How to Handle Tough Conversations At Work

Dr. Mark Goulston

Dr. Mark Goulston was three times named one of America's best psychiatrists by the Consumers Research Council and now focuses on helping people communicate more effectively in the workplace. He has been a columnist in the Los Angeles Times and Harvard Business Review and written a number of books, including Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing.

He was a guest on my NPR-San Francisco radio program. Here are the conversation's highlights:

Marty Nemko: You believe in something called heartfelt leadership. Famed GE CEO Jack Welch would not have been called a heartfelt leader. Indeed they called him, Neutron Jack. What would you say to Jack Welch?

Mark Goulston: I know Jack Welch. He is a heartfelt leader. If a leader's commitment to excellence serves selfish needs, they're not heartfelt. But if their goal is the greater good, then they are. Many people who call Jack Welch "Neutron Jack" are simply defensive. They fear accountability.

MN: If a leader is selfishly motivated but that drives him or her to work 60, 70 hours a week and to make tough decisions -- like firing B players -- that do lead to better products and services, can you really call him heartless?

MG: The problem is that usually if someone gets a taste of greed, feeling like master of the universe, it's corrupting, so the larger good takes a back seat to their desire for money and power. You need to check with those around you and see if your behavior really does serve the larger good.

MN: Most studies find that we get better performance from others if we use both carrots and sticks. That's why some leaders induce fear. Is there a role of fear-inducing even in the heartfelt leader?

MG: If you're aggressive, fear-inducing for a larger good, okay. For example, a leader might say, "Our new product can make a real difference but I need you to work real hard on this. And if you don't, I will not be happy."

MN:How about appealing to cosmic good, even with something as mundane as toilet paper? If I'm the president of Northern toilet paper, I might say, "It's easy for us to think we're just selling toilet paper. But as you know, our R&D department has worked like dogs to come up with a toilet paper that's soft yet strong. That matters to millions of people. At the moment of truth, we can't afford that toilet paper to not be strong."

MG: You're right. I wasn't appealing to a noble-enough cause. We should appeal not to where they are but to where they should aspire. That reminds me of when JFK or a NASA administrator said something like, "We get to be a part of science fiction. We'll get to put people on the moon and back. We'll have something that will inspire our children and our grandchildren."

MN: People agree they should be direct, tactful but direct. But there's a Grand Canyon of difference between what we do and should do. How do we close the gap?

MG: Many people are conflict-avoidant, afraid how a person will react. So they don't provide necessary feedback.

MN: You told me that even though you wrote a book on listening, Just Listen, you find it hard to listen well.

MG: When I talk a lot, it's my insecurity. Before I go into a conversation, I tell myself to listen, to not be a topper but a plusser -- adding to someone's statement rather than trying to top it, for example, if someone says "I went to Hawaii" and I say, "Oh, we went to Fiji."

MN:Has anyone given you a second chance when you felt you didn't really deserve it?

MG: I had been kicked out of medical school and asked the Dean of Students, Dean McNary for another chance. I'll never forget what he said: "You're a very kind person. The world needs doctors like you." And he gave me that chance.

Caller #1: I've been a substitute college instructor for 22 years and been well-received, caring and diligent. But a year ago, my supervisor told me that a student complained that I was too strict and rude. I've been taken off the sub list without even being able to find out who the student was, let alone talk with her. What should I do?

Mark Goulston: Call people who think well of you and say something like, "I'm having to look for another job and wondering if I could pay you to give me some honest feedback." I'll bet they'll give you useful and positive feedback and wouldn't even take your money.

Marty Nemko (to the caller): Remember too that especially here in the Bay Area, we've done a perhaps too good a job of building students' self-esteem, that their opinion is as worthy as anyone else's -- even an instructor's. If, for example, you did invalidate some student's opinion, that doesn't mean they have the right to be offended, let alone get you fired.

Mark Goulston (to the caller:) It may help in the future to say something to students like, "Sometimes, I'll be direct with you. Know that it comes from a good place and a desire to be helpful."

Caller #2: I got fired. I want my job back.

Mark Goulston: Sometimes, the 4R's can help. The first R is Remorse: The 2nd R is Restitution; If you were to give me a second chance, here's what I've learned--what I'll always do and never do. And if that's not right, tell me. The 3rd R is Rehabilitation: Propose how you'll learn your new habits. The 4th R is to Request forgiveness.

Marty Nemko: Anything else you want to share with us?

Mark Goulston: Become a first-class noticer. Notice what's making people happy, sad, engaged, disengaged. That may be the most important communication tool.

Marty Nemko welcomes your visiting his website: where lots of his writings and radio show are archived. And, if you need career help, you can email Marty Nemko at
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