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 www.vitalsmarts.com/research) 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 www.CrucialConversations.com/exclusive.
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 www.vitalsmarts.com and http://www.crucialconverations.com.