David Thomas knocked on Bob’s half-open office door. “You wanted to see me, boss?”

“Yep, come in. Have a seat. This is a hard conversation, but it seems today I am in the business of having hard conversations. I’ll cut to the chase. My dad told me about your crime and your imprisonment. I was shocked, to put it mildly. Shocked that no one had told me, that you thought it was OK that I not know. And shocked that we have someone with your track record in our employ. Your position is no longer available to you, but I wanted to give you a chance to explain yourself.”

David puffed his cheeks out and blew. “Boy. Wow. Um, well, needless to say, it’s true. I committed a crime in my youth. Check that—‘in my youth’ sounds like an excuse. I committed a crime. I took another human life, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel sorry for that and for the pain I caused so many people. I deserved to go to prison. It was the hardest experience of my life.

“But it changed me, Bob. Changed me for the better. I came out of there determined to make a positive difference in the lives of others. I’ve tried my level best to be a positive difference-maker for this company for the last fifteen years. I have no excuse, no justification. I just have a story; hopefully, one that will end better than it began.”

David seemed about to continue, but thought better of it and stopped, inviting Bob’s response with a glance.

“I hope that’s right, David,” Bob said. “I hope you’ve changed your life. I wish you well, but I can’t have you working for my company. We have a reputation in this community. I have a responsibility to protect my employees. Most of all, I have a reputation to uphold as the CEO of this company.

“Look, I know the relationship you have with my dad, and that’s fine. But you don’t have that with me. And you never will, especially now that I know this. I have to lead this firm my way, not my dad’s way. I have to do the right thing by my own lights. I have to step up. It’s time for me to step up.”

Recognizing that he was talking more about himself than he had intended—and not quite sure why—Bob stopped.

David smiled at him kindly, not exactly the response Bob was expecting.

“Look, Bob. I gotta tell you, I respect you stepping up. I know this has been hard for you. I believe you want to do the right thing. And if letting me go is the right thing, I respect that, too. I’ll go. But if you will let me offer you one last piece of unsolicited advice . . . ”

Suddenly weary and thinking that the hardest part of the conversation was over, Bob simply nodded.”

“Bob, you have to make sure that what you believe is the right thing in the moment is in fact the right thing. Look, you have all the power in this company, and you have for the past year. And you can exercise that power. But if you fire me, if you fire all of us—and I know you have to be thinking of layoffs—is that going to get you what you want? And by ‘what you want,’ I mean is this going to solve the problems you’re facing?”

Bob stared at David blankly, not really processing what he was saying.

“OK, Bob; you’ve made your decision. I have enjoyed working with you, and I wish this company all the best. I am going to go clean out my office, if that’s OK with you.”

David pulled his lanky frame out of his chair, stepped across the carpet, and stretched out his hand to Bob. Still surprised at the gentleness and acceptance in David’s response, Bob shook his now ex-employee’s hand.

After David left, Bob shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. It had been a whirlwind of a morning. He was sure he had done the right thing. It was the right thing morally, and it was also necessary to put his stamp on the company. So why didn’t he feel better about things?

After all, he had won a key battle with his dad, going one up and setting the precedent for the tough decisions to come. “I’m just tired,” he reasoned. “Just really tired. I’ll get a good night’s sleep. That’s what I need.”

A Nagging Question

But Bob didn’t get a wink of sleep that night. In spite of his weariness, he found himself staring at the ceiling at three in the morning, thinking. Well, more wondering than thinking.

There had been a whole lot about his conversation with David that had puzzled him—David’s non-defensive response, for one thing. In spite of losing his job as a sixty-something convicted felon, David had appeared to be remarkably free of anxiety.

“And another thing—David’s comment about power. Bob experienced being in a pitched battle for power every day. Battling against the old man, against the declining economy, against competition that was lowering its costs—and, hence, its prices—and against the intense weight of the historic success of the company. Sure, he had the title of CEO, but, in many ways, he was convinced that his dad was still the real power broker.

One more thing—David’s odd comment about Bob’s decisions in solving the problems he was facing. That really made no sense. Solving problems was precisely what he was doing. He had identified the key issues—Michael’s hanging on to power, stronger competition, an economic slowdown—and had come up with the right solutions, in order: taking a stand and stepping up as a leader, beginning layoffs, and moving operations offshore.

