Monthly Archives: February 2017

Four Fierce Conversations



February 22, 2017


Rosabeth Kanter is arguably  the most respected and revered organizational theorist and consultant in the United States and perhaps in the world. She begins her most recent book,  Confidence: How Winning and Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End,  published in 2014, with the observation that it often seems as if there are only two states of being: “Boom or Bust.” Everyone wants to win and no one wants to lose, Kanter observes, yet some people end up mostly winning and others mostly losing.   What’s going on?

What Kanter is after is a deeper understanding of three critical issues:  First, why is it that some athletic teams, companies, work teams, families, or couples seem to be able to create and maintain winning streaks?  Second, why is it that others seem to always be losing? And finally, what needs to happen to turn things around and move the individual or group from losing to winning?

Denial of Problems is Often the Problem

The principle culprit for falling into a losing streak or being stuck in one is not the presence of  troubles or problems.  That is to be expected.  No one escapes from their share of conundrums, dilemmas or difficulties.  ”Winners are not immune from problems, and winning streaks are not trouble free periods,” writes Kanter.   “Life is not benign, but that doesn’t mean that winning streaks end because of troubles.  Winning ends when threats and problems are denied.”  It is not having problems that is the problem but denying that they exist.  ”One reason that the mighty inevitably fall is a preference for denial.  Lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous…functional behavior are a constant danger and when they occur, denial is tempting.”

The Rocking Horse Dilemma

If the first reason for staying mired in a losing streak is denying that a problem exists, then a second one is that those who are responsible for dealing with problem seem unclear or uncertain about what to do about it. Even after getting beyond denial –  when problems are recognized and agreed to – what often happens next can turn out to be ineffectual, insufficient or unhelpful: People often get caught in the Activity Trap.  There is too much movement from side to side and not enough movement toward important goals.  This pattern of working hard and getting nowhere is worse that just wasting time. Repeated thrashings about on problems with limited understanding and less coherence takes its toll on the willingness to stay involved; people become stressed out by too much noise and too little music. Excessive “Strum und Drang”  is antithetical to any kind of productive work.

Mucking around in the middle of a problem with little or no awareness or understanding of what is needed can be described as the Rocking Horse Dilemma:  ”Do not confuse motion and progress,” says writer Alfred Montapert.  ”A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.”

Kanter is clear about antidotes to the denial of problems and the endless rocking back forth with little productive movement.  Both are serious obstacles that block the way toward  changing a losing game into a winning one.  What is required to counter them is effective problem solving:  ”Problem solving,” writes Kanter,  ”consists of open dialogue, diagnosis of the situation, facing the facts, and mobilizing to take corrective action.”

Conversations Are Required

Foe Kanter open dialogue involves effective people talking to each other in ways that encourage a deeper  understanding of two critical aspects of effective work with problems.  The first is the presence of differing perceptions and convictions about what isn’t working as it should; the second,  clarity about possible opportunities that may lie ahead.  In the best case, these open conversations can lead to an accurate diagnosis of the problem: a clear description of the gap between the present state of affairs and a future one, and the identification of the most important obstacles that stand in the way.

What is next is  ”facing the facts” – agreeing on the critical issues and events and what they mean.  And finally, mobilizing resources in order to deal with the obstacles that block the way forward.  Robert Frost once wrote “…the best way out is always through,” yet for some obstacles “going through” may not work, and going over, around or even under may be the better choice.

No matter which way is chosen to deal with these obstacles, open, honest, extended and productive conversations will always be required.  No progress can be made on diagnosing  the problem and putting together an plan to take corrective action without continuing conversations among those who are addressing the problem.

Not All Conversations Are Equal

Conversations are not rare events.  We spend large parts of any one day in conversations with others.  But not all conversations are equal.  Most consist of “small talk,”  often no more than random discussions of trivial issues.  While they have their purpose, these are not suitable for dealing with wicked problems.  When we talk to each other about moving from failing to succeeding, the conversations that are most helpful are those, says Kanter,  that increase the presence of “accountability, collaboration and initiative.”  Conversations that insist upon accountability, increase collaboration, and encourage taking initiative as part of the process are never “small talk” conversations, but require sustained effort, risk-taking, courage, and tenacity.

