Interpersonal Incompetence Costs Organizations Time and Money

4 key concepts for transforming a culture of silence into a culture of dialogue.

I used to think that the higher you rose in an organization, the more competent you became at dealing with people. Then I actually began working in organizations. I finally surrendered this naïve assumption when I began coaching a CEO who had two direct reports he hadn’t spoken to in two years. He thought they were insubordinate and incompetent. But rather than address his concerns, he organized around them. He marginalized the employees as much as he could and assigned those he trusted to check up on everything they did. He stood in front of thousands of his employees and admonished them to build a culture of accountability—all the while excusing his hypocrisy by claiming his own performance concerns were “politically complicated.”

Thirty years of experience and research has taught me that there is no relationship between organizational title and interpersonal competence. It has also taught me that the costs of silence are both calculable and catastrophic.

Consider our study in health care where we found that 90 percent of nurses don’t speak up to a physician even when they know a patient’s safety is at risk. We’ve also studied workplace safety. We found that 93 percent of people say their organization is at risk of an accident waiting to happen because people are either unwilling or unable to speak up.

In our recent study, we wanted to see if we could further quantify the cost of this silence. Our goal was to calculate a per-conversation price tag to show just how much it costs when an employee decides to stay silent—rather than voice a major concern.

We surveyed 1,025 managers and employees and asked them about a time when they had a concern at work, but failed to voice it. We then asked them to tell us the story of what happened and to detail the actual downstream impacts that occurred when they failed to speak up about this very specific issue. Below are three stories that exemplify what we found.

  • “We had an assistant who created an adversarial atmosphere. We walked on eggshells around her. People would prefer to do her work themselves rather than engage with her. Her boss wouldn’t even cross her. This went on for years…”
  • “Instead of confronting a problem in a project plan, it was whispered about. Several months of work were put into implementing the plan even though all those involved knew it contained fatal flaws. And ultimately, it failed. Just like we knew it would.”
  • “When our president and CEO suddenly passed away, we (the top-level execs) never addressed the company other than to say: ‘It’s business as usual.’ The loss of confidence due to our unwillingness to address the obvious loss of leadership ultimately led to nearly 25 percent of our staff leaving.”

Of the hundreds of stories we gathered, five categories of conversations emerged as the most common and costly topics that people go to silence around. They include:

  1. Prickly Peers: Failure to confront rude, abrasive, defensive, and disrespectful colleagues.
  2. Ticking Time Bombs: Failure to speak up when proposals and procedures are riddled with inaccuracies or faulty thinking.
  3. Lazy and Incompetent Colleagues: Failure to talk to peers and direct reports about poor work habits, incompetence, and lack of engagement.
  4. Abusive Bosses: Failure to openly discuss damage done when people in power resort to control and reliance on position to push their agenda.
  5. Management Chaos: Failure to get clarification when people feel uncertain around roles, responsibilities, specs, and timelines. Lack of safety makes voicing uncertainties feel risky.

Instead of speaking up in these situations, our subjects admitted to engaging in one or more resource-sapping behaviors including: complaining to others (78 percent), doing extra or unnecessary work (66 percent), ruminating about the problem (53 percent), or getting angry (50 percent).

Silence Wastes Time and Money

These behaviors aren’t just unhelpful, they’re costly. Instead of speaking up, the average person wasted seven days complaining, doing unnecessary work, ruminating about the problem, or getting angry. And a shocking 40 percent admitted to wasting two weeks or more.

The hit to the bottom line is even more nauseating. The average person estimated the cost of silence at $7,500, and 20 percent of our sample estimated the cost of avoiding a crucial conversation to be more than $50,000! Our subjects went on to describe ways that silence damages employee engagement, relationships, deadlines, budgets, and culture. Turns out that nothing is left unscathed by a culture of silence.

Notice that while the study attempted to calculate a cost per conversation—the fact that every one of our subjects identified at least one costly example of silence suggests something more: likely every employee in your organization is adding to the cumulative organizational cost of silence eating away at your bottom line.

Solutions

Over the last 30 years, we’ve found that most organizations are rife with silence. Luckily, we’ve also found cultures of silence can be changed—but only if leaders become teachers and models of candor. When leaders engage in dialogue, people acquire both the skills to present their concerns and the confidence to share their views. They also speak up knowing their thoughts, opinions, and views are welcomed and valued.

Here are four key concepts for transforming a culture of silence into a culture of dialogue. These strategies are the results of thousands of hours of observation of those who speak up about even very risky topics but do so in a way that doesn’t provoke defensiveness in others.

  • Reverse your thinking. Most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. This simple reversal of risk assessment makes effective communicators far more likely to step up to crucial conversations.
  • Change your emotions. The reason our crucial conversations go poorly is because we are irritated, angry, or disgusted. Others react to these emotions more than our words. So before opening your mouth, open your mind. Try to see others as reasonable, rational, and decent human beings—a practice that softens strong emotions and ensures you come across more agreeably.
  • Make others feel safe. The unskilled believe certain topics are destined to make others defensive. The skilled realize people don’t become defensive until they feel unsafe. Start a high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for them. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they feel safe, let their guard down, and begin to listen—even if the topic is unpleasant.
  • Invite dialogue. After you create an environment of safety, express your concerns, and then invite dialogue. Encourage the other person to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t just come to make their point; they come to learn.

Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development. The company recently released Crucial Conversations Online. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/crucialconversationsonline.

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