The best he could tell, Bob had provided the perfect solution for each of the company’s three main problems. All he had to do was execute and get rid of the obstacles in his way.

So exactly what “problem” was David referring to?

His brain truly fried now, Bob rolled over and began anew to fight the power of sleeplessness. He lost.

Setting The Hook

By the next morning, David’s questions were driving Bob nuts. When he thought about it later, he would figure that the lack of sleep made him act in such an uncharacteristically impulsive way. Because he did something bizarre: he called David and invited him to lunch, supposedly to talk about his severance package. But Bob’s real agenda was different.

They met at Smokey’s, a seafood joint renowned for its crab cakes. They didn’t rival the crab cakes of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, but they were delicious. Over plates of the delectable cakes and mounds of coleslaw and French fries, Bob outlined a relatively generous severance plan for David.

David agreed readily, the check came, and Bob paid up. And then lingered. For a long time.

After a while, David smiled across the table at Bob and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, sure,” Bob replied.

“Well, Bob, in all the time I have known you, you have never lingered after the check was paid, alternating silence and small talk. Usually you are brushing crab cake crumbs off your shirt as you rush out the door. So I have to ask you—is there anything you want to talk about?”

As he considered his response, Bob had a strange sense that what he said was going to define a fork in the road in his career. And he had no idea why. What he should do was stay one up, thank the dismissed employee one more time, and get back to work. But he didn’t.

“Well, yeah, David. I do,” Bob blurted out. “A couple things, really. One is that I can’t believe how calm and not anxious you were yesterday. I don’t really want to talk about that, because I am afraid you are going to credit it to Jesus or Zen or something, and I don’t want to go there. But I do want to ask about two things.

“First, I don’t get what you meant by wondering if my decisions are going to solve our problems. Of course they will! That’s what leaders do: identify problems and either use their expertise to solve them or find the right expert and let him do his thing. You lose revenue; you make cuts. Your competition lowers production costs and underprices you; you copy their methods. You’re in a power struggle; you fight till you come out on top and insist on your priorities. Problem, meet solution.

“And second, you really have me stumped with your comment about me having all the power. I know you and Dad are friends, David, and he is my father, so I don’t want to slam him, but come on! You and I both know he still holds the real levers of power in this organization. You don’t think I know that every time I state a course of action, everyone in the room looks at him to see if he buys in?”

David was silent for what, to Bob, was an uncomfortable amount of time. Finally, he spoke.

“I think, Bob, you are asking some profound questions. I have some very specific thoughts on the topic of problems and solutions. But I know you have a very limited amount of time, and I am picking up that the question that is really bugging you is the one about power. Am I right?”

Bob nodded, so David continued.

Except “continued” is too mild a word. What David did was speak a sentence that dropped like a bombshell in Bob’s heart and head and would eventually change the way he saw everything.

“Bob, here’s the deal. Ever since you became CEO-designate, you have always had the power. And, by the way, every time you state a course of action, you look at your dad to see if he buys in as well.”

Needless to say, David’s comment stunned Bob and struck him to his core. He pondered the thought long after leaving Smokey’s. How in the world was it possible that he could be one of the employees deferring to his dad? Impossible! As a matter of fact, it was this deferral that was driving him crazy; it would be the very last behavior he would be guilty of. Or so he reasoned.

But he couldn’t let go of the sense that there was something to what David was saying. And he couldn’t deny that David had conducted himself with class and dignity and had said some undeniably wise things. It was also true that Bob was beginning to question whether his decision to summarily terminate David had been wise or just. Upon reflection, he had to acknowledge that it would be difficult for David to find much-needed employment. And, to be sure, David had performed his job with distinction for the company. Furthermore, Bob was convinced that David was an honest broker, not an unbiased fan of the father who has long knives out for the son.

So, intrigued by David’s words and feeling more than a little guilty about his own behavior, Bob arrived at a novel plan. He would keep David on retainer as a personal consultant. Paid his previous salary, David would not work in the plant or in the corporate offices, but he would meet regularly with Bob to talk through issues related to the succession plan and to the company’s struggles.

“Bob invited David to his home office the next day.

“Bob, I am honored and delighted that you trust me in this way,” David said when Bob leaned back in his office chair, having described the proposal. “I am glad to serve as a consultant to you. But I don’t need any money. I will do it for no cost.”

