Step back and see


I hired really good people and paid them top wages. I made sure we were all very much involved, but I was also able to step out and watch the operation from the other side of the window.

Mario Batali, Interviewed by Katherine Bell for Harvard Business Review

Tip 3: Transforming difficult conversations

Threshold Conversations

The big challenge in difficult conversations is that we’re overtaken by a sense of risk.  “Risk?” you say.  I haven’t don’t anything wrong! That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

The first thing that goes is our sense of certainty. “What does this challenge to my competence mean?” I might be able to say, “Well, thanks for the feed back.”  But some of us are bound to be feeling, “What does she really want?  What’s my exposure?  What does this mean for my prospects here?  Who else thinks that I am not ‘strategic’ enough?”

When we engage in difficult conversations, we really do experience a threat to our sense of certainty.  Because the brain has, we believe, evolved to find and make sense of patterns, we stop noticing them until they’re altered. Scientists now believe that the brain responds to “even a small amount of uncertainty as an error.” ((“SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.”(pdf) David Rock)) Error detection triggers increases alertness, usually accompanied by a rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, and a narrowing of attention. Maybe it’s just a change in the environment, but change can carry threat. In evolutionary time, it wasn’t that long ago that our well being was at risk when errors in the environment shot us the message: En garde! So we may hear, “Come into my office,” as a threat.”Across the theshold, without assumptions

Oh there goes gravity” – Eminem

When that certainty about ourselves is yanked from under our feet, no one can reassure us that it’s going to be okay. You know this from being on the receiving end. “You’ve made great contributions to the team and I see this an anomaly.”  Would you feel all better?  Of course not.

We distrust the message and the messenger. We argue against both. Before the feedback, she was a decent colleague and afterward she was a jerk, a malicious manipulator, and she can’t pick out clothes to save her life. In my experience, the more accurate the feedback, the more I have felt a brief fit of personal animus.

Knowing what it means to be a professional, we express fight or flight in mostly civilized ways. My reaction is often flight: keep quiet, head down, I’m going to be okay, I can remedy this in coming weeks. Others let it out. Don’t kid yourself. It’s personal. It’s what the Difficult Conversations authors call the Identity Conversation. ((Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, Heen. p. 14)) You just lost your self image. It’s going to take some time to put it back together. If you’re going to take in that feedback, it’s not going to be simple, either. Have a little compassion for the the person who you started the conversation with; they’re going to feel they got jumped.

Tip 3: Rebuild a sense of certainty with simple, genuine action

If you initiated the conversation, very little you say can restore the sense of certainty that the other person is valued, competent, or worth investing in. Don’t rush to treat this situation as a problem to be solved. It’s a Threshold moment. Both of you have stepped into room that neither of you has visited before. Step across the threshold, do your best to let go of what you had assumed, and pay attention to what’s new. This is going to take a lot of attention, which requires real effort. But you and the other person are going to reap dividends in candor and trust for months or years.

A simple plan for next steps

As a starting point, take these steps:

  • Meet again soon.  The next day is ideal.
  • Conversation number two focuses on listening and letting the person know you heard them.
  • In coming days, play a part in restoring a sense of certainty by:
    • Capitalizing on the person’s strengths. “Could I ask you, Dan, and you, Lee (the freaking-out guy in the conversation) to propose some approaches?”
    • Confirming Lee’s value in positive language. “Your ideas about working with manufacturing partners helped us break a vicious cycle.  Please keep on bringing that kind of thinking to our team’s challenges.”  (Don’t inflate or lie, just look for opportunities to be genuine.)

My colleague and fellow leadership coach Kande McDonald and I will talk share more about Threshold Conversations. You’ll have a chance to envision how you might use a new approach to the moment of panic when certainty evaporates.  We hope to see you there.

Register now


How we used it: Climate

You are reading a previously unpublished entry written August 11, 2010.

The Boss buys the climate idea

November 2009:  At the heart of “the climate idea” is notion that climate dimensions are a model for managing and leading.  So they offer a method for and measuring managers performance.  The problem the Boss faced is that after repeated invitations to change, fervent exhortations to change, and even some modest efforts to demonstrate that performance matters to you and your job, very little had changed.  What the Boss saw in organizational climate was a way to establish measures and hold people accountable for performance.  One way of looking at the state of affairs is that people were not changing because they were not carrying out, and not being held accountable for carrying out, day-to-day management and leadership responsibilities.

I learned about this idea from my pal and mentor Mike Maginn.  Without his sage advice, we might have taken a more piecemeal approach to looking for Archimedes’ lever.

Senior leaders learn about the idea

April 2010 The Boss and I gingerly introduced the climate idea to the senior management team.  We began the discussion with them where we began that discussion with Mike and among ourselves.  In August 2009, a survey of staff to identify issues of readiness to change delivered a load of complaints and frustration about management and leadership.  It hung in the air, and from where I sat, went on stinking up the place.  Few saw the messages in it as urgent pleas or indictments.  The main messages were that leadership doesn’t lead, leaders don’t communicate, and too much is expected of us.  If you know your climate dimensions, you’ll hear feedback about standards, structure/clarity, and perhaps, recognition.

The senior leaders read our text and in a group meeting, completed my version of the Rohrschak test:  What do you think our climate profile looks like? Interestingly, they rated their teams high in structure/clarity and standards and moderately low on the others, with responsibility being the lowest.  They envisioned that Teamwork and Commitment would be higher.  Weeks of discussions followed, all of which amounted to natural reactions to getting used to the idea.  Just as we planned to T-boned by the need to develop a plan for other efforts.  The projects that flow out of that plan promise to define much of our work for two years or more.  With the day to day work, they are our lab for using climate to focus action, especially by leaders and managers.  By the time we returned to climate in June, senior managers found little to object to and much to hope for in using climate to frame how we manage work and people.

