Bestselling authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler draw from three decades of consulting experience to identify a straightforward step-by-step process to resolve performance gaps, enhance accountability, and ensure execution.

Whether you're preventing problems or managing a crisis, the authors demonstrate how to move your team or organization to the next level with a revolutionary yet simple approach.

In this interview, Kerry Patterson and Al Switzler share their views on

  • personal and organizational excellence
  • handling high-stakes interactions
  • eliminating resistance
  • solving accountability problems.

George Hall (GH): In your book Crucial Confrontations, you comment, "To ensure that you set the right tone during the first few seconds of a crucial confrontation, don't shoot from the hip. Don't charge into a situation, kick rears, take names, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, carefully describe the gap. Here's how: start with safety, share your path, and end with a question." Why are the first few seconds so critical?

Kerry Patterson (KP): Crucial confrontations occur when someone disappoints you, lets you down, doesn't follow procedure or policy, breaks a rule, or violates a sense of decency, and you chat with him about that infraction.

As we observed top performers confronting individuals about violations, we quickly realized that they separated themselves from the pack in about 30 seconds. How so? The way they handled what we came to call the "hazardous half minute" set them apart from their peers. We felt compelled to explore this process in more detail.

We watched those who weren't effective as well, and found that the opposite was true. Within 30 seconds, the individuals they were dealing with became defensive and even angry when the conversation had not been started effectively. In fact, we found that the preparation for that 30 seconds starts long before the person ever sits down. Preparation actually starts when you stop to think about how you are going to talk to the other person.

If you tell yourself an ugly story, if you assume the worst about the other person, if you tell yourself that the other person, for example, failed to deliver or tried to make you look bad in front of the boss intentionally or some other horrible conclusion, you work yourself into a frenzy. By the time you actually begin talking about the person not delivering, it starts with an accusation.

The average performer might say, "What the heck were you doing? You knew I needed that report. That's just like you to sabotage my success." In contrast, we found that top performers NEVER tell themselves an ugly story. They know that if they do so, they then have to hide it, and nobody can hide it for very long.

Instead, top performers say to themselves, "Why would a reasonable or rational person do this?" They walk in with curiosity, and rather than coming in angrily, sending all the related nonverbal signals, they ask a generic diagnostic question. They describe the problem in almost scientific terms.

They might say, for example, "I noticed that you did A, B, and C, and I was expecting D, E, and F." Those who we observed described the definition of the problem and the gap between what is expected and what is observed, without interpreting why. So they said instead, "I'm wondering what happened."

With a healthy description of the problem, focused on behavior, while withholding judgment so that you don't come across as angry, the conversation starts on the right foot. The other person can then explain what is going on. If you come in with an accusation or demand an explanation, however, the other individual becomes defensive and angry. Consequently, the person often walks away, and you end up in a fight.

GH: Are you saying that most of us, by our nature, are prone to embarrassing, relationship-damaging outbursts? Can you explain why?

Al Switzler (AS): Yes. Why? In our book, we describe what we call "the Path to Action Model." This model outlines the process we go through in our minds that explains how and why we make quick, often rash judgments that we later often regret.

Briefly, when an event occurs, we follow a four-step process: (1) see and hear, (2) tell ourselves a story and draw a conclusion, (3) feel an emotion that follows from the story we told ourselves, and (4) act. The stories we tell ourselves determine how we act - whether we act well or professionally, or blow up in a rage. The ability to master our stories - determine what conclusions we draw - means that we can also control our emotions and act in more professional ways.

Over the years, say since 1978, we have worked with hundreds of actors and shot thousands of video vignettes that we use in our training seminars, where we've trained more than 2 million people. We've learned that when you get people in a situation, it doesn't matter if they are peers or if one is a boss, it doesn't matter the gender or age, if you give an actor a good line such as, "You promised to give the report to me at 2:00. It's now 10 minutes to 4. What happened?" he will hammer the other person.

If you ask the actors to take the emotions down a notch, they'll just cock an eyebrow and show that they found [the other character] guilty and treat them with disdain. If we say, "No, no, no, I think you made a faulty assumption. You are the boss, but you really like this person. Treat this person like you would your best friend," then, and only then, would the actors naturally put curiosity into the mix.

In fact, natural, nonjudgmental inquisitiveness comes across very well. It is amazing how often that the actors, without coaching, handle confrontations poorly.

KP: The minute that you say, "Oh, I'm sorry. This is someone whom you admire and you are curious about," they deliver it exactly as you wanted. But up until that moment, they bring their own history with them. Their first assumption is that this is problem-solving and "the guy's a loser."

AS: I think what you noted in your question is that in all of this modeling and training, why would we spend this amount of time helping people deal with the first 30 seconds? And the reason we do is because it is vitally important.

You don't get a second chance to make a good first impression. You never get a second chance to get off on the right foot. When people understand that, can see that, and can do that, then, almost without exception, the things that follow are easier to do.

GH: What is your prognosis? Are things getting worse, or are things getting better overall?

KP: I believe that things are getting worse. If you look at what is happening with human interaction in general, you might notice that we are spending less and less time in face-to-face interactions. With the advent of electronic games, for example, people aren't even sitting down to play board games together. Instead, they are sitting parallel to each other pushing buttons.

