Archive for September, 2011

Effective conversations, part 5 – Dealing with power differentials

Have you ever felt compelled to have a conversation with your boss, when you reckon they are wrong and you just might be right?

My friend Donna asked me about a conversation she needed to have with her boss.  There are some current pressing issues in the organization, and the boss has been forced into some difficult decisions to address them.  The boss might think she’s gone far enough, but it is likely that some further hard choices will need to be made to make the solutions sustainable.

Donna’s underlying difficulty with the conversation is the power differential which will exist in the room while the discussion is taking place.  What can you do to get the best outcome, when there is an imbalance like that?

Here are a few steps which might be taken, to give you the best shot at your desired result:

Neutralise the power

Consider how the situation can be re-framed to negate the power differential.  One way to do this is to position yourself as the subject matter expert, rather than the subordinate.  Grasp your professional discipline, if there is something appropriate you can refer to.  It might be financial expertise, legal experience, retail or engineering or IT knowledge.

I guess I was lucky with my bosses – I could always say:  “Look, I’m just going to put my lawyer hat on for a minute,” whether it was strictly a legal matter or not.  Find whatever reason you can to re-position the situation from a reporting line frame to an advisor/client kind of setting.

Why do this?

Be clear with yourself what the reason is for you having the conversation.  If or when the discussion becomes difficult, you will have a compelling reason for standing your ground.  For Donna, she expressed her reason simply as “I care.”

Why me?

Express to yourself the reasons why you are the best (or only) person to be having this conversation.  That may be because of your knowledge, or some particular analysis you have done, or some facts that only you have been able, or bothered, to gather.  Or it may be that no-one else is prepared to take on the task of having the necessary conversation.

These reasons, when identified, can give you confidence to press your points, especially if you haven’t been able to neutralise the power imbalance.

Find your space

Use all the above aids to help you visualise the metaphorical space in which you will be standing during the conversation.  What does that space look like; where are its boundaries; where will you be coming from; what will the discussion sound like?

Your space might look like the high moral ground, or you might have your back to the wall, or you might have the rest of the team standing with you cheering you on (or hiding behind you).

You might be coming from a place of genuine concern, or compassion, or solid belief in your position.  The discussion might sound measured and composed, at least on your side.

Wherever the space is, it’s better to have been there before and know what it looks like.


Finally, as with any difficult conversation, consider rehearsing it with someone you trust; preferably someone not involved in the situation.  Things can sound different when they are verbalized, rather than spoken in your head.  You can also fine tune things your points with the help of your sounding board.

Conversations involving power differentials can be daunting, but the chances are that you will feel worse if you don’t have them when the need arises.  Finding the right space to stand in can make such conversations a whole lot more manageable.

So good luck with your boss, Donna:  you are in the right space – let’s hope she sees the light.

Effective conversations, part 4 – giving tough feedback

I was rehearsing a potentially difficult conversation recently with my mate James, who is a senior executive.  He needed to pass on some tough feedback to another executive which he had received from a third party.

In the rehearsal he started the proposed conversation off like this:

“Steve, you’ve been doing a really good job, and you’ve been very effective in sorting out the transition to our new structure.  BUT … I need to talk to you about an issue that’s come up which isn’t going very well …”

He was then going to add in a reference to a previous (allegedly similar) incident which happened 6 months ago.

Giving effective, targeted feedback is an essential part of effective people management these days.  James was about to commit a couple of cardinal feedback sins:

1.  The devaluing “BUT”.  If you want to give positive feedback, go right ahead, and do it often.  But let that positive feedback stand on its own.  If you use it as a prelude to giving “constructive” feedback, you will at best erode the re-inforcement value of the positive feedback, and at worst negate it entirely.  Let the good stuff stand alone; let the constructive feedback come out clean, without artificially trying to sugar-coat it.

2.  The “allegedly similar situation”.  The best feedback is timely and specific; trying to link a current issue with something else which has been, or should have been, already addressed can take the conversation into counter-productive territory.  Think about what it feels like when, on the strength of something you’ve done or failed to do, your partner starts off with “You always …” or “You never …”  There’s nothing so likely to get a discussion off to a rocky beginning.

So if you need to pass on some tough feedback, try and keep it as clean and stand-alone as possible, and think about rehearsing it first with someone you trust.

And remember that the recommended ratio of positive to constructive feedback is 10 to 1!

Effective conversations, part 3 – coming to the conversation clean

Ever feel like you have missed something important? I did an interview a few days ago, and looking back now, it feels like I was sitting there in judgement mode instead of listening mode. And in doing so I may have done just that – missed something important.

I was interviewing a member of a team as part of an evaluation process.  This interview was the last but one of the series.  There have been 7 previous interviews with other team members.  Nearly all of them have had something to say about yesterday’s interviewee, both positive and negative.

This person holds a key position in the team, and the consensus seemed to be that he handled most of the role with great expertise, but lacked that last 20% which would have really enhanced his value to the team.

I realise now that I conducted the interview based around that consensus view.  The interviewee’s responses to the questions I asked were all filtered through my pre-conceptions, and I allowed them, correctly or not, to validate that view.  I probably did some retro-fitting as well.

It could well be, for instance, that the last 20% represents something that the team should be providing for themselves, instead of expecting someone else to produce it.

I wonder what I would have heard in the interview if I had come to it clean, treating it like a blank canvas – instead of seeing it as a paint-by-numbers exercise where I tried to make each response fit into one of the pre-drawn shapes.

I have been constructing a tentative set of recommendations for this assignment, even though all the interviews are not complete.  I’d better go back, unscrew the judgement filter, and let the various elements find their place – without my built-up pre-conceptions force-fitting them into a particular shape.

I will also have to be careful in future to let each conversation I have with someone be one of those blank canvases. Who knows what fresh or important insight might paint itself onto that plain white background if I do?

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