Bad aggressive female boss talking down to employee

Surviving a Scary Conversation at Work

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Confrontation is controversial. Ask around and you’ll find most people will do whatever they can to avoid it. But we wondered, what does the pervasive fear of stepping up to a crucial conversation actually look like and when people choose to remain silent, what is the effect on the organization?

In our latest study, we asked more than 550 employees to describe a scary conversation they know they should hold but are dreading. What we found is that more than 80 percent of workers are cowering from at least one scary conversation at work. And they cower for far too long. Specifically, we found that one in four people have put off their scary conversation for six months, one in 10 for an entire year, and another one in 10 for more than two years.

But why do people choose to bite their tongue instead of talking it out? According to the data, people lack the confidence and skill to speak up. In fact, only one in 10 say they are very to extremely confident they’ll be successful in holding a scary conversation. They’re also afraid the consequences of speaking up would outweigh the downsides of remaining silent as well as fielding repercussions from managers or team members. Perhaps the most alarming reason is that many feel their culture does not support or reward people who speak up.

And when people don’t speak up, they waste a lot of time and energy skirting tough issues—time and energy that could be redirected to high-value activities. Instead of speaking up, they resort to all sorts of counterproductive and even destructive behaviors—some even go so far as to quit their job altogether. Other common tactics include avoiding the other person at all costs or dancing around the scary topic whenever they speak to the person in question.


But what could be so scary that people would rather give up the safety and security of their job than open their mouth? As it turns out, the most common topic people fear broaching is addressing another person’s workplace performance, followed by broken promises, and obnoxious behaviors.

These scary conversations are crucial conversations where opinions differ, emotions run strong, and stakes run high. And in these tough moments, most people run the other way because experience tells them the other person will be angry or defensive. Yet, our research shows the select few who know how to speak up candidly and respectfully—no matter the scary topic—can solve problems while also preserving relationships. As a result, they are considered among the top performers in their organization.

Below are six tips for approaching and conquering scary conversations about poor performance and bad behavior.

  • Talk face-to-face and in private. Don’t chicken out by reverting to email or phone.
  • Assume the best of others. Perhaps he or she is unaware of what they’re doing. Enter the conversation as a curious friend rather than an angry co-worker.
  • Use tentative language. Begin to describe the problem by saying, “I’m not sure you’re intending this . . .” or “I’m not even sure you’re aware . . .”
  • Share facts, not conclusions. Not only are conclusions possibly wrong, but they also create defensiveness. Say, “In the last two meetings you laughed at my suggestion. I expect people to disagree, but laughing?”
  • Ask for their view. Next, ask if they see the problem differently. You’re now poised to have a healthy conversation about bad behavior.

Use equal treatment. These skills apply to bosses and co-workers alike. Everyone should be treated like a reasonable, rational person who deserves your respect.

About the Author

Brittney Maxfield is the director of content marketing at VitalSmarts.

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