Scenario #1 - Confrontations that Lead to Excellence

Image Source: Gradebook
"Every 3 weeks," shared a teacher colleague, "you need to have put in enough grades to have valid progress reports." She paused for emphasis, then said, "Melissa puts only 1 grade at 3 weeks, two grades at 6 weeks, and at 9 weeks, needs students to complete assignments in the last week or two before report cards come out. You really want to know the kicker? I bet she makes them up." 
"You mean," I responded as I puzzled through the numbers, "that she has the students do a lot of assignments to get the grades needed for a final grade, but they don't really learn anything because it's just busy work?" 
"Exactly!" my friend slammed her hand on the table, then looked around quickly.
"And, what does the principal do about this?" 
"Nothing! Ms. Gordon (principal) knows what's happening, in fact, it's been brought to her attention by parents who don't know how their children are doing until the end of the 9 weeks, but she doesn't do anything."
Crucial Conversations (CC1) and Crucial Confrontations (CC2) books define them, and confrontations that define poor performance. As a result, everyone suffers...teachers, staff, parents, and most importantly, the students. In chatting with my friend, we identified 7 scenarios, of which the one at the top of this blog entry is only the first. I'd like to explore these.

In every school, there are conversations that never happen. They are crucial conversations, as the authors of the books put them, or crucial confrontations.

Dan Rockwell (Leadership Freak blog) points out the problem with administrators who "pick their battles" with staff:
The more uncomfortable the conversation the more important it is. The more it matters, the tougher it is.
Weak leaders choose manipulation over honest exchange. Wise leaders choose tough conversation over mediocrity.
Successful leaders address issues others avoid. 
Mediocrity is the result of avoidance.
Excellence is a function of confrontation.
In CC-speak, the issue is clearly about identifying which conversation needs to happen first. In this blog entry, I'm going to apply what I understand of CC2 to work through this real life scenario that happens in schools.

"A managed conversation is a failed conversation," writes Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations. Be sure that you don't manage to avoid the issues that must be dealt with in the normal course of our work as leaders.

In chatting with my friend at lunch, I shared the following approach for having crucial confrontations. Although she wasn't the principal, the approach could be used with a colleague. In truth, I suspect many of us fail to have the confrontations with others because we're too afraid, worried that our anger will get the better of us at the wrong moment, or that the other person will argue better.

To that end, it's important to keep a few things in mind:
  • If you're angry, you're not in the right state of mind. Calm yourself (deep breaths work) and ask yourself what you really want for yourself as a member of the organization and what you really want for the other person.
  • What you really want for the other person should be positive. You're not out on a vendetta, a vigilante about to bring confrontational justice to everyone. You truly want that person to be all they can be in a way that aligns with organizational positives.
  • Know the facts and avoid pre-judgement about what the other has done wrong. It's not about right or wrong, it's about doing what is best for the organization. 
  • Take yourself out of the equation and then proceed as if you had NO stake in the matter, except to ensure that the organization is well-served. When I do that, the way of disinterest, I find that I'm calmer and more able to avoid clenching my fists to fight. Not surprisingly, the other person senses that I only have their best interests at heart.

We need to define what is meant by crucial confrontations since it's different than a crucial conversation.

The definition comes from the authors of the books at (source for quote)
...we use the word confrontation, we’re using it in the following way: To confront means to hold someone accountable, face to face. Although the term can sound abrasive, that’s not what we have in mind. 
In fact, when confrontations are handled correctly, both parties talk openly and honestly. Both are candid and respectful. And as a result:
● Problems are resolved.
● Relationships benefit.
The process I find most helpful in accomplishing this--although the CC2 book boasts a variety of strategies definitely worth reviewing, studying and applying in daily work/life--might be summarized as follows, which are my notes on what the authors of CC1/CC2 call CPR:

1) From the start, set expectations for what is to happen when something is to be due by. I like the approach the authors share of who will do what by when. It's easy to remember and if you ask that question, Who will do what by when?, at the end of every action item a meeting may generate--even if it's a meeting in the hallway, a quick chat on the phone, a long, formal meeting in the principal's office--then you have set everything up.

In fact, what I like to do is ask, "What's the deadline you would like to set for getting this done and how will you let me (or the team) know?" I like this approach because it's the same approach I'd like taken with enables me as the person responsible for the task to take responsibility for it.

2) First time someone fails, deal with the content of what happened. If Melissa, the teacher in the class that seldom had any assignments, is monitored, then you can have a conversation like the following:
Melissa, thank you for coming in; I'd like to check something with you. At the start of the school year, we agreed that every student would have two grades in the electronic gradebook. The reason for that, as I recall, is that it enables parents to see how their children are doing in school and measures student learning over time.
In reviewing gradebooks, I couldn't help but observe that you haven't entered any grades in for this past week. It's now Monday, and no grades are in for the previous week. What happened?
As you listen to what happened, avoid rushing to judgement. In truth, something horrible could have happened that kept Melissa from entering grades on time (e.g. death in family, car was stolen with all papers to be graded, etc.). If you find out that Melissa hasn't suffered some catastrophe--and, by the way, be on guard for repeated catastrophes in the future that happen at the exact moment Melissa is held accountable--then you can set a new deadline and how Melissa will let you know the work is done. As principal, I don't want to go check her gradebook for last week...I want to check it for this week. I want Melissa to shoulder the responsibility of letting me know that she's taken care of this.

