Let s imagine for a minute that people can learn how to respond in healthier, more effective ways. This means, of course, that they have to embrace the skills routinely displayed by Melissa and the hundreds of other opinion leaders we studied. They have to know how to master their own emotions, describe problems in ways that don t cause defensiveness, make tasks both motivating and easy, and handle anything that s thrown at them.
Here s the big question: Is the effort worth it? Will people who learn how to master crucial confrontations merely feel like they ve just graduated from charm school ? Or will the world change in significant and lasting ways? How big are the stakes here?
To answer this question, let s return to the plywood mill. Remember Leo? We taught him (and his peers) how to talk to direct reports who didn t live up to a commitment. Profitability, productivity, and morale all improved. Is it possible that these advances were due to something as vague as an improvement in supervisory skills? Absolutely. This particular project included five plants where supervisors were taught how to hold crucial confrontations and five plants that received no training (no other changes were made in the operation of any of the plants). Only the plants where the supervisors were trained improved.
Let s expand the promise we just made: People can learn crucial confrontation skills, and when they do, organizations benefit. And now for the expansion: Not only do organizations benefit, they benefit a great deal more than most people can imagine.
The following are taken from VitalSmarts case studies:
After teaching Crucial Confrontations skills to employees of a large telecom company, we found that an increase of 18 percent in the use of the skills corresponded with over 40 percent improvement in productivity.
When an IT group improved Crucial Confrontations practices by 22 percent, quality improved over 30 percent, productivity climbed almost 40 percent, costs plum-meted almost 50 percent, all while employee satisfaction swelled 20 percent.
A project with a large defense contractor revealed that for each 1 percent increase in the use of their Crucial Confrontations skills, there was a $1,500,000 gain in productivity. Nine months after beginning the training, employees improved 13 percent.You do the math.
After taking a pre-measure of employee skills in a large company, we taught the employees how to hold crucial confrontations. Within four months, people showed a 10 percent improvement in their habits of confronting tough issues. To no one s surprise, customer and employee satisfaction, productivity, and quality showed similar improvements.
How could organizations that had instituted tortuous change efforts just to eke out a meager half-percent improvement suddenly enjoy leaps in quality and productivity of 25 to 50 percent? First, there had to be a great deal of room for improvement. Second, leaders had to find a way to tap into it and make the improvements.
To get a feeling for how much there is to be gained , let s return to Leo. We realize that many of you are thinking that you work in a company that is a lot healthier than a place where leaders actually pummel employees. Please hang in there with us for a moment and you ll see how this example relates to almost everyone.
After learning that Leo had beat up a machine operator, we were dying to hear what the employees had to say, and so we talked to the machine operator along with dozens of his coworkers. The employees were surprisingly accepting of the fact that excessive force was part of their daily routine. Supervisors were constantly screeching, hurling insults, and making threats, and occasionally they even got into fights. Yet nobody was up in arms.
Perhaps the reason employees were so calm was that they had found ways to get even. When supervisors offended them, they struck back by surreptitiously grinding perfectly good veneer into scrap. This put the supervisors jobs at risk by killing the numbers . The supervisors were aware of the sabotage and developed the practice of climbing into the rafters to spy on the workers. Then, if they saw something they didn t like, they would descend from their hidden perches and confront the offending employee. Employees took turns watching to see if they were being spied on so that they could be on their best behavior when the word got out that they were under scrutiny. And you thought your job was tough?
Now to our point. These attacks and counterattacks were costing the mill a fortune . The cost of registering and processing complaints, pausing to bad-mouth leaders, destroying raw materials, sabotaging machinery, and engaging in dozens of other non-value-added tasks was enormous. When supervisors eventually learned how to hold people accountable, it s little wonder that they made measurable improvements. Morale had been so low and costs had been so high that even minor changes in supervisory behavior made for enormous changes in results.
Guess what: The plywood mill doesn t stand alone. One day, as we walked into a massive public works facility, we asked the manager, How many people work here? Without cracking a smile, the languid leader pulled a toothpick from his mouth and drawled, About forty percent. He was close to being right.
A national poll of U.S. workers found that 44 percent reported putting in as little effort as they could get away with without being fired . [ 6]
Our own research has shown that most organizations are losing between 20 and 80 percent of their potential performance because of leaders and employees inability to step up to and master crucial confrontations. For example, we ve asked leaders in over a dozen industries to estimate the ratio of the contribution of their highest performers to that of their lowest performers. The typical difference is eight to one. In one high-tech firm we learned that top code writers outperform the bottom performers by a factor of ten to one. And you guessed it: The lower performers often make about the same amount of money. They re typically not confronted, but are just called deadwood and left to languish while the top performers carry the load. It s little wonder that by teaching people how to improve their ability to have crucial confrontations we ve routinely achieved 20 to 40 percent improvements. These results may be just the tip of the iceberg.
