Employees Aren’t Speaking Up at Work, but They Should

Author: Angela Campiere       

employee silence

When employees stay silent for too long about a problem at work can cost their companies as much as $25,000, says VitalSmarts’ vice president of research David Maxfield. (Courtesy VItalSmarts)

How many people feel “extremely confident” voicing their concerns in the workplace in crucial instances? A mere 1 percent, according to research from training company VitalSmarts. And — VitalSmarts found separately last year — employees who stay silent for too long about a problem can cost their companies as much as $25,000.

“The health of a business relationship, team, or organization is a function of the average time lag between identifying and discussing problems,” David Maxfield, who co-led the 2018 study and is VitalSmarts’ vice president of research, said in a statement. “This lag time between identifying and discussing problems is known as the ‘accountability gap.’ In companies where the accountability gap is short, employees are quicker to speak up and hold each other accountable.”

In such companies, teams also are more likely to innovate, execute on plans, engage employees, and retain talent, VitalSmarts found.

employee silence

Joseph Grenny, VitalSmart’s cochairman and cofounder, and David Maxfield co-wrote Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. (Courtesy VitalSmart)

When three days or fewer pass between the identification of a problem and a discussion about it, about $5,000 is wasted, the survey found. When the accountability gap hits five days or more, VitalSmarts estimated the price tag can top $25,000.

Why don’t people speak up at work? Researchers link it to a lack of — or perceived lack of — social support. That was borne out in earlier research done by Maxfield and Joseph Grenny, VitalSmart’s cochairman and cofounder. Maxfield and Grenny, who co-wrote The New York Times-bestseller Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, found that a third of their study’s respondents said company culture did not support or promote engaging in such crucial conversations.

“Most of the time, the reason [people] fail to speak up is they feel the stakes are so high and other people are so opposed to what they might say that it doesn’t feel safe to speak up,” Maxfield told Recruiter.com.

Such “conversation failures,” according to the researchers, include not:

  1. Confronting rude, abrasive, defensive, and disrespectful colleagues.
  2. Speaking up when proposals and procedures have inaccuracies or indicate faulty thinking.
  3. Talking to peers and direct reports about poor work habits, incompetence, or lack of engagement.
  4. Discussing damage done when people in power resort to control and reliance on position to push their agenda.
  5. Getting clarification when there is uncertainty around roles, responsibilities, and timelines.

What are employees doing instead of addressing the issues or having important conversations? According to the researchers, they’re complaining to others or doing unnecessary work that could have been avoided if clarified earlier.

“This study confirms what we’ve seen over the past thirty years: One of the costliest barriers to organizational performance is unresolved crucial conversations,” Grenny said in a statement.

“Companies, Maxfield added,” need to do two basic things: listen more and speak up faster.”


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