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March 25, 2009
Vol. 7 Issue 12
[Image: In This Issue]
[Image: Editors Note]

Crucial Conversations Training Coming to Minneapolis
May 19-20

Join us for Crucial Conversations two-day Training to learn a comprehensive strategy and key skills for reaching alignment and agreement. For trainer certification options, contact Annalee Strub at astrub@vitalsmarts.com

Register today to attend Crucial Conversations Training in Minneapolis, or visit our site to find a training course in a city near you.

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Respecting Privacy

When you need to hold a crucial conversation or confrontation with an individual you interact with in a group or team setting, maintain respect and dialogue by using the following tips:

• Don’t violate privacy by masking a public performance review with inappropriate humor. “Well, look who just arrived. Forget how to find the meeting room?”
• Don’t deal with individual problems in meetings by chastising the entire group. The guilty may miss the fact that they’re the targets of your comments, and the innocent resent the fact that they’re being thrown in with the guilty.
• Do hold the conversation or confrontation in private. No matter where you may encounter a problem, retire to your office or another secluded setting where you can talk one-to-one.

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Influencer Training
· 4/14-15 Las Vegas, NV
· 4/28-29 Washington, DC

Crucial Conversations
· 3/31-4/1 Phoenix, AZ
· 4/14-15 Chicago, IL

Crucial Confrontations
· 5/19-20 Las Vegas, NV
· 6/9-10 Washington, DC

»Click here for International Public Events

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Crucial Conversations
· Overview
- 4/7, 11:00-12:00 PM MT

Crucial Confrontations
· Overview
- 4/14, 11:00-12:00 PM MT

· Overview
- 4/21, 11:00-12:00 PM MT

Register today for an event by clicking on one of the links above.

For questions, contact us toll free at 1-800-449-5989.

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Questions, feedback, or information you would like to see in the newsletter? E-mail us at editor@vitalsmarts.com.

Submit your Q&A question online to the authors of Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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"You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb a little."   
—  Andrew Carnegie

[Image: Q & A]

Addressing Mediocre Performance

[Image: Joseph Grenny--Joseph Grenny is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.
  [Image: Question] Dear Crucial Skills,

I am struggling with a couple of low performers who are just not cutting it. Their performance is mediocre at best, but there is not enough cause to terminate them. Customers don't complain about them, but they never receive compliments either.

I have a waiting list of excellent applicants trying to get into my department that could elevate our team's performance, but I feel as though I am stuck with these few who are not up to par. How should I handle employees who just skate by doing the minimum?

Managing Mediocrity

  [Image: Answer] Dear Managing Mediocrity,

I hope you’re sitting down because my answer is going to suggest more work than you might have hoped. But I can assure you that if you really want to raise performance for not only these two low performers, but for the entire team, this is the route you have to take.

First, let’s agree on the real problem. The issue you’re facing is not two low performers. The issue is low expectations. If these two team members are truly low performers and yet “there is not enough cause to terminate them,” then you are operating in a culture with mediocre norms. And if that’s true, then the work you have to do is not first and foremost with the two low performers, it is with chronically bad norms. If your team was crystal clear on high performance expectations, mediocrity would be painfully apparent and you wouldn't have to make a tough call when it came time to counsel or terminate.

So while this may sound like the long way of dealing with what you see as a two-person problem, I suggest you solve the expectation problem first. If you don’t, your action against these employees will likely be seen as unfair and confusing. Over the years, we’ve had performance concerns with employees in our company as well, and while we’ve not always been perfect, we’ve tried to hold ourselves to a standard that no one’s termination will ever come as a surprise.

That’s quite a burden to put on both the manager and the organization. But it is the right burden. At times we’ve had senior managers who said, “This person just isn’t going to make it.” Their inclination was to simply let the individual go. In these cases, our “no surprise” policy held them to a much higher standard. They were required to be much more specific and clear about concerns, then follow with progressive discipline for defined periods of time. And while I cannot say this always resulted in the employee turning things around, I can say three equally important things:

1. Employees learned far more from this painful process.
2. They were far more likely to feel justly treated at the end.
3. Their departure built trust, rather than insecurity, in the rest of the organization as employees learned that there would be no “surprises” in their careers if managers had concerns about their performance.

So, how do you reset norms? How can you set a high performance standard that makes dealing with mediocrity much clearer?

1. Confirm the HR Standard. You, your peers, your bosses, and HR need to have a uniform and explicit understanding about the kind of performance you expect from people. Some organizations are satisfied with a bell curve. Others are very explicit that they want A-players in all positions. These standards have implications for selection, compensation, development, and so on. If you want A-players in all positions, you’ll have to pay for them. You’ll have to be willing to search for them. You’ll need to invest in developing them. And you’ll need to remove those who don’t make the grade. These are big commitments to make and you need to be sure you have enough support from your own chain of command before you claim that you are setting this standard.