What is the net impact of this loss of contact? The number of times we have to practice talking to other human beings, discussing politics or something fairly heated that could lead to a debate or lead to a confrontation, are becoming fewer and fewer.

We once ran a poll that asked, "If you disagree with someone in politics during a political season, would you bring this up in a public forum?"

"No," they said. "We don't do that anymore." People don't have those conversations. I'm not particularly optimistic that our children are being raised so that they are exposed to good, positive role models who consistently demonstrate the effective handling of problems.

GH: Unfortunately, I think you are right.

KP: Yes. We live in a world of technological expansion unparalleled in human history. Consequently, we're becoming somewhat technocentric. We begin to believe that since we are living in a time when our technology is better, everything we do is better, too.

If you read the writing of Thomas Jefferson or the letters written by the average soldier in the Civil War, I'm not sure we are as articulate as we used to be. As I look back, I'm not sure we are as good at working through problems as we used to be. Technology might actually be standing in the way of face-to-face interaction, where we practice and get better at human interaction.

GH: What are the costs of this failure of accountability? Do you have data about what this really costs?

KP: Yes. We've seen as much as a $40 million-a-year turnaround using these techniques. Without this sort of training, this cost savings would not have been realized. The cost of not holding people accountable, however, is not just about money.

If you go into healthcare, for example, imagine a scenario where a doctor walks into a patient's room. Outside of that room, you will often find a small bottle of disinfectant, which they are supposed to use on their hands and wash for a few seconds before touching a patient. This helps prevent the inadvertent spread of disease from patient to patient.

There are problems that occur in hospitals that commonly take place when medical personnel do not wash their hands; this is why that container is out there. The doctor walks in, maybe touches the bottle (but doesn't do anything else) and walks up to the patient. A nurse or the patient has seen the entire interaction but says nothing.

Under these circumstances, not holding a person accountable by speaking up can cost as many as 10,000 lives a year. So while people may not make the connection between not speaking up and holding others accountable, the consequences to themselves, businesses, and society are there, and they are very real.

AS: The additional costs are real, and not only to the people personally involved - there are organizational costs as well. Many people give up and think, "Well, this is as good as it's going to get." Consequently, teams and organizations deliberately overstaff, put in more checks and auditors, and create bureaucracy to overcome what could be done with real-time crucial confrontations.

KP: A perfect example of this occurred one day when I was sitting in an office and talking with an HR director of a Fortune 500 company. Someone knocked on his door; he opened it, and a woman walked in obviously very upset. She said, "That's it. I've had it. These supervisors are treating me inappropriately. I've been harassed for the last time."

The HR director said, "Whoa. Can I get back to you in a second while I finish a meeting here?" She agreed and closed the door. He turned to me and said, "That's going to cost us $70,000."

I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "This is likely a sexual harassment claim. It probably happened, given our history here, and it will take $70,000 to process."

What if that woman had felt more comfortable talking to the person the first time this happened? Perhaps it was intended to be harassment, perhaps it wasn't. But had she been able to deal with it effectively, there on the spot where it probably would have been handled best, not only would she have been able to solve the problem early on, but it would have saved the organization much pain and sorrow, as well as her own pain and that of the other people involved.

AS: I'd like to give you another example. I was sitting in a meeting once where one of the top managers said that he would routinely just flush all of his email. He said, "The really important ones will come back to me."

That's wrong.

He said, "The reason I do that is that I grew up running track, and I only want to run the laps that count." Well, how many times are people repeating or how many times are you getting a request, or how many times is he getting junk mail internally that he probably shouldn't really get, where he could have had a confrontation, or someone else could have had a confrontation with him, and they wouldn't be playing these useless, non-value-adding games?

GH: Can teams, families, and organizations enhance performance and build relationships by handling crucial confrontations well?

AS: Absolutely. When it comes to crucial confrontations, we've taught a kind of mantra over the years. We say, "If you don't talk it out, you act it out." So when people say that they could not possibly hold someone else accountable, that very notion causes you to avoid. When you avoid, you lower the bar; you vote for the status quo; you say "Good enough is good enough."

You overtly or tacitly give your permission for what is happening. If a whole generation, a whole team, or an entire family does that, they are settling, they are coping, and they are also acting it out. Often, employees act out by gossiping and forming cliques. In our research over the past 25 years, we found that when companies, teams, and families embrace "settling," and when they say to each other, "Look, when we see a gap, let's say we don't know what's happening. All we know is that there's a gap."

In contrast, if they handle crucial confrontations, then we can solve problems earlier, maintain relations while we are doing it, and can fix problems two to three times faster in a cycle, rather than waiting until they get acute or chronic before we deal with them.

KP: I can illustrate why handling crucial confrontations is so important with a brief example. The very first study I completed was with a manufacturing facility, with five experimental plants and five control plants.

We found that the experimental plant supervisors stepped up to hold people accountable, catch problems early, and did so in a professional way. Consequently, morale improved, safety improved, and quality improved. Profitability increased and held over time.

The five experimental plants and five control plants were randomly assigned to groups. We subsequently studied similar situations throughout the past 20 years and discovered similar results - in some cases, as much as a 35 to 40 percent improvement.

Why did that happen? Why would such a small set of skills yield such great results? The answer is that these skills lie at the heart of all problem solving. Simply put: If you can catch problems early, you can save yourself anguish, a lot of poor morale, and a lot of money. T+D