Fierce Conversations are Required

Conversations that exhibit these qualities are best described as fierce.   In the last essay, I defined fierce conversations as those in which “we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.”  A real conversation in one in which people say what they think. prefer, mean, want, can support, disagree with, and wonder about, without making the others in the room feel angry, defensive, hostile or under attack.  Fierce conversations move us from hiding, distorting, misrepresenting, avoiding, smoothing over, or dodging to openness, honesty, accuracy, and clarity.  Above all, when we talk to each other about about important issues, fierce conversations help us reduce the gap between we think and what we say.

Four Fierce Conversations

Jack Welch Hangs Up the Phone:

In recent years, Beth Comstock’s rise in General Electric has been meteoric. She has put together an impressive winning streak.  In 2008 she was named Chief Marketing Officer, and in 2015 she moved up to become Vice-Chair and President and CEO of GE Business Innovations. In 2016 she was #45 on Forbes Magazine list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential Women in Business.”

She joined GE from a successful career in media.  ”My life in the media – especially network news – had been an adrenaline rush,” she wrote, “racing from deadline to deadline. If you don’t make it to air, there is nothingness.  You’re dead.”  Expanding upon this description, she added:

For me,  it was a constant whirl, making sense of the constant stream of information coming in, calling reporters covering us to tell them what was happening and why we were doing it best.  I’d think sometimes, if only I could field phone calls with both hands and  both feet all would be good.

Moving fast and being organized were my strong suits. The  more to do, the more I felt alive.  Productive. Efficient. Every to-do list was checked, with urgency as my soundtrack.  I loved the thrill, and I was good at keeping up with it.

One afternoon while talking on the phone to her boss, CEO Jack Welch, the line suddenly went dead. She tried to call him back but to no avail.  When she reached his assistant Comstock reported that they had been disconnected.  ”No you weren’t,” she said, “Jack hung up on you.”

Later she learned why.  Jack Welch let her know that he hung up on her so she would understand how other people felt when they were talking to her.  He told her  that when she was with other people she came across as too efficient, too organized, too rushed.  They often wanted her to slow down and once in a while to shut up!

Comstock was shocked to hear that her style was not helpful.  Her boss had admonished her for being “too efficient [and] my zeal to do everything on my to-do list…made me come across as abrupt and cold… [I learned that it was not helpful when] I started every meeting by jumping right in and left with every action under control.”

‘You have to wallow in it,” counseled Welch.  ”Take time to get to know people.  Understand where they are coming from, what is important to them.  Make sure they are with you.”

Welch’s intervention with Beth Comstock was fierce.  He pulled no punches.  Was it helpful? ”I cringe sometimes,” said Comstock, “when I think how I must have come across at times and how long it took me to change my ways…But yes, I’ve learned not only to wallow it in but to enjoy it…I will be forever grateful for the time and humor Jack invested in me to teach me these important work and life lessons.”

Clearly, among the many reasons for Comstock’s success is that when Jack Welch helped her became aware of a serious problem, rather than deny that it existed, she embraced it and took “corrective action.”

And her impressive winning streak continued.

Haji Ali’s Lesson:

In 1993 an American mountaineer named Greg Mortenson, after a failed attempt to climb K2,  stumbled into an impoverished village in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan.  Nursed back to health by the kindness of the villagers,  Mortenson made a commitment to return and build a school for the village.

Several years later, Mortenson watched with satisfaction as the walls of a school for the village children rose steadily.  What worried him, however, was the persistent absence of many of the workers.  On any given day, about half of the villagers who were building the school stayed at home to tend their crops and animals.  ” I tried to be a fair but tough taskmaster,” wrote Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea. ”I spent all day at the construction site, from sunrise to sunset, using my level to make sure the walls were even and my plumb line to check that they were standing straight.  I always had my notebook in my hand, and kept my eyes on everyone, anxious to account for every rupee…I drove people hard.”

Several weeks later, Haji Ali, the leader of the village,  appeared at the construction site, tapped Mortenson on the shoulder, and asked him to take a walk.   The old man led the former mountain climber uphill for an hour, then halted on a narrow ledge high above the village.  Panting from the strenuous climb, Mortenson worried about all of the work on the school he was failing to supervise.

Haji Ali put his hand on Mortenson’s shoulder, gestured to the mountains that rose all around them, and said, “These mountains have been here for a long time. And so have we.  You can’t tell mountains what to do,” he continued.  ”You must learn to listen to them.  So now I am asking you to listen to me.  By the mercy of Almighty Allah, you have done much for my people and we appreciate it.  But now you just do one more  thing for me.