“David, how can you do that?” asked Bob, startled. “You were making a good salary, and it is going to be hard for you to find work given your . . . um . . . past.”

“Bob, I am a man of simple needs, and I have been quite fortunate in some investments,” David replied. “It would be my joy to serve you and the company that has treated me so well.”

“Are you sure? That’s a lot to ask of anyone.”

“Yes, I’m sure. In the course of my life, especially my post-prison life, I have been served by many, and their service has helped me a great deal. I am delighted to offer anything I can to you and to your company.”

Bob nodded. “OK, here’s what I am thinking. We meet once a week with a set agenda, but I would love to be able to call you between meetings if something arises. How does that sound?”

David smiled. “Bob, I want this to be as comfortable for you as possible, so that is fine with me. But I have found that leadership crises, such as the one the company finds itself in now, rarely lend themselves to carefully planned agendas. Things simply move too fast and change too quickly. I will be available to you when you need me.” David paused. “By the way, there is something I am wondering.”

“Sure. What is it?” Bob replied. “Do you have a few moments now?” David asked.

Bob nodded, so David continued. “I’d like to share a couple of very important concepts with you that I think may help you understand the tension you are feeling in the company over your succession to CEO and—if I may say so—the tension you are experiencing with your father.”

All at once, Bob felt defensive. But he did his best to mask it. He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat.”

“Like I said, David, I am eager to glean your insights. But I’d feel most comfortable if we confined our discussions to professional matters and didn’t get into family concerns.” He smiled in a way he thought was winning.

“Bob, I’m going to take a risk here and push back a little,” David replied. “I want what is best for you and for this company, so I am going to say the hard things that I think are true, even if that causes you to end our arrangement. The fact of the matter is that there is no way to separate the tensions between you and your father from the dilemmas in which the company finds itself.”

Bob’s jaw tensed, but he didn’t interrupt, so David continued.

“I don’t pretend to be a family therapist, but I do believe in the connectedness of things. Your relationship with your dad profoundly affects and influences the direction and future of the company. I don’t ask that you buy into what I am saying now, but that you at least promise to suspend disbelief for a time.”

“I don’t buy what you’re saying,” said Bob, who stood and walked to his mini-fridge to grab two water bottles, handing one to David and placing the other on his own desk, within reach. “But I don’t really want to argue about it now. I’d rather you just plow ahead and talk about the important concepts you mentioned.”

David smiled, probably recognizing Bob’s discomfort. “Sure, Bob—that I will do.

“Here’s the first one. Now, brace yourself. It won’t be easy for you to hear, at first. The first concept is that you are the problem.”

Bob rolled his eyes, defensive and suspicious. “Oh boy, I should have guessed. The old man put you up to this, didn’t he? You’ve got to be kidding me, David. You are parroting his line that my leadership is the cause of all of the company’s struggles.”

“No, no, Bob,” David interjected. “You’ve got to hear me say two things. First, although your father and I are close friends, in the matter of my consulting with you, you have my promise of confidentiality. I’m not taking sides. I really do want the best for the company and all of its employees, including you, and I will offer the best counsel I can.

“Second, when I said that you are the problem, it had nothing to do—necessarily—with your business leadership. The fact is that you are in conflict. Conflict with your father and inner conflict as you try to figure out what is best for the company. What I am saying is that when we face conflict, the first place to look is at ourselves. Which is, of course, the last place we are inclined to look.

“When we are in conflict, almost every time, there is as much or more conflict in ourselves as there is between us and another person. Resolving the conflict doesn’t happen when we convince or defeat the other person; it begins to happen when we take the gutsy step of looking inside of ourselves and being willing to ask ourselves tough questions.”

“That’s a tough pill to swallow, David,” Bob said when the older man paused for a moment. “Look, I get that I have some inner turmoil—call it conflict if you want. But I can’t buy that every conflict is in me. Sometimes people are just plain wrong, me included. How would we ever get anything done if everyone just navel-gazed every time they got crossways with someone else?”

“Oh, it may be true that the other person is wrong,” said David, shrugging. “Or that both of you are partially wrong. But that’s not my point. What I am saying is that when I am in conflict, there is something in me that is deeply unsettled, regardless of the circumstances that precipitated the conflict. And that it’s worth asking myself why.”

