Tag Archives: Crucial Conversations

If I Can’t Be Divergent, I’ll be Candor


Last weekend I went to see Divergent, a movie based on a trilogy written by Veronica Roth.  Most of us read the series and were eager to be disappointed because, well, the movie is never as good as the book.

Our seats hadn’t yet warmed when the conversation began.

Jennifer: Which faction would you be?

Me: Who me, why I’d be Divergent of course.

Gail: No, you can’t be Divergent. You have to belong to one of the factions.

Me: Then I would be Candor.

All: Ahhhh yeah, of course. What else?!

I am candid person; I know that healthy and productive relationships depend upon it. And right now, I am feeling the love.  A few days ago I reunited with a client over lunch. When the conversation turned to my ponderings about my brand, she gave me some welcome and flattering feedback.

What stands out to me is how well you ‘speak truth to power.’ You have the ability to speak the truth in a way that people can hear it. Not everybody can do that, and I really admire you for that.

It was music to my ears and warm fuzzies for my heart, but just how valuable is this kind of Candor? According to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, it’s brought in about 10.3 billion in the box office from its fourteen films – from Toy Story to the current smash hit Frozen. In an interview with Fast Company, Catmull previews his book Creativity Inc. and attributes much of Pixar’s success to the candor practiced by their “Brain Trust” in quarterly meetings.

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision-making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.

Dysfunction has its costs: it cuts off communication, impairs decision-making, stifles creativity, kills productivity, and annoys customers. Let me say that again: it really annoys customers.

That’s why I press my clients to say what needs to be said – in healthy, productive ways.

So, I am proud to be from Candor. How about you? What is your faction and are you proud of it?


I still truly believe I am Divergent.  I wouldn’t be Candor if I didn’t tell you that.





Dancing with a Bear

Stepping on Toes

The giant man rose to his feet displaying his 6’8”, 400-pound frame, reached for his coat as if ready to walk out, and asked me “Do you want to know what I think of that?” We had already danced around the room quite a bit, so I bit. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s good, that’s real good. You’re good,” he replied, and then he sat back down and settled in for the rest of the class. It wasn’t exactly music to my ears, but it was close.

As a trainer I had just allowed myself to travel too far down the path, dancing with this bear of a man about his issue with his boss. On several occasions the boss told him, “You are a big guy; that can be intimidating.” But what could he do about it? “I am big,” he told me, “I can’t change that. Do I have to act like a sissy? Why should I have to change? Do you expect me to change?”

Leading the Dance

“Yes, I do expect you to change.” I exclaimed, looking right into his eyes. Then I looked around the room to the other participants. “Yes! Yes, I expect all of you to change. That is why I am here. I am a trainer. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t expect you to change. I am offering you better ways of working and relating with people in your life. You don’t have to adopt them: that is your choice. But if you want better outcomes, then I suggest you consider trying them.” And when I said that, the dance was over. My bear, and the other participants, sat back and listened more intently and ready to learn. The dance was over and our work had finally begun in earnest.

The Magic of the Moment

My words weren’t magic. I certainly didn’t intimidate the man. I didn’t say anything that he, and the others, didn’t already know at some level. So what changed? I believe that it was the simple respect of talking straight and offering choice. He expected me to dance with him, somehow avoiding any intimation that he should change. That would somehow invade his “right to be me.” He challenged me to be truthful. He wouldn’t respect cowardice, nor tolerate an absurd denial that people must change. I spoke an obvious truth, which earned his respect and his ear. If only more people would make this choice.

The Teddy Bear

After the class, the dancing bear talked with me for awhile about his dilemma. He “got real,” and we talked through different conversations he could have with his boss about the real issue. He was a great guy—a teddy bear really (which I pretty much knew all along – despite his pretense). We parted friends, and I look forward to working with this bear of a man again.

Failure Management, Sick Care, and Ray Lewis

Recently, I have been interviewing physicians about their practices, their professions, and their so-called lives. With all the changes in healthcare, many docs are finding it hard to navigate the emerging business models while caring for their patients and prospering financially. There is a lot to it. But when I ask, “What are the three most important problems they would like to solve?”, this is what comes up:

Dealing with Poor Performance and Difficult Behavior in the Workplace

It just isn’t covered in medical school.

Well, if you are a doctor, you can relax a bit. You have a lot of good company. Although performance management is covered in business management programs, most managers are poorly prepared for these same challenges. So I thought I would share the single most common mistake people make in managing performance in healthcare and other business settings. No kidding, this is THE SINGLE MOST COMMON MISTAKE as of  11:01 a.m. on October 3, 2011. It’s all proven 100%.

