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The High Cost of Conversation Failure

Don’t talk about People. Talk to Them.

It’s a common response to work stress and frustration to go find a trusted friend or colleague and complain about a problem.  Or rather, to talk about the person who is the perceived source of the issue. After all, it serves us because we feel better afterwards, but does it resolve the problem?

If you ask most people if they would rather someone come to them directly with a concern over discussing with others, most of us would prefer a direct conversation and yet studies suggest employees would prefer to avoid the conversation altogether.

It’s called triangulation and it’s a culture killer. Strong corporate cultures are built on values and trust. The ability to have a direct conversation with sensitivity not only serves to uphold strong culture, but it can have an impact on the bottom line.

Arianna Huffington wrote a terrific article on compassionate directness that references a study outlining the cost to companies when employees avoid speaking up and holding their peers accountable. As the study relates, one of the top five conversation failures happens when an employee doesn’t talk to a colleague about their poor performance, lack of engagement or resistance to feedback.

Those in the study said rather than speaking up, they complain to others and deliberate about a problem, wasting at least seven days a year because they have avoided the conversation. On average, not having the conversation costs the company money ($7,500 per conversation according to a Vitalsmarts study) and wastes time serving to work against building strong engagement, morale and company culture.

Three Strategies to Kick the Triangulation Habit

Learn and Practice.  People avoid hard conversations because they don’t know how to have them. Have open conversations about the corporate value of creating strong trust and engagement through direct conversations. Help your employees understand speaking up in groups and to people directly supports that culture and then equip people with the tools. We all learn with practice, so create a safe space in a development setting to practice giving and receiving feedback. This Forbes article outlines a framework for giving feedback. I would add to this framework to have a specific request prepared at the end of the conversation and set a time to follow up. Remember, honesty without compassion is cruelty. Make that a part of your practice as well.

Model the Behavior. As a leader or manager in the company, consistently give feedback. This includes positive feedback. Do not participate in the practice of triangulation. Your employees notice and this has implications on building trust and relationships. If you are known to talk about people, your staff will believe you will talk about them as well.

The 24-hour rule. If a direct report or peer comes to you with a complaint about another employee, ask this person if they have had a direct conversation with that employee about their concerns. If they have not, recommend that they have that conversation in the next 24 hours with that person before coming back to you. This sends the message that direct conversations are critical and that you won’t entertain the conversation without this having taken place. This excludes any issues that are best reported to HR for further handling such as harassment or violations of company ethics policy.

There are many contributors to strong organizational health and wellness. Creating a culture where direct and compassionate communication are valued, taught, modeled and encouraged ultimately pays off with an engaged and trusting workforce.

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