I often muse about the fact that people consider me and my co-authors to be experts on communication. When we began our work more than three decades ago, our real interest had nothing to do with communication. What interested us was the study of crucial moments—moments where the way a manager behaves has a profound and disproportionate effect on many things that follow. And secondly, if such moments exist, what must a manager do during those moments to ensure the effects of his or her response are the best they can be?
We began this search through a blind study of “good” and “great” managers. We asked leaders to identify twenty-five stellar managers and twenty-five “good but not great” ones. Our job was to follow these fifty managers and guess who belonged on which list. We hoped this would be a way to validate whether we had identified truly crucial moments.
While we set aside six months for the study, the crucial moments were obvious within hours. Right away, we noticed the moments that made the biggest difference in a manager’s effectiveness were situations where they had to address an issue with one or more people. And it wasn’t just any issue. “Communication” in general was not the crucial moment. It was communication about a topic that had three properties:
1) high stakes;
2) opposing opinions; and
3) strong emotions.
The differences between merely “good” and “great” managers were striking. The “good” managers procrastinated, side stepped, or sugar-coated the real issues. When things got really tense, they occasionally spoke up—but in a way that damaged relationships. The “great” ones had entirely different tendencies. They spoke up more quickly and were far more direct—but they did it in a way that was remarkably unifying, calming, and respectful. As it turned out, these crucial moments were 100 percent predictive of managerial genius.
That flagship study began our voyage into a study of crucial conversations—a remarkably productive line of research that continues to this day. We’ve found, for example, that the capacity to master crucial conversations does not simply predict individual managerial effectiveness—it is also one of the most potent drivers of organisational performance. Here’s a sampling of what we know about crucial conversations from our ongoing study over the years.
The Costs of Avoidance
According to our research, 95 percent of a company’s workforce struggles to confront their colleagues and managers about their concerns and frustrations. As a result, they engage in resource-sapping avoidance tactics including ruminating excessively about crucial issues, complaining, getting angry, doing extra or unnecessary work and avoiding the other person altogether. What’s more, our research revealed the ramifications of avoiding conflict are extremely costly.
Through our research, we found that employees waste an average of US$1,500 and an eight-hour workday for every conflict they avoid. In extreme cases of avoidance, an organisation’s bottom line can be hit especially hard. Specifically, a shocking 8 percent of employees estimate their inability to deal with conflict costs their organisation more than US$10,000. And one in twenty estimate that over the course of a drawn-out silent conflict, they waste time ruminating about the problem for more than six months.
We studied 2,000 managers from 400 companies that struggled to restructure financially in the face of economic hard times. We found that how quickly and efficiently an organisation makes financial adjustments depends on how well leaders hold four specific conversations. For example, when managers could not speak up about financial “sacred cows”, the pace of response was five times slower and the quality of the response (as measured by company profitability) was ten times worse. Companies that responded wisely and quickly to financial crises skilfully and consistently raise four very crucial conversations.
Executives’ and managers’ most common complaint is that their people work in silos. Close to 80 percent of efforts that require cross-functional cooperation cost far more than expected, produce less than hoped for, and run significantly over budget. We wondered why.
We studied more than 2,200 projects and programs attempted at hundreds of organisations worldwide. What we found is that you can predict months or years in advance, and with close to 90 percent accuracy, which projects will fail. And just what is the predictor of success or failure? It was whether people could skilfully raise five specific concerns that inevitably surface during the life of an initiative.
We studied more than 1,600 workers in safety-conscious organizations and found that the phrase “It was an accident waiting to happen” is true more often than not. The ugly secret behind most workplace injuries is that someone was aware of the threat well in advance, but was either unwilling or unable to speak up. And yet, our research also showed that if leaders can turn their culture into one where people feel safe to speak up about observed threats, they can dramatically improve the organisation’s safety record. One company we worked with saw a 55 percent improvement in accidents that happen on the job and did not report a single accident in the year following their cultural revamp. Lives depend on dialogue.
As gender disparities increase, we’ve wondered what effect communication has on inequality in the workplace. Our research found a direct link between bias and the way women communicate. Specifically, we found that women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived worth by $15,088 when they are equally as assertive or forceful as their male colleagues.
Emotional inequality is real and it is unfair. And while it is unacceptable and needs to be addressed at a cultural, legal, organisational, and social level, individuals can take control. Our research also found that those who use a brief framing statement that demonstrates deliberation and forethought reduce the social backlash and emotion-inequality effects by 27 percent.
Our research over the past thirty years confirms that top performers are highly skilled at getting the best ideas out onto the table. They are masters of dialogue. In crucial moments, they can speak and be heard and encourage others to do the same. They make it safe for themselves and everyone else to speak frankly no matter how risky or unpopular their views. As a result, they surface the most accurate and complete information, make the best choices, and then act on those choices with unity and conviction. It is this distinct set of skills that sets them apart from their peers and eventually leads to huge improvements in corporate results.
Whenever you’re not getting results, it’s likely a crucial conversation is keeping you stuck. Learn how to speak up and reach dialogue in high stakes, emotional, or politically risky situations with Crucial Conversations skills.
VitalSmarts offers classroom and virtual training on these skills. Learn more at vitalsmarts.com.au crucial conversations training. To receive more tips and skills like these from Joseph on how to improve your communication and increase your personal influence, subscribe to his award-winning Crucial Skills Newsletter. Each week, Joseph and his co-authors share advice on how to navigate tricky, high-stakes situations at work and at home.