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ATD Blog

Looking Back and Moving Forward


Thu Mar 18 2021

Looking Back and Moving Forward

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What we learned from surprisingly successful organizations in 2020 and six crucial conversations companies need to have to succeed in 2021.

Every company experienced 2020, but not every company experienced it in the same way. Some organizations turned COVID-19 challenges into opportunities, while others struggled to maintain the status quo. Yet our latest research shows organizations that survived and thrived in 2020 outperformed their failing counterparts in one critical competency.


Our December 2020 study of 1,190 employees, managers, and leaders found that when it came not only to weathering but succeeding in a pandemic, how well crucial conversations were held was more important than innovation, available resources, a team’s grit, good ideas, and even talent. Speaking up was listed second only to agility or acting quickly and decisively.

Results show half of companies that were successful during the pandemic attributed their success to discussing what needed to be discussed and taking action following conversations. While 61 percent listed agility as paramount, they also said being truly agile in the face of necessary change depended on their abilities to communicate. Agility was possible when employees confronted the need to change, felt safe to talk about things that needed to change, and let go of interpersonal or organizational sensitivities to consider necessary bold changes.

Regardless of their 2020 performances, companies are looking ahead optimistically to 2021 and beyond. Their optimism is fueled by focusing on six conversations and habits they identified as crucial to success:

  • Clarifying new expectations

  • Speaking up about concerns or new ideas

  • Proactively building virtual relationships

  • Successfully managing workload and requests

  • Maintaining work-life balance

  • Quickly confronting problems with virtual colleagues

These conversations are mission critical. Nearly every respondent agreed that failure to hold these six conversations would be at least a little damaging to their organization. Meanwhile, 38 percent say it would be quite to very damaging to their 2021 results.

While research tells us speaking up is necessary for survival and success, it isn’t always easy. Too often, we give in to stress, pressure, and fear. When our voice is needed most, we bite our tongue and tell ourselves speaking up will only complicate the issue, rock the boat, and derail the plan. So, we stay silent and hope for the best while bracing for the worst.


Instead of letting silence sabotage results, use these four dialogue skills to speak up and move forward in the aftermath of 2020. These skills come from our award-winning Crucial Conversations course, available in live online and on-demand experiences.

Speak up early. When we anticipate stress or pressure, most of us decide whether or not we’re going to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at dialogue don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate and often worsen the situation—and their reaction to the situation—as they begin to work around the problem.

Challenge your story. When we feel threatened or stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling villain, victim, and helpless stories. Villain stories exaggerate others’ negative attributes. Victim stories make us out to be innocent sufferers who have no role in the problem. And helpless stories rationalize our over- or under-reactions because “there was nothing else I could have done!” Instead, take control of your emotions by challenging your story.

Create safety. When communicating while under pressure, your emotions likely hijack your positive intent. As a result, others get defensive to or retreat from your tirade. As it turns out, people don’t get defensive because of the content of your message but because of the intent they perceive behind it. So, when stressed, first share your positive intent. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to work with you.

Start with facts. When the stakes are high, our brains often poorly serve us. To maximize cognitive efficiency, we tend to store feelings and conclusions but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Think through the basic information that helped you think or feel as you do and use that information to realign your feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.


The results of this study parallel what we learned three decades ago. When work is routine, top performers don’t behave drastically different than their peers. However, when the stakes are high and emotions run strong, top performers are masters at stepping up and engaging in candid dialogue. They know how to surface the best ideas and get everyone’s meaning into the pool. Most importantly, they drive action and alignment on important decisions that lead to results.

While dialogue is always foundational to success, this study confirms that in the face of unprecedented crisis, it is crucial. Watch a recent webinar on this topic here.

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