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Balancing act: Frank, open conversation improves atmosphere at work

Avoiding awkward conversations at work can cause more problems than it seems to solve.
Avoiding awkward conversations at work can cause more problems than it seems to solve.

One thing I loved about my career in journalism was the frank and open atmosphere in the newsroom.

When you're working with other reporters and editors, you practically never have to coax opinions out of them. They aren't afraid to tell you how they feel.

I got used to that over the years, and I was a bit concerned that I wouldn't find such openness among my new colleagues when I left the field. As it turned out, I didn't need to worry. My first post-journalism job was still working with writers who, once again, didn't shy away from expressing opinions.

Now I'm working with a different group of professionals, but I find that the 20-plus people on my team don't seem at all hesitant to tell me what they're thinking. They've been kind, helpful and respectful since I started my new job last month, but they've also let me know when they disagree with my ideas.

As a manager, I depend on that free-flowing conversation. I want people to feel comfortable talking to me. I believe those talks, while sometimes challenging, help me grow and are positive for the organization in the long run.

It's clear, however, that not everyone feels this way. That point was confirmed by the results of a recent study on workplace secrets by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, the authors of "Crucial Accountability."

The study, conducted by Utah-based VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty Inc. company, found that of 1,409 respondents, 56 percent said they had safeguarded secrets or grievances at work for more than a year. Usually they did so because they focused "on the immediate risks involved in speaking up while ignoring the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up," according to a press release about the study.

In the study, people were asked to imagine they had a "magical free pass" that would let them say anything to one person at work with immunity from consequences.

When imagining what would happen if they followed through, 66 percent of respondents said they thought their organization would be helped. In addition, 57 percent said they thought everyone who interacted with that person would be helped; 43 percent believed the person himself or herself would be helped; and 39 percent said a huge emotional burden would be lifted.

So what were these respondents not telling their bosses and co-workers? Some of the examples are amazing.

According to the press release, if given that free pass, 50 percent of respondents would speak truth to someone in power. One person would tell his or her manager, "You are the worst boss I've ever had. I used to fantasize you'd get into a car wreck on the way to work. My heart goes out to anyone who has to report to you."

Another was slightly less harsh: "Your passive-aggressive style has alienated your own staff and you can't see it. Bullying is a trait associated with you. Knock it off."

Thirty-one percent of respondents would use their free pass to criticize a peer's performance. One comment in the press release was, "Your fake, sugar-sweet ‘kindness’ tinged with sarcasm and bullying to everyone, as well as your lying and backbiting, has made me not trust you or believe a word you say."

Another peer comment would be, "Your complaining about no opportunity and lack of growth is all your own choice. Stop acting helpless, get off your butt and take some initiative in your own life to create growth and opportunity. You're not entitled to growth or promotions!"

Perhaps most uncomfortable were comments about the proverbial elephant in the room. For example, one respondent's statement would be, "Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily noises. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a bird bath."

Ouch. As much as I love openness, that would be tough to hear — or say.

Grenny said in the press release that he was surprised by how much pain people are willing to endure, and for how long, rather than discuss such things. But not talking about the problems doesn't mean they're really locked away.

"When it comes to frustrations, if you don’t talk it out with the person and resolve it, you’ll act it out in unhealthy ways,” Maxfield said in the press release.

To help people avoid that problem, Grenny and Maxfield offered tips to help them follow through with awkward conversations. For example, they said you should:

  • "Assume people can change." Because they do — all of the time. "Ask yourself, 'If I were in the other person's shoes, and I had a true friend who knew what I know, would I want them to tell me?' Most of us say 'Yes!' because we care and have confidence we can change. Do the person the favor of letting them try to change," the press release said.
  • "Determine what you really want." People's grievances often sound like accusations rather than aspirations. Before approaching someone, ask yourself what you want to accomplish for both yourself and the other person. Let that guide you to a constructive conversation.
  • "Approach as a friend, not a foe." Explain your positive motives up front. For example, the press release suggested saying, "I'd like to discuss a concern. My goal is to support you and to help us achieve the metrics you've set for our team. …"
  • "Stick to the facts." Concerns that have been hidden away for a long time can seem big and scary. Avoid broad conclusions, and instead focus on specific incidents, events and actions.

I think this is great advice. These awkward conversations can seem impossible to approach, but if you do so with the right attitude of respect and empathy, they can be positive for you, the other person and your organization.

However, if you can't figure out a way to make these frank talks happen, you do have another option. Just find an occupation that lets you work with writers, and you should be all set.

Email your comments to or post them online at Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.