Where are we going?

Are we making progress?  It seems like we’re stalled.  You’ve had this experience, too, I suspect.  We push on and deliver as promised.  The project ends with vague success. Maybe we made a few too many compromises.  Maybe we lost support for the effort along the way.  Maybe it was, after all, the necessary work.  Period.

Why does this never happen to the writers of leadership books?  Some work doesn’t wow. Now one likes to admit it because that’s not what we aim for.  But much good work has to be done every day.  By all means, look closely at whether you’ve made missteps.  But since great leaders and managers just don’t stall, and it seems that you’re stalled, obviously, you’re not doing your job; you’re no leader. Or maybe today’s project is a drop in the bucket, which in time is certain to tip the scale of transformation, is just another drop.

Unlike the storied leaders, you have not had your breakthrough revelation.  I mean the big insight that turned a stagnant situation around and prevented ever repeating that situation again.  We want to be that leader. Today, though, there’s a lot of unexciting work to do.  This is what it takes to change things, without a swelling string section. This is the source of big revelations: just doing the work.

The sense of being stalled, accurate or otherwise, challenges all the thinking and planning that led to this moment.  The big ideas and deliberate influencing started the momentum.  People climbed on board.  Now they’re not seeing the benefits you promised.  They’re recognizing how hard the work is.  They’re not seeing the visionary end state.  You’re questioning it it, too.

This is the big challenge in choosing ideas as tools.  There is no way to be sure they’re the right ones until conditions are in place and the results start coming in.  Right now, they are hypotheses.   Everything in the system – too little time, obstacles to communication, the people who are involved, your own planning, other priority objectives – is testing whether this idea is the  the right idea right now.  It would be easier to strike a compromise and choose another idea that looks easier to implement.  And I concede, there is a time for compromise.  But this isn’t it.  This is a time to go deeper into relationships with the people who are testing your hypothesis.  This is a time for listening.  This is also time to review and refocus on the destination.

A little commercial for acting locally

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, such stuff as job performance, training programs, and competency models are pretty near the top.  Food and shelter near the bottom.  Because I get to spend most of my time thinking about the former, I’ve been supporting Somerville Homeless Coalition for ten years.

This year I’m challenging myself to raise money and run the fundraising road race.  Okay, 5K isn’t a big challenge.  But you have to raise a kitty, show up regardless the weather, and run.  It’s my way of having some skin in the game and to share the road with others who care about home, their hometown, and our neighbors without homes.

If home is important to you and you don’t worry having it or keeping it, consider making even a small contribution to help me get to my $100 goal.  Sure, I could be more ambitious, but this goal is achievable and time-bound (think “SMART”).  The race is Saturday October 2.


Thank you in advance.  If after considering whether you can give, you decide not to contribute to this run, please take a look around your home town, reflect on what you value, and take some emblematic action there.

Vive la resistance!

I went to a great meeting yesterday.  Okay, yes, that’ s really my life: a meeting can be a great thing. A group of leaders questioned the validity of training I’m developing.  Polite shots across the bow, honestly.  Now we’re in interesting waters!

The large assembly – sixteen people – is a working group set up to address issues in an area of concern in our organization.  They come from varied roles and departments.  Among them through, imagine marketing and sales, or sales and operations.

Thank you for the feedback
"Thank you for the feedback!"

If you recognize how different those perspectives are, then imagine something similar here.  The differences in work… Continue reading “Vive la resistance!”


You know you’re onto something when you start encountering resistance.  But like stubbing your toe in the dark, after the swearing, the first question is, “What is that?”

If what you’re doing is going against the grain of  “how we do things here,” you’re challenging the corporate culture.  That stony thing in the dark is, in fact, the way the organization makes decisions, or the way it takes up and digests new initiatives, or some other norm that had not come to light yet.  If it’s culture, you need to recognize that it’s a firm object.  No matter how wacky it appears to your newcomer’s eyes, you won’t change it quickly.  You may not change it at all.

Even after a year with the organization, I’m new.  Most of my colleagues have been around for a number of years.  That means Continue reading “Resistance”

Do over

Thanks to some insoluable WordPress upgrade kink, this blog starts again today.  I’ll be ranging more widely across the work I do, the tools I’m using, and the challenges of change that appear to be on the horizon.  All while trying to avoid telling stories on others that impugn them or their work.  Because the thing is, we’ll all trying to do something good in the work we do.

I’m an experiment

About a month ago, I eased into a new job at my “company.”  I had been designing and developing a comprehensive curriculum for broad training audience under the direction of a cross functional group.  (That work goes live in January.)  Or, many masters, one clear audience.  The new job makes me a training and communications manager in one of the departments that sponsored that curriculum.  Or, few masters, many audiences.

To my knowledge, though there are hundreds of departments here and 10,000 employees, ours is the only department with someone in my role.  I have one eye on training needs internally and the other on needs among our internal partners and clients.  It’s a complex business, and half of the overall revenue comes through our door.  A lot of the work calls for sophisticated decision-making in gray areas of policy.

What am I looking forward to?  Everything.  What strikes me as challenging?  Everything.  Because we’re not building a training function, we’re changing the way people think about training.  So what I, and my boss, supporters, and forward thinking colleagues have to prove is, “Is it worth it?”