Everyone has an awkward conversation they are avoiding. Perhaps you have a co-worker who smells bad, a boss who’s impossible, or a regular, well-paying customer with outrageous demands. Sometimes the situation is temporary, or we don’t deal with it very often, so we don’t address it. Sometimes we bottle up our feelings in situations we deal with regularly—and do so for extended periods of time. Instead of finding a way to deal with an awkward situation in a healthy way, we endure years of pain and torment.
In the hit 90’s sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine, along with Jerry, George, and Kramer, lock away their darkest secrets in the vault (“I’m putting it in the vault! I’m locking the vault!”), a place where their confidences—too awkward or damaging to tell—were supposed to go to die. Sometimes we do the exact same thing.
So, why do we do this? Because we focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up, but completely ignore the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up.
We recently conducted a study of 1,409 participants asking about their “vault” (this study is the latest subject of our new BS Guys video). Fifty-six percent of respondents stated they have been safeguarding toxic secrets or workplace grievances for more than a year! Keeping these secrets “in the vault” creates problems that are decidedly non-comedic and can be costly to an organization.
We asked people to imagine that we just handed them a “magical free pass” that would allow them to say anything they wanted to one person at work—with immunity from any consequences. Then we asked them what they thought would happen if they could actually follow through and hold that conversation. These were the surprising results:
• 66% believed their organization would be helped
• 57% believed everyone who interacts with this person would be helped
• 43% believed the person themself would be helped
• 39% believed a huge emotional burden would be lifted
We were amazed at the things employees have bottled-up for years, and were dying to tell a colleague, and yet were too scared or worried to discuss. For example, one school principal longed to tell her aging school media specialist:
“You need to retire. You’re overpaid, unhealthy, and out of touch—you can’t move well enough to even answer your phone. Oh, and you have a serious problem with hoarding.”
In spite of the enduring and substantial cost to the school, the principal, the students—and likely even to this employee—the principal’s concerns have stayed locked in “the vault” for more than a year.
People’s suppressed concerns ran the gamut, from terrifying to disgusting to heartbreaking. Common examples included:
• Speaking truth to those in power (50%): “You are the worst boss I’ve ever had. I used to fantasize you’d get into a car wreck on the way to work. My heart goes out to anyone who has to report to you.”
• Criticizing a peer’s performance (31%): “Your fake, sugar-sweet ‘kindness’ tinged with sarcasm and bullying to everyone, as well as your lying and backbiting, has made me not trust you or believe a word you say.”
• Talking about the elephant in the room (2%): “Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily functions. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a birdbath.”
The most surprising finding of this study is how much pain we are willing to endure and for how long—for years and years in many cases—rather than open the vault. We are so intimidated by the initial conflict that could arise, we risk losing the incredible payoff of resolving the awkward issue.
This study uncovered another problem—these secrets are not truly locked away. When it comes to frustrations, if you don’t talk it out with the person and resolve it, you’ll act it out in unhealthy ways. Consider all the people who hate their managers. More than half of the respondents stated that they had either shared their resentments with others or have hinted about it to their boss.
So how do we open up the vault? Here are some tips to help you have “serenity now and avoid insanity later” as you follow through with that awkward conversation you’re avoiding:
Assume people can change. More than half of respondents haven’t spoken up because they don’t believe the person could or would change. But people do change all the time. Ask yourself, “If I were in the other person’s shoes, and I had a true friend who knew what I know, would I want them to tell me?” Most of us say “Yes!” because we care and have confidence we can change. Do the person the favor of letting them try to change.
Determine what you really want. Many of people’s grievances sound like, “You are a jerk!” These are accusations, rather than aspirations. Before speaking up, ask yourself what you want to accomplish—not just for yourself, but for the other person and for your working relationship. Use this long-term, inclusive goal to make the conversation constructive rather than destructive.
Approach as a friend, not a foe. We live in a low-accountability culture, where speaking up is often seen as an attack. Avoid this misconception by explaining your positive motives up front. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern. My goal is to support you and to help us achieve the metrics you’ve set for our team . . . ”
Stick to the facts. Concerns that have been in the vault for months or years grow big and hairy. Specific incidents and facts are hidden beneath layers of conclusions. Avoid broad conclusions such as, “you don’t care” or “you’re incompetent.” Instead, focus on specific incidents, events, and actions such as, “The last three staffing decisions were made without input from the managers in the affected areas.”
I hope these tips help you have the courage to step up to the awkward conversation locked away in your vault.