Failing to focus on performance

Sunday, aka football day in the fall, has just passed. All week, 32 teams with 1,760 players, 590 coaches, and numerous ancillary staff thought, trained, and practiced in order to perform at their peak on Sunday afternoon. All week, performance was their single focus; it is all they talked about. Regardless of the outcomes of yesterday’s games, (the Ravens won, but the Eagles didn’t!) there is no denying that these people consistently perform at high levels.  

Wherever we see excellence, performance is the focus of the people in the organization. Managers and staff think about it, they plan it, they talk about it, and they rehearse it. When things go well, they notice it and talk about why it went that way. When things don’t go well, they notice it and talk about why they didn’t go that way. And it’s not just “managers” who are talking about it. It is everyone, because it is everyone’s goal. They work together on it all week. When someone screws up, colleagues on peak performing teams talk directly with the person about it without hesitation or worrying that it is “not my place.”

In recent years my doctor has begun talking about healthcare in a new way. He has been talking about “health care” versus “sick care.”  Our nation is burdened by sicknesses created by the failure to create health. For years medicine has focused on curing sickness versus creating and sustaining health. So what do we have? We have a country plagued with diseases created by destructive life habits. Somehow we have expected health without doing the work to create and sustain it. Managers make the same mistake in their organizations. They expect performance without doing the work to nurture, create, and sustain it. If I only had a nickel for every time a manager said to me, “You’d think they would know how to do this!”  

Did Ray Lewis become a 16-year-star automatically? No, he studies, trains, and coaches other players all week on how to perform with excellence. He works hard at creating high performance rather than expecting that it will happen on its own.  

So what does it take to create high performance in your workplace?

  1. Define what high performance looks like for every role, for every task, and for the business as whole. (Leaders have the responsibility to do this but are wise to do it collaboratively with staff.)
  2. Spend time and effort figuring out what it actually takes to perform in your environment.
  3. Measure performance and talk about how you are hitting, exceeding, and falling short of the mark on a regular basis.
  4. Talk about performance and how to get there continuously, like you would talk about the weather, your weekend, and where to eat for lunch. This is relatively easy to do when you have defined what is needed, set clear standards for success, and talked about what it takes to get there. But it is hard to do if you just expect it without defining it or communicating about it.
  5. Refine, adjust, and learn along the way.

Even if you are not the “person in charge,” you can do these things to create high performance in your workplace. Ray Lewis started with himself, then started talking with his peers and coaches about what he was doing to excel. My doctor is talking with his patients about caring for their health rather than managing sickness. What is keeping you from doing the same?

Do Frank Conversations Hurt Your Career?

When I was a young man my Director introduced me the COO of our company (Let’s call him Jerry).  My Director was Jerry’s “escort” on a goodwill tour of our office. (It seems that he didn’t always agree with our perspective on things).  Jerry was regarded by many to be a crotchety old engineer, and I later learned that he had a reputation as a “my way or the highway” kind of guy.  But that didn’t matter much to me when Jerry asked me about a controversial position our department had taken.  I stood there in amidst the cubicles and “argued” with the COO.  I don’t think anyone but the two of us thought this was a good thing to do.

In short order, two colleagues appeared in my line of sight discreetly gesturing for me to terminate my conversation with him.  I distinctly remember one dragging his finger across his throat and mouthing “that’s Jerry, the COO.”  A few others peeped their heads over their cube walls then promptly hid, fearing they might suffer from collateral damage.  One brave person tried to distract me by approaching me with bogus issue that required immediate attention. But I wasn’t having any of it. Instead, I took my cues from my own values, and from Jerry’s signals. We disagreed, and we expressed our positions frankly. But I saw no sign that he took any offense. On my part, I was enjoying the debate and was learning quite a bit. So I engaged him, and the conversation ran its course.  Afterwards, my peers were not shy about telling me how foolish I had been. I wasn’t sure if I had been – I just didn’t know.

Two years later I learned exactly what Jerry thought of me, and it was all good. I had returned to my career in leadership development, and Jerry had an appointment with a colleague to discuss one of our training programs. I saw Jerry in the reception area and approached him to (re) introduce myself.  Before I could finish my sentence, he blurted, “I remember you! You’re Mike Boyes; I like you.”  With that encouragement in hand, I inquired about our previous encounter and he explained why he liked me.  “You took a clear position and gave a sound rationale for it. I didn’t agree with you, but it was a good discussion. We need more people like you.”  Jerry and I later became friends; he attended my wedding, and we had a few more disagreements along the way.  But few people in the company saw Jerry the way I did.  They feared disagreement with him, anticipated his wrath, and avoided crossing him.  I dare say those people missed the opportunity to learn from a smart – and nice guy.