“OK, I can buy that, at least on a provisional basis,” said Bob. “So, what’s your next magic concept?”

“There’s no magic here, my friend,” David laughed. “Just some hard-won wisdom, I believe.” David opened his water bottle and took a drink before continuing.

“The second concept is connected to the first one. You are looking to take the company through some profound changes. The company as a whole and all of its employees must change. And you must change as well, Bob. So it’s worth reflecting on change.

“There are different kinds of change. I want to get into this with you later, but, for now, let me introduce the distinction between tactical and transformational change.

“Tactical change occurs when it is obvious what needs to be done. You have snow in your driveway; you shovel it. Your hard drive crashes; you call the company’s IT gurus. Tactical change simply requires bringing in the right expert or using the right expertise.

“Transformational change, on the other hand, is change at the level of belief, values, and behavior. It is hard work to lead transformational change, because it will require very different behaviors and even beliefs. It will actually alter the structure of the work environment and the relationships that exist there.

“But here is the secret, Bob: transformational change is where the real work of leadership takes place. And given the challenges the company faces, it is transformational change which you must lead.”

Bob was quiet, seemingly lost in thought, so David thought he should clarify further. Glancing around, he saw what he needed.

“Hey, Bob, can I use the whiteboard you have in the corner? OK, thanks.”

David rummaged in a package of dry erase markers until he found three particular colors and waved them so Bob could see them.

“Let me tie these ideas of conflict and change together visually, since I know you Irish guys learn best with pretty pictures,” said David with a chuckle and a wink.

“I call this the difference between living in the Blue Zone and in the Red Zone.”

He picked up a black marker from the whiteboard’s tray and drew a vertical line from the top of the board to the bottom. Then he took a blue marker and wrote “Blue Zone” at the top of the left column and followed suit by writing “Red Zone” with a red marker at the top of the right column.

“OK, the basic idea is this: when we are in conflict, we can choose to respond in one of two ways. The first way is from the Blue Zone. The Blue Zone is where you maintain professionalism and you keep your emotional cool. You can tell when someone is in the Blue Zone by several behaviors they demonstrate.”

David jotted a phrase at the top of the left column.

Focus on efficiency and effectiveness.

“This creates a workplace where everyone shows up to do their job, they have the right tools, and they are motivated to do good work. They’re not distracted by drama and political intrigue. The workplace has a buzz, an energy.”

David wrote another phrase just below the first.

Structures of the organization are closely monitored and respected.

“What this means,” David continued, “is that stuff like performance reviews, goal-setting and follow-up evaluation, and reporting structures—the often-ignored guts of an organization—are actually respected. This is all about accountability, but not the kind of soul-crushing accountability that is really micromanagement. The truth is, Bob, accountability is built on trust. And when everyone agrees on standards and expectations, trust flourishes.”

David wrote another phrase.

Business issues are the top priority.

“When a business has a clear sense of mission, strong and vibrant core values, and a winning strategy, it has a chance to succeed. But only a chance. If those core business issues are not seen as the first thing—if other issues like personal rivalries or clawing for territory are allowed to take top place—the workplace becomes a miserable environment. I think you might be feeling some of that, Bob.”

David sat down and looked intently into Bob’s eyes. “So, to recap,” he said. “The Blue Zone is the place of emotional health and professional focus. Is this making sense so far, Bob?”

The younger man thought for a moment.

“I think so, David. I get the difference between tactical and transformational change. And I understand that an organization that focuses on set goals and values is probably a great place to work. I mean, who doesn’t believe that? What I don’t get is how we can get so far off course, where virtually everyone forgets or just plain refuses to hold to those values.”

“Well, Bob,” said David, “The answer to that is all about the Red Zone. Can I continue by explaining that?” Bob nodded, so David wrote a phrase in red at the top of the right column.

Focus on feelings more than results.

“This is the polar opposite of a focus on efficiency and effectiveness. Feelings matter more than results. And while there is no doubt that feelings are important to human beings, when they become the focus, they are an enormous distraction. People are confused about where their personal and professional boundaries are, and this paralyzes everyone. The organization gets off base because everyone has taken their eye off the ball.”

“I get that!” Bob interrupted. “That’s what it feels like now at the company. We have all of these strategic and competitive issues to deal with, and my dad just wants to hark back to the good old days!”