“Anything,” Mortenson replied.

“Sit down.  And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali said.  ”You’re making everyone crazy.”

Reaching out, he took Mortenson’s plumb line, his level and his account book, then turned and walked back down the mountain to the village.

“That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Mortenson wrote.  ”We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly.  We’re the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills.  Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started.  Haji Ali…taught me to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.  He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

Three weeks later, with Mortenson demoted from foreman to spectator, the walls of the school were finished and the villagers moved to put on the roof.

Dean Acheson’s “Truth to Power” to LBJ

On March 31, 1968, at the end of a speech to the American public about the progress of the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Baines Johnson made an announcement the stunned everyone:  ”I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as  your President.”

While his reasons for this decision were undoubtedly complex – members of his own party were announcing that they would run against him – there is no doubt that the primary motivation was that Johnson could see no hope for victory in Vietnam.  The government had run out of options that he could support.

Earlier, on February 28, 1968, in a last effort to find solutions to a problem that was increasingly seen to be without solutions, LBJ made two decisions. First, since he could get no agreement from his advisors on what to do, he decided to force the issue.  He created what he called a “working group,” assigned senior political, military, economic officials in the government to be members, and gave them the following assignment: “I wish alternatives examined, and if possible, agreed recommendations to emerge which reconcile the military, diplomatic,  economic,  Congressional, and public opinion problems involved. ” He assigned Clark Clifford, the newly-appointed Secretary of Defense, to chair the group and report back in five days.  ”Give me the lessor of evils,” pleaded LBJ

His second decision was to send for former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a man whom he greatly respected.  David Barrett, in Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam Advisors, describes Acheson as “a man of notable self-assurance and a venerable member of the Wise Men.”

When Acheson arrived at the White House, what he found was “a blizzard of activity – aides coming and going, phones ringing, and a president in a bad mood.”  Acheson had hardly settled into a chair when Johnson began what seemed to Acheson to be an endless monologue of worries, complaints, frustrations,  fears and anxieties. The generals wanted 200,000 more troops, he said, and the battle at Khe Sanh might turn out to be another Dien Bien Phu.  ”I don’t want no damn Dien Bien Phu’s” he thundered.

Acheson’s reaction was that the president was doing “too much talking and not enough listening.” Excusing himself, he stood up, left Johnson’s office and walked back to his own office a block away.   Johnson’s assistant, Walt Rostow, phoned immediately wanting to know why he had walked out on the president.  ”You tell the President – and you tell him in precisely these words – that he can take Vietnam and stick it up his ass!” Acheson said.

That response got the President’s complete attention. Johnson picked up the phone, asked Acheson to return, and when he retuned, was ready to  listen.

Returning to the topic that Johnson had been talking about earlier – the problem that none of the generals or the senior advisors could agree on what should be done – Acheson looked at the president and said “With all due respect, Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t know what they are talking about.”

“That’s a shocking thing to say,” answered Johnson.

“Then maybe you should be shocked,” was Acheson’s response.

Stunned by Acheson’s straight talk, Johnson told Acheson that he wanted his considered judgement on the choices in Vietnam.  ”That would be possible only if [I] could get beyond the ‘canned briefings’ of Rostow, the CIA and the Chiefs of Staff,” responded Acheson.

Anxious for his help, Johnson assured him that he would have full access to information, cable traffic, and anything else he wanted from anyone in the Foreign Office bureaucracy.  Acheson agreed and told Johnson that he would report back on what needed to be done in a few days.

A week or so later, the working group headed up by Clark Clifford reported  to Johnson that they had failed.  According to Barrett, “They were unable to agree on any bold new initiative, either hawkish or dovish.”  Some of the members, supported by the military, argued that the time had come for the government  to “smash the communists, if only it had the courage to do so by increasing its strategic posture.”  Others in the group argued the opposite, that neither side could win militarily.  What they ended up with was a compromise. The military wanted 200,000 more troops: Send them 23,000 they suggested.

In early March when Acheson returned to talk to Johnson, his message was dramatically different from that of the working group:  clear, blunt, and unequivocal.  ”Mr. President, ” he told Johnson, “you are being led down the garden path.”  His message was the Johnson should “banish any presidential hopes that significantly more soldiers would make a difference in Vietnam.”  In other words, there would be no military solution to the war.