2. Go Public. Once you have sufficient support for the hard decisions involved with a higher performance standard, you’ll have to go public. Let people know the bar is being raised. Let them know of any implications for jobs, for development, and any other consequences people will need to understand so there are no surprises. Acknowledge that the norms were different in the past, without sounding self-righteous and judgmental of past leadership. Frankly state how things will be going forward and why this is right for the organization and good for those involved. Sell the vision as a way of instilling pride and ambition, but acknowledge that some may not make it. Let people know that there will be ample and just opportunities to upgrade their contribution, as well as how you’ll support that with candor, coaching, and development.

3. Coach, Coach, Coach—Replace. Now live the standard. If someone performs below the standard, coach them—have the “content” conversation to let them know the gap between what they did and what you expected. If it continues, coach again—but this time as a “pattern” conversation—let them know this is now a chronic concern, not an isolated concern. If needed, this escalation is documented and any necessary support in the form of training, mentoring, work process change, etc., is offered. If it happens again, it’s time for a “relationship” conversation. At this point the person must know that termination or reassignment is an option. This must be put in writing to allow no wiggle room in understanding.

In conclusion, the greatest challenge you’ll face in coaching is not the individual's performance, but your own clarity. Far too few managers know how to articulate the difference between mediocre performance and great performance. And if you can’t describe it you can’t expect it. You must do the hard work of detailing the behaviors and results you expect to see and contrasting those with typical mediocre performance. Every minute you spend more expertly articulating expectations will save you an hour in debate and resentment later.

Good luck! I know this is a longer answer than you may have wanted, but it’s definitely worth the work.


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To learn more about addressing performance problems, view these newsletters:

"Group Crucial Conversations" (November 9, 2005)
"Giving Feedback to Defensive Employees" (May 9, 2007)
"Addressing Performance Without Feeling Guilty" (June 4, 2008)

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[Image: Letters to the Editor]

RE: "Where Are You Mr. Capra?" (February 25, 2009)

Thank you for bringing perspective to our world view. This is a conversation we all need to have, first within ourselves, and then with those we love. We need to bring our selfish consumerism under control and return to a value-based society that will truly take us into a sustainable future where we are not afraid to retire and where our children and grandchildren can have a hope of retirement at a reasonable age. I plan to have this crucial conversation with my family this week.

David N.

RE: "Responding to Cheap Shots and Personal Attacks" (March 11, 2009)

While I respect your opinion regarding how to handle criticism and cheap shots about our country, I think you are absolutely wrong when you advocate ignoring the comments because "America has big shoulders." Should we really compromise our patriotism for a sale? I think not. When we allow others to belittle and criticize us, we send the message that we do not believe in our country and that the person delivering the criticism is correct. One does not have to be rude and disrespectful when debating another person, but one should speak up and strongly support their beliefs in freedom and liberty, not cower to achieve financial gain. 

Kathy P.

RE: "The Secrets of Creativity" (March 18, 2009)

So what's the punchline to David's doctoral presentation on creativity? How did he do when it came to his grade for the class? Seems like a pretty creative risk he was taking! The suspense is killing me...

Thank you,
Jeff S. 

Response from Kerry Patterson:

Many of you have asked about David Anderson, my classmate who stood up and argued that creativity wasn’t a true academic discipline and therefore deserved no real consideration in a doctoral-level seminar. Since our grade was dependent on our report and David didn’t give a very lengthy one, it left some of you wondering if the faculty advisor accepted David’s “creative response.” 

At the time, David’s description was accurate. It’s enormously difficult to get two people to agree on what constitutes a creative breakthrough in everything from sculpting to painting to composing. One person’s view of creative genius is another person’s view of an outlandish production. Consequently, the topic really hadn’t been researched much. Our faculty advisor cheerily accepted David’s summary, dismissed class a full hour early, and I went home and pushed my children in the swing in our common area. I don't know what grade David got in that class, but I do know he went on to a productive academic career.

Additionally, some of our readers brought to my attention that while 30 years ago, academia hadn’t made much progress in documenting creativity, the landscape is much different today. Creativity as a field of study and discipline thrives in our modern society. If you are interested in additional resources on creativity, here are a few:

· Applied Imagination by Alex Osborn for the original description of brainstorming and creative problem solving.
· Creative Leadership: Skills that Drive Change by Puccio, Murdock and Mance for ways in which creativity principles can be used to develop effective leadership.
· Handbook of Organizational Creativity by Zhou and Shalley’s for a resource that examines creativity within the organizational context.


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