“There may be something to what you say, Bob,” David replied. “But remember that the focus here needs to be not in pointing fingers, but in looking inward, even though it’s hard. The Red Zone is all about blame-shifting.”

There was an uncomfortable pause before David plowed on.

No common standards and no way of monitoring performance and behavior.

“In the Red Zone, no one gets it. They don’t get what they are supposed to be doing, they don’t get what counts as good work in the organization, and they don’t get where the ethical lines are drawn. So this results in all kinds of confusion and the thing that confusion always leads to—anxiety. And when you are not sure what you are supposed to be doing and you are feeling a high level of anxiety, the natural reaction is to lash out at others. So you have these endless cycles of blame-shifting, political maneuvering, and recrimination.

“One more thing, and then I’m done.” David wrote a final line in red:

People expect the organization to be a family, and they assume family roles.

“Bob, this happens in most organizations. But where it really becomes an issue is in family-owned businesses, because the lines really get blurred. Think about it—you are the successor to your dad. The business boundaries and the family boundaries are understandably going to be really hard to keep clear.

“What makes this such a challenge is that families and healthy workplaces do some of the same things—they provide a sense of relational satisfaction, meaning, and purpose. But they are radically different in other ways. Families are designed to nurture, train, and develop their members to face a chaotic world, which will have only one constant—the family itself! In healthy families, the members are always there for each other, regardless.

“Businesses are very different. They can’t do some of the things that families do. There is no ‘forever’ in business. Sometimes colleagues have to separate due to a change in life, disagreement, or poor performance. A healthy person subordinates the needs of his job to those of his family and draws a bright line between the two. It’s when this boundary is unclear that confusion, misunderstanding, and anger emerge. And I see this happening with you and your dad.

“This confusion also comes in when people adopt family roles in the workplace—a female manager becomes a ‘mother hen,’ fiercely protecting her brood. A male manager becomes a father figure. A young man becomes the wayward younger brother. When we start to enact family roles in the workplace, our focus and energy suffer.”

“David paused and looked at Bob for a long moment. “Doing OK?” he asked.

Bob thought for a bit before replying. “Yes, I think so. It’s a lot to take in.”

David laughed. “I know. So let me try to sum up, and I’ll let you get to the rest of your day.

“Bottom line: when people in an organization are operating in the Blue Zone, they are focused on the right things, with clear standards and expectations of behavior and interaction, and they are emotionally healthy. But when they are in the Red Zone—driven by personal, emotional, and unprofessional motives—work feels like a battlefield, with petty jealousies and annoyances, recriminations, shifting alliances, and Machiavellian political machinations.

“Blue Zone equals fun. Red Zone equals no fun.”

David sat back down and looked into Bob’s eyes. “I’m not sure you’re having much fun these days, are you?”

Bob laughed bitterly. “Fun? Um, no. I’m not even sure I can imagine that. But, look; I need to think about all this Red Zone/Blue Zone stuff more. And I also need to get moving. How do you suggest we proceed?”

David nodded. “OK, right. Before we meet again, I want you to think about three questions—really think about them. And we can discuss your answers next time.” He wrote on the board again.

  • Am I more of a Red Zone or Blue Zone executive?

  • What are examples of Red Zone and Blue Zone behavior I have demonstrated this week?

  • Do I tend to focus more on tactical or transformational change when I encounter an obstacle?

David moved toward the door of Bob’s study, pausing before taking his leave.

“The thing, Bob, is that those are tough questions. They require more than simple answers. They require taking an intensely honest look inside yourself. It’s work that not every business executive can do. But I think that your success and that of the company we both love may well hinge on your being able to do that hard, inner work. I believe you can do it. I really do. All right; I’ll let you get to it. I’ll show myself out.”

And with that, David was gone.

This article is an excerpt from James Osterhaus and Joseph Jurkowski's Red Zone, Blue Zone.

Image source: Shutterstock

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:
Most of us fear and dread conflict, at home or at work. But conflict can be your ally, not your enemy. Conflict doesn’t have to tear your family or organization apart. Using the story of a...
Red Zone, Blue Zone

Jim Osterhaus

Jim Osterhaus is a senior partner with TAG. He is a clinical psychologist and a dynamic executive coach and public speaker with extensive experience in helping individuals, couples, families, and organizations move through change, conflict, and reorg... Read More