Why confrontation at work is critical

October 26, 2011: 2:25 PM ET

Keeping silent on the job can come at a considerable cost to any employee or manager. What to keep in mind when confronting your boss or coworkers with problems.

By Megan Hustad, contributor

FORTUNE -- It's hard, given how swollen the unemployment ranks are these days, to conjure up much sympathy for those who are unhappily employed with health benefits. But even the gainfully employed have their job troubles.

The "quits rate," or the number of voluntary leave-taking from paid positions, has been low since the economic downturn began in December 2007 and still hovers around 1.5% -- a number that most economists consider unhealthily low.

When an economy is humming along, unsatisfied employees can quit cruddy jobs with relative gusto. They either have a more promising job lined up, or are confident they'll be able to find one within a few relatively painless weeks of pavement pounding. But when jobs are scarce, people keep showing up for jobs they don't like, perhaps never liked.

The low "quits rate" problem suggests other side effects. Young people are often wary of approaching colleagues and bosses to discuss on-the-job dilemmas out of fear that the slightest whiff of incompetence will get them canned. (The unemployment rate for people in their 20s is nearly double that of the general population.)

Others stay silent in the face of work situations that border on hostile because, again, who's to say that managers -- staring at a vast pool of available 20-something labor -- wouldn't rather fire the squeaky wheel and replace her with someone more accommodating of inter-office nonsense?

I talked to an account manager at a prominent photo agency who once sat and listened to the head of HR inform her that while taking care of herself was "her decision," the company would prefer she not have to visit the doctor so often (to control a chronic medical condition), even though she made up the lost hours every time. Her three supervisors did not communicate with one another, and would not hear of other demands placed on her unless she said something -- at which point she worried whether she sounded like a whiner. A promotion was dangled and delayed for months. Meanwhile, she learned to suck her mounting anxieties up and keep quiet.

But keeping silent on the job comes with considerable costs, says Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Grenny argues that the seemingly "safe" strategy of never confronting an unsatisfactory job situation is actually not safe. According to Grenny, downturn-induced reticence means that more young people are not gaining the skills of conducting challenging, emotionally charged conversations -- a skill he believes ultimately fosters the only kind of job security available these days; namely, the security that comes from being regarded as an invaluable asset.

"Our research for 30 years now is consistently clear that stepping up to crucial conversations does not decrease your job security," Grenny says. "In fact, it increases it. So this anxiety we have about being branded a troublemaker or muckraker ... it just doesn't play out that way."

The real problem, as he sees it, comes from flawed thinking about the nature of confrontation, or "a belief that you have to choose between candor and respect. In short, that candor means being disrespectful. Or you think that if you tell people what you really think about how things are run, they're invariably going to be offended."

He argues, however, that people who excel at confrontation have mastered the art of being honest and respectful at the same time.

Doing that successfully is less a matter of felicitous phrasing but rather one of intelligently framing an issue. Say your employer implemented a policy you think is stupid, unfair, and will hurt rather than help you do your job. Ask yourself, "How do I get the entire truth across in a way that the other person knows that I'm looking out for their interests, and that I respect them as a person?"

With that framework in mind, what seems like a binary choice -- candor or respect? -- is revealed to be a situation that's supple, more nuanced, even interesting.

Grenny is adamant that this advice is not akin to "give two compliments for every piece of criticism" type of advice. Making positive statements that don't reflect reality will neither help your case nor increase your chances of fixing a bad situation. "People who are really gifted at crucial conversations," he says, "don't undermine trust … by making disingenuous statements ever. They don't sugarcoat, and they don't give false praise and flattery."

So what should a frustrated employee do? Here are some tips:

Don't lead with the disappointment. Demonstrate that you have the emotional maturity to realize that a policy -- wise or not -- was implemented to solve or anticipate a real problem, took some effort to devise, and wasn't pulled out of thin air just to torment you.

Choose your issues wisely. If you confront every single issue, your colleagues will start to associate you with discomfort. As Grenny advises, "Don't say, 'I'm going to be this self-righteous example of someone that's going to be so contrary to the whole culture around here." Instead focus on one or two conversations that could substantially help improve your situation.

Be prepared. If you shrink from the full message, or if your unrehearsed, off-the-cuff remarks sound disrespectful, then you'll undermine your case.

Are there times when you really should just shut it? Grenny suggests that situations in which the conversation could completely backfire are more rare than many think. "More often than not, when people react defensively when we broach a crucial conversation with them, the problem was not their lack of character, it was our lack of skill."

The good news? If successful, stepping up to a confrontation could prove inspiring -- and create real change. "When somebody enters an organization and demonstrates that it's possible to talk about things in a more effective way, it has an influence," Grenny says. "It may take time, it may be incremental, but people don't like wallowing in misery."

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