By: Joseph Grenny
How do you have a crucial conversation when someone pulls rank and shuts down dialogue by saying something like, “Because I’m the boss!”? I’m in a situation where I would like to discuss better solutions, but when I do, the other person uses her authority to stop the conversation.
You’ve asked the very question that motivated much of our interest in crucial conversations. From the beginning, we wanted to explore how people addressed emotionally and politically-risky issues with people who had far more power than they did. Our belief was that crucial conversations skills would be largely useless unless they worked under these most trying of conditions.
Interestingly, some of the most confirming experiences for me were not observations of others using a proposed skill, but situations where I struggled to use them myself. For example, I once worked with one of the most powerful CEOs in the world. Let’s call him Hank. Hank was a large, square-jawed man with an austere demeanor. You’d recognize him as “the boss” no matter the situation. The project he invited me to help with had global significance. This was early in my career, so the prospect of working with this man in this kind of effort was very exciting. I did not want to do anything wrong.
A few months into the project, we were ready to share the plan with the workforce. After a massive employee meeting/broadcast, we walked together toward the executive offices. I was floating on air, euphoric about the event. Hank said nothing until we neared his office. “Joseph,” he said, sounding not unlike a stern school principal, “I’d like to see you in my office.”
My spine stiffened and my heart stopped. My mind raced as he closed the door to his office and we took our seats. My mouth went dry. “Joseph, I’m concerned. Will you review the plan for me again?”
I was dumbstruck. I had been over this plan with him a half-dozen times. What does he mean, “Review the plan?” He knew it as well as I did. He helped develop it!
“Uh. Okay. Well, the next step is diagnosis. We need to gather data about the kinds of behaviors that are slowing down decision-making and increasing waste.”
He wagged his finger back and forth like a wand. “No. We’re not going to do that. We have enough data around here to choke a horse. We don’t need data. I just want to kill something. Take diagnosis off the list.”
When I read your question, this moment quickly came to mind. What do you do when someone more powerful than you pulls the “boss” card? What do you do when he or she shuts down the conversation? This was one of the many poignant moments in my career when research became real. I was no longer looking at the situation from the safe position of an emotionally detached researcher. This was me, terrified that the most important project of my career was slipping away.
I found myself doing what I counsel others not to do. I began to think I had to choose between telling the truth and keeping a relationship. My convictions began a debate with my fears. Fortunately, my convictions won out. I knew from experience that it’s possible to do both—to speak the truth and not just preserve, but strengthen the relationship. So, I did what I had begun advising others to do when a powerful person attempts to shut down dialogue:
1. Ask permission
One of the best ways to create safety is to cede control. Honor the fact that the other person has agency. Don’t impose feedback on him or her. Don’t argue. Don’t criticize. Simply ask permission to share.
2. Give the other person a reason to talk
Find a motivation that will encourage him or her and that also connects logically with what you want to share. Use this value to frame the request to talk. For example, I know Hank cared deeply about the speed and effectiveness of this highly visible project. The future financial health of the company was connected—in his mind—with its success.
3. Say the thing he or she is afraid to say
People shut down dialogue when it either seems pointless or scary. If avoidance is motivated by fear, a powerful person is unlikely to admit it. You’ll have to address the fear for him or her. I had a suspicion (from toss-away comments I’d heard from Hank in the past) that his unilateral decision to cut diagnosis was a suspicion that it was a way to jack up consulting fees without adding value.
4. Accept your role
At the end of the day, you are not the boss. The other person is. Accept this reality and affirm your relative positions. This shows respect and creates safety for the boss.
“Hank,” I began, “the first thing I want you to know is that I’m fully aware you’re the boss. At the end of this conversation I will do what you order me to do.” Hank looked a bit confused. I let him absorb that statement, then continued. “Second, if there are elements of this plan you think won’t add value—or worse, a way to jack up worthless consulting fees (at this he smiled uncomfortably), I’d like to know about them. Ultimately, I want a relationship with you where you are okay demanding that I justify the work.” Another pause. He nodded his head appreciatively.
I continued, “With all that said, I want you to know I have reasons to believe that if we skip diagnosis, the project will suffer significantly. I would be happy to explain those reasons if you want. But if not, I will remove it and do my best to compensate for the problems I think we’ll see.”
He sat back in his chair and said, “Your nickel.” His way of saying, “Make your point, but do it quickly.” So I did. And we ended up diagnosing. But that wasn’t the most important outcome of the conversation. The most important result was that it set a precedent for how we would handle crucial conversations in the future. We had a very healthy relationship for the next three years and he tended to turn to me for candid feedback. Had I made the “fool’s choice” between telling the truth and keeping a friend, I would have similarly set a precedent of silence rather than dialogue.
I hope these suggestions help you learn to reopen conversations that appear closed as well.