Perhaps he mellowed by the time I got to know him. Perhaps we just shared the same perspective … that people can disagree and even argue without harming each other, that conversation is most interesting when views conflict. Whatever the reason, I am glad that I read Jerry right on that day.   

In a recent HBR article, researchers Batia M. Wiesenfled and colleagues conclude that far too often managers abuse their position of power, using it to advance their own agendas and trod on people. Too many managers view “respect and power to be mutually exclusive avenues to influence.”  (This is the reality my nervous colleagues knew well).  Meanwhile, managers who demonstrate leadership based on trust and respect can be regarded as too weak to handle top positions.  These two styles have a trickle-down effect in the organization and affect the company bottom line. Research tells us that corporate results trend upwards in organizations with a respectful, trusting, and empowering management style. In contrast, corporate results trickle down when managers tend to “power-up.”  Jerry could have powered up on me and hurt me in so many ways, but he didn’t.  I could have acted like shrinking violet, but I didn’t.  As result, I gained access to the COO of a Fortune 500 company and partnered with him on several projects.

It seems to me that entering frank conversations with peers, employees, and superiors can hurt your career.  That’s too bad because honest frank conversations are more than important for success; they are required. The gate to success is marked “Courage to Deal with Reality Required; No Ostriches Allowed.”   

So muster the courage to be honest with yourself and others – then speak frankly and tactfully.


Handle the Truth

teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversation they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that is what keeps many of us stuck.                                                                         —–Susan Scott, in Fierce Conversations

As long as I can remember, I have always been struck by the lack of honesty in conversations. It seems futile to me. Why talk, why relate if you won’t be honest with each other? People walk around constructing fictional stories about what is happening. Instead of putting ourselves out there, we place our mannequin selves in the world to talk with others’ less than life-size dolls. A young man tells his soon to be ex-girlfriend, “It’s not you, it’s me.”A boss tells the employee, “You didn’t get the promotion because the other candidate was just more qualified.” And a woman tells the waiter “Everything is fine.” It’s fiction; it’s deceit, and it’s destructive to people and relationships. It prohibits us from living the honest, connected lives we all yearn for. It blocks growth in organizations.

On occasion, the audience buys your fictional story. More often than not, deep down he/she knows that it’s a tale, and another insipid story is constructed. The story says “I can’t trust what people say, people don’t believe in me enough to be honest with me, there is something wrong with me, I can’t get a fair shake.” And in return they give you more fiction. Reality is lost. Mistrust is gained.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, you can’t always be honest with people. It’s often better to shade the truth or leave things undisclosed.”  To that, I say two things:

  1. You have obviously been told a lot of stories – and told a few yourself.
  2. How’s that working for you?

Six years after hiring a narcissistic, insecure manager who wreaked havoc on the company, a vice president asked an exiting employee for advice: “What do I do with this manager? She berates me and is despised all over the company. I was hoping her peers would deal with her.After six years, one-hundred percent turnover, and immeasurable damage to the organization, the VP was still unwilling to have an honest conversation with herself, with the manager, and with numerous people throughout the organization.One year later the manager was fired. Why? What took so long?The longer the tale, the harder it is to look up to face reality.

Handle the Truth

Who can forget how the infuriated Colonel Jessep pompously screams “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” at Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in the movie, A Few Good Men. I believe this line resonates with so many of us not only because it is Kaffee’s triumphant moment, but also because at some level we believe it. People simply can’t handle the truth.

You must handle the truth – that is the truth. It would seem obvious but it seems not be.Top-selling books, Good to Great, Fierce Conversations, and Integrity all feature facing the truth as a central component of personal and business success.Why does it need to be said?Because it is a habit that is so uncommon in our world, that’s why.

A few weeks ago I attended a training program. During the first evening of training, one facilitator dominated the dialogue. He talked over his counterpart and crowded out any room for participant engagement.My initial reaction was to withdraw and, honestly, to dislike the man.Despite myself, I resolved to speak truth. The next morning before class I caught-up with the facilitator and gave him some straight feedback. Guess what he did.He handled the truth; no he embraced it and thanked me for caring about him!There in that conversation, a relationship was reborn.I left it liking him and him liking me. The rest of the workshop went very well.I, and about twenty other people, re-engaged in the workshop because we handled the truth.That conversation cost me nothing, salvaged the $18,000 expense for the course, and is producing a tremendous return on the investment.

Now, as I sit here recounting this story, I feel incredibly gratified because that is what I do for a living. I help people have honest truthful conversations with themselves, with their teams, and with their stakeholders and customers.As a result, they can make effective decisions and move forward together honestly and productively.

That is pretty cool.