Improve Your Organization

Excerpt from “Crucial Conversations,” Second Edition, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, copyright 2012, published by McGraw-Hill. Reprinted with permission.

By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

Is it possible  that  an organization’s performance could  hang  on something as soft and gushy as how individuals deal with crucial conversations?

Study after  study suggests  that  the answer  is yes.

We began our work 25  years ago looking for what we called  crucial  moments. We wondered, “Are there  a handful of moments when  someone’s  actions  disproportionately affect  key performance indicators?” And  if so,  what  are  those  moments and how should  we act when  they occur?

It  was  that  search  that  led  us  to  crucial  conversations. We found  that  more  often  than  not,  the world  changes  when people have to deal with a very risky issue and either  do it poorly or do it well. For example:

Silence  kills.  A doctor is getting  ready  to insert  a central  IV line into  a patient but  fails to put  on the  proper gloves,  gown, and  mask  to ensure  the procedure is done  as safely as possible. After the nurse reminds the doctor of the proper protections, the doctor ignores  her comment and begins the insertion. In a study of more than  7,000  doctors and  nurses, we’ve found  caregivers  face this  crucial  moment all the  time.  In fact,  84 percent of respondents  said that  they regularly  see people  taking  shortcuts, exhibiting  incompetence, or breaking rules.

And  that’s not the problem!

The  real  problem is  that  those  who  observe   deviations or infractions say nothing. Across  the  world  we’ve found  that  the odds of a nurse  speaking  up in this crucial  moment are less than 1 in 12. The odds of doctors stepping up to similar crucial conversations aren’t  much  better.

And when they don’t speak up, when they don’t hold an effective  crucial  conversation, it affects  patient safety  (some  even die), nursing  turnover, physician  satisfaction, nursing  productivity, and a host  of other  results.

Silence  fails. When  it comes to the corporate world,  the most common complaint of executives  and managers is that their people work in silos. They do great at tasks that are handled entirely within  their  team.  Unfortunately, close to 80 percent of the projects that  require cross-functional cooperation cost far more than expected,  produce  less than  hoped  for, and run significantly over budget.  We wondered why.

So  we  studied more than  2,200   projects and  programs that  had been rolled out at hundreds of organizations worldwide. The findings  were  stunning. You can predict with  nearly  90 percent accuracy  which  projects will fail—months or years  in advance. And now  back  to our  premise. The  predictor of success  or failure  was whether people  could  hold  five specific  crucial  conversations. For  example,  could  they  speak  up  if they  thought the scope and schedule  were unrealistic? Or did they go silent when a cross-functional team  member  began  sloughing  off?  Or  even more  tricky—what should  they  do  when  an executive  failed  to provide  leadership for the effort?

In most organizations, employees  fell silent when these crucial moments hit.  Fortunately, in those  organizations where  people were able to candidly  and  effectively  speak  up about  these  concerns,  the  projects were  less  than  half  as  likely  to  fail.  Once again,  the  presenting problems showed  up  in key performance indicators such  as spiraling  costs,  late  delivery  times,  and  low morale.  Nevertheless, the  underlying cause  was  the  unwillingness or inability  to speak  up at crucial  moments.

Other important studies  we’ve conducted (read  the  complete studies  at have shown that companies with employees  who are skilled at crucial  conversations:

  • Respond five times  faster  to financial  downturns—and make budget   adjustments  far  more   intelligently   than   less-skilled peers  (Research  Study: Financial Agility).
  • Are  two-thirds more  likely to  avoid  injury  and  death  due  to unsafe  conditions (Research  Study: Silent Danger).
  • Save more than $1,500 and an eight-hour workday  for every crucial conversation  employees   hold   rather  than   avoid   (Research Study: The Costs of Conflict Avoidance).
  • Substantially increase  trust  and  reduce  transaction costs  in virtual work teams. Those who can’t handle their crucial conversations suffer  in 13 different ways (backstabbing, gossip,   undermining,  passive   aggression,  etc.)   as  much   as three   times  more  often  in  virtual   teams  than  in  co-located teams  (Research  Study: Long-Distance Loathing).
  • Influence change  in  colleagues  who  are  bullying,  conniving, dishonest, or incompetent. When more than 4,000  respondents were asked,   93  percent of  them   said  that,   in  their   organization, people   like  this  are  almost   “untouchable”—staying  in  their position four years or longer without being held accountable (Research  Study: Corporate Untouchables).

Most leaders  get it wrong.  They think  that  organizational productivity  and  performance are simply about  policies,  processes, structures, or systems.  So when  their  software product doesn’t ship on time, they benchmark others’ development processes. Or when  productivity flags, they tweak  their  performance management  system. When  teams  aren’t  cooperating, they restructure.

Our  research shows that  these types of nonhuman changes  fail more  often  than  they  succeed.  That’s  because  the  real  problem never was in the process,  system, or structure—it was in employee behavior. The key to real change  lies not in implementing a new process,  but in getting  people  to hold one another accountable to the process.  And that  requires Crucial  Conversations skills.

In the worst companies, poor performers are first ignored  and then transferred. In good companies, bosses eventually  deal with problems. In the  best  companies, everyone  holds  everyone  else accountable—regardless of level or position. The path to high productivity passes  not  through a  static  system,  but  through face-to-face  conversations.

So what  about  you?  Is your organization stuck  in its progress toward some  important goal?  If so, are  there  conversations you’re either avoiding or botching? And how about the people you work with?  Are they stepping up to or walking  away from crucial conversations? Could  you take  a big step  forward by improving how you deal with these conversations?

Video Case Study: STP Nuclear  Operating  Co.

See how  Crucial  Conversations  skills helped  a nuclear  power  plant in Texas become  a national industry leader. To watch this video, visit

This article is excerpted from Crucial Conversations Second Edition, copyright 2012, published by McGraw-Hill. Reprinted with permission.

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler are the four-time New York Times best-selling authors of “Crucial Conversations,” Second Edition; “Crucial Confrontations”; “Influencer”; and “Change Anything.” For more than 25 years, they have served as experts in organizational behavior, interpersonal communication, and corporate training. They are also the co-founders of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 650,000 people worldwide. For more information, visit and

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.