Support—Do people’s managers and peers support them when they try to speak up?
- Structural Motivation: Incentives—Does speaking up affect performance reviews, promotions, pay, etc.?
- Structural Ability: Tools—Do people have the opportunities, cues, and other tools they need to speak up?
Make sure all Six Sources of Influence are aligned in your favor, that they all support speaking up. Hope this helps.
Best of luck,