Media Contact: Jordan Christiansen

Press Release

COVID Outliers: Speaking Up Was Key to Corporate Survival and Success in 2020

Provo, UT – February 11, 2021 – Every company experienced 2020, but not every company experienced it the same. Some organizations turned COVID challenges into opportunities, while others struggled to maintain the status quo. And yet, new research from VitalSmarts, a leader in corporate learning and development, found that organizations that not only survived but thrived in 2020 outperformed their failing counterparts in one critical competency.

The online study of 1,190 employees, managers, and leaders conducted in late December 2020 found that when it came to not only weathering, but succeeding in a pandemic, how well you hold crucial conversations is more important than how well you innovate, the resources at your disposal, grit of your team, 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 COVID (46 percent), attributed their success to discussing what needed to be discussed and taking action following conversations. And while 61 percent listed agility as paramount, they also said being truly agile in the face of necessary change was also dependent on their ability to communicate. This was true both for companies that experienced increased demand for their product or service and for companies that saw a decrease or shift in demand due the pandemic. In other words, circumstances were not the differentiating factor of success; dialogue was.

Specifically, successful companies attributed their ability to be agile and make quick pivots to:

  • Confronting the need to change.
  • Feeling safe to talk about things that needed to change.
  • Letting go of interpersonal or organizational sensitivities in order to consider necessary bold changes.

And while holding crucial conversations enabled many to succeed in a pandemic, 1 in 4 organizations that struggled during COVID blame their struggle on their lack of speaking up. According to 1 in 4 leaders and employees in these struggling companies, interpersonal or organizational sensitivities kept them from considering the bold changes that might have helped, and 1 in 5 say it was unsafe to talk about the things they really needed to change.

Researchers say their goal behind the study was to reflect on the crucial moments and behaviors that had a disproportionate impact on results in a challenging year.

“The results of this study parallel what we learned 30 years ago when we set out to study top performers,” said Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts and co-author of the bestseller Crucial Conversations. “Under normal circumstances top performers don’t behave drastically different than their peers. However, when the stakes are high, top performers are masters at stepping up to and engaging in candid dialogue. While dialogue is always foundational to success, this study confirms that in the face of unprecedented crisis, it is absolutely crucial.”


While dialogue was critical, some conversations mattered more than others. According to employees and leaders in companies that were successful in 2020, the three most crucial conversations their leaders held during the pandemic centered on health, process, and culture. Specifically:

  • Health: Are we sufficiently supporting our employees during a time of potential mental health crisis? Are we taking sufficient steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among our employees?
  • Process: Are our production and business processes adapted to new realities?
  • Culture: Is our culture resilient and adaptable to COVID-related challenges? Or are we stuck in old ways of working/acting?

Surprisingly, conversations about profitability were ranked least important among successful companies. Overall, companies that prioritized their people over profit were more successful in 2020.

Referring to the adage, researchers say a crisis like 2020 should never be wasted.

“We can learn so much from companies that thrived in 2020,” says Emily Gregory, Vice President of Product Development at VitalSmarts. “Ultimately, leaders who foster a culture where employees can boldly speak up to identify concerns and highlight necessary change will outpace competitors and outlast a volatile economy. These skills are embedded into the DNA of top performers.”

Grenny and Gregory share a few skills for holding crucial conversations under mounting pressure and high stakes crises.

  • Speak up early. When we anticipate stress or pressure, most of us decide whether or not 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 serve us poorly. 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 own feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.


About VitalSmarts: Named a Top 20 Leadership Training Company, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Accountability®, Getting Things Done®, The Power of Habit™, and Influencer Training®, and New York Times best-selling books of the same titles. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 2 million people worldwide.

CONTACT: Brittney Maxfield at +1-801.755.2809, or