Why We Work On Things We Know Will Fail (and How To Stop)

Have you ever worked towards something you knew would fail?

It’s pointless. We work with a pessimistic, half-hearted, and frustrated attitude because we feel like we’re wasting time.

So, why do we do it?

Most of the time, we keep after these doomed projects because they’re simply part of our job.

Eighty percent of the people we study say they are currently working for a project or initiative they believe was set up to fail from the beginning.

And you can probably relate. Think about your work right now: Are you involved in an initiative destined to fail?  If you’d describe it as a “slow moving train wreck,” you know exactly what we’re talking about.

So, how do we get off the train? How do we stop these disasters before they happen?

It starts with a conversation.

Crucial Conversations generate healthy dialogue about the reality of the issue, and when handled appropriately, these conversations have an incredibly positive impact on our results.

Yet most of us choose extremely ineffective ways of dealing with the problem instead. Rather than having the conversations we need to have — the approach with the highest chance of positive results —  we opt for silence or violence.

What Happens When We Shut Up?

When we shut up rather than speak up, we don’t just hurt ourselves — we hurt our organisations and relationships.

With silence, we shut down, hold back, mask our true opinions, or avoid sharing our true concerns. In our research at VitalSmarts, we found only 10% of people who say they’re working on something they think is going to fail would also say, “I feel like I can speak up at the beginning of a project to stop the slow-moving train wreck before it even starts.”  

Have you been there?

You knew a project was going to fail. You saw the doom looming ahead, but you likely didn’t feel the freedom to speak up. Instead, you figured that it was better to go along with the project and let it fail on its own.

Here’s the problem: When people don’t speak up, their problems don’t go away… their problems go into hiding.

Silence is a quiet killer. The failure to speak up doesn’t just kill projects. It also destroys relationships and organisational cultures.

As we hold in our concerns repeatedly, those concerns build. A solitary project may come and go, but the mentality that input is not accepted will rot an organisation from the inside out.

What Happens When We Shut Down Others?

We don’t always opt for silence ourselves.

In an effort get off the slow moving train to failure, we swing from silence to violence in crucial moments. We become coercive, forceful, or attacking to force people to adopt our perspective.

While working with one of the largest vehicle manufacturers in the world, somewhere in the middle of our session on silence and violence, someone raised their hand and said:

“You’re describing our culture. That’s exactly what happens here. About five years ago, employees were trying to contribute meaningfully to the organisation. People were speaking up, sharing ideas, talking to their managers about making processes more efficient, and sharing innovations. But as employees started speaking up, the management didn’t want to hear it. They raised their voices and attacked those ideas. They shut down the employees. As the management became more violent in crucial conversations, the employees became more silent.”

“So what?” we might wonder. “Isn’t that just the way work is? Work is not supposed to be a place of dialogue — it’s about getting the job done.”

Unfortunately, that’s an attitude ruins organisations.

Silence and violence affect more than our conversations — silence and violence affect everything that matters to you.

At the vehicle manufacturing company, the employees’ motivation went down. Their engagement dropped. People would come into the manufacturing facility and work without fully engaging.

They avoided their managers and tried to stay under the radar. They literally moved to different tasks during their day to avoid seeing management personnel. They did enough to get by — but no more. Then, they’d pick up their check at the end of the week.

This attitude became so common, they gave it a name: A thousand dollars a week for hide and seek. They even adopted an unofficial motto for their companies approach to work: “We make trucks, not sense.”

When the employees’ willingness to positively contribute to the organisation was met with violence by their management, they turned to silence. Consequently, their organisational culture plummeted.

Think of the innovations they’ve missed. Think of the potential left untapped. Think of all the wasted time employees spent avoiding their managers rather than doing their jobs.

What Happens When We Talk?

Maybe that feels a little like your organisation. Consider this truth: the more time you spend in either silence or violence in your conversations, the worse your results will be.

Choose healthy dialogue. When you’re willing to speak up AND willing to listen, results improve.

Work doesn’t have to be a place where you put in the minimum amount of effort required not to lose your job. Instead, it can be a place of fulfilment, innovation, and effectiveness…

It just takes the willingness and skills to have a crucial conversation.

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