Unfortunately, some times, staff don't take care of things. Let's say Melissa gets this past week done, but 6 weeks down the road, she's forgotten about her obligations. Then, it's time to consider that there may be a pattern at work.

3) When incidents occur a second time, or even a third time--I once had that happen in ONE week before I could deal with the second incident, a third one had already popped up--you are now onto the P of CPR approach. The P stands for pattern, a repeating pattern of behavior that is repetitive and may very well erode the trust if it continues.

In this situation, Melissa has taken action but only after being prompted to do so. Then, a few weeks later, Melissa has done it again (or something similar that involves not living up to an agreement or deadline). In this case, you are not going to deal with the content of what happened, but that it happened again. You need to get at the facts, and also state that this could have serious repercussions if it happens again.

For example:
"Melissa, a few weeks ago, we spoke about you not getting your grades in on time. At that time, you agreed that it wouldn't happen again, but here we are in the same situation. Please know that if this continues to occur, it will have long-term consequences."
At this time, I would counsel writing Melissa up. The first confrontation constituted a verbal warning with the opportunity for improvement. The second confrontation should result in a written letter describing what exact violation was, and place the responsibility squarely on Melissa's shoulders.

You see, it's important to do that because if you don't, Melissa may do her level best to put this in YOUR area of responsibility. You may see excuses, diversions, distractions, anger, anything that Melissa can do to avoid taking responsibility.
"In front of you, I have placed a written description of what has happened. Your signature does not signal agreement, but rather, acknowledges receipt of this description."
In the letter, you need to clearly articulate what the consequence for the next failure to will be. That may be a written reprimand, a suspension, termination event. If you haven't already been documenting since the first violation, you should now do so and keep track of what is happening. You will certainly need the documentation. Regrettably, this is where many administrators fail...they lack the organizational skills to document, making the task of terminating someone infinitely harder.

Remember, the goal isn't to terminate Melissa but to help her achieve the behavior that is normal and required as a teacher. If Melissa corrects her behavior, then you will have saved the school and district money and effort, improving organizational performance.

4) Damage to the Relationship (R=Relationship in CPR). By the time one reaches this stage of CPR, you must make it clear that the relationship between you (supervisor) and Melissa (employee) is in danger. You can no longer rely on Melissa to get the job done or to act according to the expectations of the position (this sometimes occurs with expert doesn't matter how great they are, if they can't adhere to the expected behaviors, then they are a liability to the organization).
"Melissa, as you know, we've discussed this twice before. When we spoke previously, you were specifically directed to not engage in this behavior. Unfortunately, we're here discussing this exact same situation again. Since you have chosen to do this again, in opposition to the directive as outlined in the letter you signed before, you now have a written reprimand in front of you.  
Please understand that future behaviors/actions make it increasingly difficult for me to trust that you will do the job you were hired to do. As a result, I have to ask myself, "Is the team better off with you or without you?" 
That final question is a tough one to ask, but invariably, the response I've heard back at this point is, "I guess, without me." At this point, you know that the other person is not blaming you. After all, your primary goal isn't to torpedo your employee, but to enable them to succeed....

This conclusion is really only the beginning. If I had to write a conclusion, I would say that we could delineate a "Principal Protocol for Confrontations." It might looks like this:

  1. Get Your Motives Right:
    1. Identify what you really want--what's best for the organization--for yourself (since you represent the organization as administrator) and for the other persons involved.
    2. Remember that you are acting not out of your own frustration, anger, but in the best interest of others.
    3. Avoid rushing to judgement. You are genuinely interested in identifying what happened.
  2. Use CPR to handle the situation:
    1. C=Content. Deal with an incident by focusing on what happened, then set clear deadlines and expectations. Avoid taking responsibility for what went wrong--unless you were responsible--and enable the other person to set things right. Begin documentation. 
    2. P=Pattern. Now that behavior has re-occurred, describe how pattern of behavior is having negative consequences on work, other's perceptions of the person. Put a description of what is happening in writing, and provide clear direction on how to avoid negative behavior going forward. Continue documenting. If you need more evidence, allow it to accrue and document.
    3. R=Relationship. If the directive issued previously is ignored, then let the staff member know they have set themselves up to be unreliable, and that you no longer trust them to get the work they were hired for done. Put this in writing, describing what has happened, how they have ignored a specific directive, and put them on notice. If they continue with their destructive behavior, they will face consequences. Depending on the documentation you have of their behavior, move to suspension or termination.
  3. Follow-through. When someone has worked their way through CPR, they've sent a clear message they don't belong. It doesn't matter how great they are, even if they are indispensable to the organization. They have irreparably damaged the relationship with the organization and are un-usable going forward. How will you ever trust them? Move to termination with all possible speed.
Failure to follow these steps results in schools that never hold anyone accountable, never involve coaching staff on how to better accomplish work that needs to be done. This means that schools slowly become an oasis of ineffectiveness, where people do whatever they want out of alignment with the needs of the organization.

If you are an administrator at such a campus (or dept), then you face a long, hard road...and a confrontation that will question YOUR ability to lead and manage.

Read more in this series:

Updated: I updated this blog entry to reflect this disclaimer. Any resemblance to real people is unintentional, or coincidental. Pseudonyms are used to protect the guilty or innocent. And, of course, this is unrelated to my current workplace.

Check out Miguel's Workshop Materials online at

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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