Some employees will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid addressing an uncomfortable issue at work, says new research.
Need to tell the new intern that their work isn’t up to scratch? Are you too afraid to tell your work friend Susan that her inability to meet deadlines is hampering your productivity? Struggling to conjure up the courage to tell your colleague Alan about his perpetually bad breath?
Time to quit then.
This is not really a joke, because you wouldn’t be alone if you felt that way. Many of us have to have an awkward conversation that we don’t know how to broach with a colleague and some people are willing to go to extreme lengths to avoid it.
Cat got your tongue
New research from leadership training company VitalSmarts found that one in four people have been putting off an uncomfortable conversation for at least six months, one in 10 have been doing so for a year and another one in 10 have been staying mum on an awkward issue for more than two years.
The findings, which were collected from over 500 US-based respondents, also showed one in five admitted they wouldn’t feel confident that the conversation would go in their favour even if they found the courage to have it. Others felt it could have negative repercussions for others in the business or that the workplace culture doesn’t support people who speak up.
Of course, the definition of an uncomfortable conversation is a chat you’d rather avoid, but the methods people are willing to take in order to avoid being uncomfortable were staggering. The research found that people would:
- Avoid the other person at all costs (50 per cent). This is obviously a hard task if you share a workspace with them.
- Dance around the awkward topic whenever they speak to the person in question (37 per cent)
- Consider quitting their job or taking a different job (37 per cent)
- Quit their job (11 per cent)
VitalSmarts identified three main topics that people were avoiding:
- Obnoxious behaviours
- Poor performance
- Broken promises (such as an agreement for a promotion or pay-rise that’s fallen through)
“In these moments, most people run the other way because experience tells them the other person will be angry or defensive. And yet, our research shows the select few who know how to speak up candidly and respectfully – no matter the scary topic – can solve problems while also preserving relationships. As a result, they are considered among the top performers in their organisation,” says Joseph Grenny, one of the researchers.
Addressing the elephant in the room
HRM has previously written about why these difficult conversations matter and has offered some tips from a psychologist about how to get the ball rolling. But it’s also important to create an environment where these conversations are the norm.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat, a multinational software company, shares an anecdote about an organisation he worked for as a consultant. Apparently at this company each staff member could write a long list about all the things they saw the company wasn’t doing well, but when they came together as a company, no one would raise the issues on their list.
As an outsider, Whitehurst said staff were comfortable airing their grievances with him but weren’t willing to point the finger at the causes of their problems – which were often their colleagues.
You’ve likely heard your own version of this story before. Staff are often too scared to pipe up and therefore HR and leaders are blindsided when the issue finally comes to light. There’s a psychological component to this. When everyone else seems okay with the problems, individuals feel compelled to stay quiet. As the saying goes, the first one through the wall gets bloody.
To create a culture where these conversations aren’t relationship or career ending, Whitehurst suggests creating what he calls “a vibrant feedback loop”.
“Once you establish the practice of sharing regular feedback across the company, it begins to function like a flywheel. It’s hard at first to get it moving. You’ll need to do some substantial pushing and monitoring to get the wheel spinning. But before you know it, you’ll find that the wheel begins to turn all on its own using its own momentum,” he says.
It’s important that this feedback loop is modelled from the top, he says, and there are three main things for leaders to keep in mind:
- Practice what you preach. As a leader, if you’re open to taking on the feedback, you set the tone for the rest of the organisation and also increase that person’s engagement levels in their own work, says Whitehurst.
- Start with recognition. Workplaces need to work on taking the negative connotations out of feedback, he says. One way to do this is to start by offering recognition and appreciation for the person’s work – he suggests a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative comments.
- Include everyone in the feedback. Organisations that are overly siloed can breed mistrust or encourage an “us versus them” mentality, he says. Seek feedback from a variety of departments on smaller issues in order to cultivate an inclusive workplace community that’s built on trust. It also normalises feedback if you’re not only dishing it out when the stakes are high.
Conversation after care
The issue isn’t always done and dusted after the conversation is over. In a different HBR article, talent development leader and former head of global manager development at Google Dolores Bernado suggests returning to the conversation shortly after its ended to acknowledge that it happened.
“There is huge value in appreciating that you were able to come together, identify and discuss a big issue, and even have the conversation in the first place. Thank your colleague for taking the time to engage in the conversation,” she says.
Bernado also suggests practicing the ‘designed alliance conversation’, whereby two colleagues ‘put the past on hold’ and take a long term outlook on how they can use this to benefit their relationship in the future.
“It includes questions like: What does success look like in this partnership? What outcomes are important to both of us? What constraints do we both have that we need to be aware of? What is important to each of us that the other might not be aware of? This gives each party a chance to be honest about how you each prefer to collaborate going forward,” she says.
So if you’ve got something on your mind that you’d like to share with a colleague, don’t put it off. As long as you approach the situation with empathy and keep the long term working relationship in mind, it’s likely to go much smoother than you think. Probably much smoother than trying to quit and find a new job anyway.
Mastering the art of a difficult conversation is an extremely important skill for HR professionals and leaders to have in their toolkit. Ignition Training’s short course Having Difficult Conversations will arm you with the four stages of having an uncomfortable conversation and much more.