Costly Conversations: Why The Way Employees Communicate Will Make or Break Your Bottom-Line

Steve worked with a colleague whose disrespectful behavior and verbal abuse went unchecked. Steve never said anything. His colleagues never said anything. And even management avoided the conversation with the office bully. Instead, they complained and gossiped about the problem. Team morale deteriorated until eventually four employees quit, believing the organization tolerated bullying behavior.

Then there’s Shauna who recounts a project meeting where a plan was presented and many in attendance noticed an obvious flaw. And yet, instead of voicing their concerns, people whispered about the fatal flaws in the hallway. After several months of work, the project plan indeed failed to meet output goals and lost the funding to continue.

New research from Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of the New York Times bestseller, Crucial Conversations, shows that workplace conversation failures are both rampant and costly.

In a study of 1,025 people, an astounding 72 percent of respondents reported instances when they or others failed to speak up effectively when a peer did not pull his or her weight. Sixty-eight percent reported a failure to address disrespect, while 57 percent let peers slide when they skirted important workplace processes.

According to the data, the majority of the workforce is guilty of similar conversation failures. Specifically, half waste seven days or more avoiding these crucial conversations. Our respondents estimate their avoidance costs their organizations an average of $7,500 per conversation in lost time and resources.  

Instead of speaking up, people report engaging in resource-sapping avoidance tactics including complaining to others, doing unnecessary work and ruminating about the problem. In extreme cases of avoidance, the bottom line is hit especially hard.

The study found that one in five employees estimate that their inability to speak up in crucial moments costs their organization more than $50,000; and 40 percent estimate they waste two weeks or more ruminating about the problem.

More than 500 respondents shared specific stories of crucial conversations not held, or not held well. The top five most common and costly conversations included:

  1. Prickly Peers: Failure to confront rude, abrasive, defensive and disrespectful colleagues. Examples included failing to confront harsh language, backbiting, bullying, harassment, withholding information and resistance to feedback and input.

  2. Ticking Time Bombs: Failure to speak up when proposals and procedures are riddled with inaccuracies or faulty thinking. The problem is exacerbated when leadership makes decisions without first consulting experts or is unresponsive to employee concerns.

  3. Lazy and Incompetent Colleagues: Failure to talk to peers and direct reports about poor work habits, incompetence and lack of engagement.

  4. Abusive Bosses: Failure to openly discuss damage done when people in power resort to control and reliance on position to push their agenda.

  5. Management Chaos: Failure to get clarification when people feel uncertain around roles, responsibilities, specs and timelines. Lack of safety makes voicing uncertainties feel risky. 

And beyond the draw-dropping dollar figures, the secondary costs are also alarming. Respondents report that these conversation failures had damaging effects to employee morale and engagement, relationships, the corporate culture and project timelines and budgets. 

Grenny and Maxfield say it’s time organizations stop viewing interpersonal competencies as soft skills and start teaching their people how to speak up. And the data support their views. According to respondents, one in three say their culture does not promote or support holding crucial conversations. And only 1 percent report feeling extremely confident in voicing their concerns in crucial moments.

“This study confirms what we’ve seen over the past thirty years: one of the costliest barriers to organizational performance is unresolved crucial conversations,” Grenny said. “The few who know how to speak up don’t waste time avoiding crucial issues because they have the confidence and skills to raise them in a way that leads to productive dialogue.”

Grenny and Maxfield advise organizations interested in curbing the costs of failed conversations to train their employees how to voice their concerns quickly and effectively. They offer four tips:

  • Reverse your thinking. Most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up.

  • Change your emotions. The reason our crucial conversations go poorly is because we are irritated, angry, or disgusted. Others react to these emotions more than our words. So, before opening your mouth, open your mind. Try to see others as reasonable, rational, and decent human beings—a practice that softens strong emotions and ensures you come across more agreeably.

  • Make others feel safe. The unskilled believe certain topics are destined to make others defensive. The skilled realize people don’t become defensive until they feel unsafe. Start a high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for them. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they feel safe, let their guard down and begin to listen – even if the topic is unpleasant.

  • Invite dialogue. After you create an environment of safety, express your concerns, and then invite dialogue. Encourage the other person to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t just come to make their point; they come to learn.

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