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Office Haunting: 8 out of 10 employees are running in fear from a scary conversation at work

October 3, 2019 – Provo, UT – Across the U.S., employees are haunted by something scary and destructive—and it’s not ghosts and goblins. A new poll from VitalSmarts, a top 20 leadership training company, shows more than 80% of workers are cowering from at least one scary conversation at work—a conversation they know they need to hold, but are dreading.

The poll of 529 respondents, conducted by Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations, and Justin Hale, master trainer at VitalSmarts, shows that 1 in 4 people have put off their scary conversation for 6 months, 1 in 10 for an entire year, and another 1 in 10 admit to avoiding the conversation for more than 2 years.

The respondents said they bite their tongue because they lack the confidence to speak up, with 1 in 5 admitting they’re not at all confident that they’ll be successful in holding the needed conversation. On the contrary, only 1 in 10 say they are very to extremely confident they’ll be successful in holding a scary conversation.

What’s more, people will resort to all sorts of counterproductive, and even destructive, behaviors to avoid the conversation—going so far as to quit their job altogether. Instead of speaking up, people:

  • Avoid the other person at all costs (50%)
  • Dance around the scary topic whenever they speak to the person in question (37%)
  • Consider quitting their job or taking a different job (37%)
  • Quit their job (11%)

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.

In addition to a lack of confidence in addressing these issues, the other top reasons employees choose to stay silent include:

  • Fear that the consequences of speaking up would outweigh the downsides of remaining silent
  • Fear the repercussions from managers or team members
  • Say the culture does not support or reward people who speak up
  • Lack the skill or ability to speak up effectively

“Scary conversations are crucial conversations,” says Grenny.“In these moments, most people run the other way because experience tells them the other person will be angry or defensive. And 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.”

Grenny and Hale offer 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 emailor 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 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 bestselling 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: Josh Bird at +1-801.461.9783,or