How about you? By how much do your high performers out-produce your low performers? And families and civic organizations are no different. Top performers always carry more than their fair share. The bottom 20 percent of any population takes up 80 percent of the time of the people in positions of responsibility. These inequities and performance gaps can and should be reduced, but they ll be reduced only when leaders, parents, and coworkers learn how to step up to and hold people accountable.
Let s move to the public domain. Remember Sarah, the head nurse at the Pine Valley Medical Center? She s not the only health-care professional who isn t sure how to confront others.
Last year 41 million colds were erroneously treated with antibiotics because doctors were unwilling to confront patients who demanded drugs. Patients show up with a cold, don t like to be told that their illness will just have to run its course, demand antibiotics, and get them ”even though they won t help. Why? Because the doctors can t just say no to drugs. [ 7]
In one startling study researchers posing as doctors phoned nurses and asked them to medicate a patient. That request violated four hospital policies. First, the doctor was unknown to the nurse. Second, the request came over the phone. Third, it was for a medication that was not approved for use at that hospital. Fourth, the dose dangerously exceeded the allowable amount. Now for the punch line: Ninety-five percent of the nurses tried to comply (they were stopped before they could). [ 8]
What are the implications of this research? What happens if nurses aren t comfortable speaking up? According to another study, they and other health-care professionals typically don t speak up when colleagues fail to wash their hands adequately. Two million infections a year occur in U.S. hospitals , and experts believe most are caused by contact with health-care workers. [ 9]
Wouldn t it be nice if you could find a way to encourage people to wash for the required time without having to face a crucial confrontation? With this in mind, the Centers for Disease Control insisted that hospitals add more sinks. As you might suspect, the sinks went in but nothing changed. Once again, physical changes and changes in policies are generally insufficient to propel improvement. If professionals can t talk about questionable medications or incomplete procedures, problems will continue. What the CDC should have demanded was a new skill set.
And now for the final domain: the home. What happens when couples are unable to work through their differences in healthy ways? The cost is obvious. When couples know how to resolve tough problems, how to step up to a crucial confrontation and hold it well, they re likely to stay together. Couples who rely on contemptuous facial expressions, hostile stares, and thinly veiled threats don t stay together. How do we know?
Following similar studies by researchers Markman and Notarius, Professor James Murray and psychologist John Gottman videotaped 700 couples as they did their best to work through typical problems. [ 10] Trained observers then judged what they saw. Couples who were able to talk in a way that maintained respect and solved the problem were placed in one camp. Couples who relied on negative methods were placed in another. As the researchers followed the couples for the next decade , the way the couples treated each other during the videotaped conversations predicted who would stay together 94 percent of the time. Couples who had demonstrated the ability to work through differences by stating their views honestly and respectfully stayed together.
That s astounding. Who can predict 94 percent of any human behavior? What makes this finding even more mind-boggling is that researchers had to watch the couples for only 15 minutes to predict marital success. What would happen if after a brief review at-risk couples learned how to work through crucial confrontations? Imagine the pain and suffering they could avoid.
Dare we enter the domain of child rearing? Like it or not, parents and guardians are the primary role models for social skills. It s little wonder that as children move through school, boys bully and girls freeze out their peers. It s not as if children were born with the ability to work through differences. Plop them in front of the TV, where they watch 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the age of 18, [ 11] let them peek in on their parents as they argue (half of those parents are verbally slamming each other), and is anyone surprised that when they go to school, they often mistreat one another?
When students enter the job market, guess what happens? They don t excrete new hormones that enhance their social competency. And, of course, human resource managers don t filter out the low performers. New employees may walk through a metal detector to spot weapons, but they don t walk through a social skills detector that determines whether they know how to have a crucial confrontation effectively.
What s the bottom line? If you can t confront violated expectations effectively, you eventually experience massive personal, social, and organizational consequences; you never get better; and you can t run away. Health-care professionals will continue to remain silent as colleagues fail to comply with standard guidelines. Productivity will continue to run at half of what it should be. The divorce rate will continue to hover around an abysmal 50 percent.
However, if you learn how to hold people accountable in a way that solves problems without causing new ones, you can look forward to significant and lasting change. In fact, learn how to have crucial confrontations and you ll never have to walk away from another conflict again.
[ 6] Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr, Putting the Work Ethic to Work: A Public Agenda s Report on Restoring America s Competitive Vitality (New York: Public Agenda Foundation, 1983).
[ 7] Colds Uncommonly Costly, USA Today (February 25, 2003).
[ 8] Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (New York: Quill, 1998), 224.
[ 9] Mary G. Lankford et al., Influence of Role Models and Hospital Design on Hand Hygiene of Health Care Workers, Emerging Infectious Diseases 9/2 (February 2003).
[ 10] Algebra Shows Two Can Live as One, Telegraph News (August 8, 2003). Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/.
[ 11] American Psychiatric Association, Psychiatric Effects of Media Violence (available at: http://www.psych.org).