Three weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election to the presidency.

Joanna Hoffman Confronts Steve Jobs

There is wide agreement that Steve Jobs was one of the genius’ in America history, on the same level as Edison, Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell.  He was also one of the most obnoxious, stubborn, unbending, and offensive persons that those who worked with him had ever known.  One of the most difficult and complicated issues that he struggled was during his life was his relationship with an early girlfriend, Chrisanne Brennan.  Beginning in 1972 and marked by frequent separations and reconciliations, their relationship was never smooth nor easy.   In 1977 Brennan discovered that she was pregnant.  When she told Jobs, Brennan later wrote, his faced turned “ugly” and he refused to discuss the pregnancy.  Lisa Brennan was born in 1978 and even though a DNA test confirmed that Jobs was the father and was ordered by the court to provide child support, for years Jobs continued to deny that he was the father.

During his turbulent years with Apple Computers – he was fired in 1985  and then rehired in 1997 after Apple teetered on the bring of  bankruptcy – his relationships with Chrisanne and Lisa continued to be full of conflict, controversies and recriminations.

In the 2015  movie Steve Jobs,  director Danny Boyle places the relationship between Jobs, Brennan and Lisa at the center of his personal and professional struggles.  Joanna Hoffman, vice-president of marketing in Apple, played in the movie by Kate Winslet, was the only person who could successfully confront Jobs and live to tell about it afterwards.

In this scene from the movie, Jobs is furious that Chrisanne sold the house that he gave her and blames Lisa, now nineteen,  for not stopping her mother:

Joanna Hoffman:  You don’t think you’re having a bizarre overreaction to a nineteen-year old girl for allowing her mother to list her own house?

Steve Jobs:  She could’a tried…

Hoffman:  She’s supposed to stop her mother – that particular mother – from living…

Jobs:  She gave Chrisanne her blessing to sell the house and she did it to spite me!

Hoffman:  I don’t care if she put a pipe bomb in the water heater.  You’re going to fix it now!

Jobs:  She’s been acting weird for months.  She’s turned on me.

Hoffman:  (Knocking a pile of papers off a table to the floor): Fix it!

Jobs:  What the…

Hoffman: (Knocking more papers to the floor): Fix it, Steve!

Jobs:  Take it easy.

Hoffman: (Knocks even more papers to the floor) Fix it or I quit.  How ’bout that?  I quit and you never see me again, how ’bout that?

Jobs:  (Now concerned) Tell me what wrong with you this morning.

Hoffman: (With tears in her eyes)  What’s been wrong with me this morning [has been wrong] for nineteen years.  I’ve been a witness, and I tell you I’ve been complicit.  I love you Steve.  You know how much I love you.  I love that you don’t care how much money a person makes; you care what they make.  But what you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you.  When you’re a father…that’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you, and it’s caused me two decades of agony,  Steve…that it is for you… the worst.  It’s a little thing…it’s a very small thing.  Fix it.  Fix it now or you can contact me at my new job working anywhere I want.

While Steve Jobs was never able to “fix” his relationship with Lisa – dysfunctional relationships and not “broken,” and so they cannot be “fixed” –  and reaching out to his daughter was in no way a “small thing,” Jobs was brought up short and deeply affected by Hoffman’s “fierce” confrontation.  Slowly, cautiously, and painfully, he began to reach out to his daughter,  and even though his ways were clumsy, inadequate and insufficient (I am “poorly made” he tells her), by the end of the movie she begins to understand that he does in fact accept and love her.

Fierce Conversations – Not Flabby Ones – Make the Difference

Serious problems need to be addressed in serious ways.  Yet instead of facing up to them, people often fall into denial or rely upon unproductive and misdirected activities.  In the examples cited above, Beth Comstock’s actions were both controlling and frenetic;  Greg Mortensen was convinced that building the school depended entirely upon him; President Johnson was caught between wildly contradictory recommendations and was unable to decide what actions he should take; and Steve Jobs denied over and over that he was the father of his daughter, creating a tension between them that blocked for years any expression of love.

It was only when each one could hear a different perspective and then begin to understand what he or she was doing and why it wasn’t working that they were able to begin the slow, difficult, and complex journey toward  discovering better ways to address their problems.

While each one had a different malady, all needed the same medicine: Someone willing and able to initiate and continue a fierce conversation until new and more productive ways of behaving became possible.