Study: 56% of Employees Have at Least One Grievance They’ve Kept Locked Up for 1 Year

Provo, Utah June 17, 2015 – A new study shows employees can be just as dysfunctional as Elaine Benes and the characters on Seinfeld. In the hit 90’s sitcom, 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.

The “vault” study of 1,409 respondents by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Accountability, revealed that many of us safeguard toxic secrets or grievances in the workplace for long periods of time. In fact, 56% of us keep them for more than a year—because we focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up while ignoring the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up. And keeping these secrets “in the vault” creates problems that are decidedly non-comedic and can be costly to an organization. (Watch Joseph’s and David’s BS Guys video here.)

In the study conducted by VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, people were asked to imagine they were given a “magical free pass” that would allow them to say anything they wanted to one person at work—with immunity from any consequences. In imagining what would happen if they WOULD follow through and hold that conversation:

  • 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

What’s in the Vault?

“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,” said Grenny.

For example, one school principal longed to tell her aging school media specialist:

“You need to retire. You’re overpaid, unhealthy, and out of touchyou 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.”
  • Talk about the elephant in the room (2%): “Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily noises. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a birdbath.”

The Vault is Costly

“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,” Grenny said. “What we’ve learned is that people focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up, but completely ignore the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up.”

Another problem, the study found, is that 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,” said Maxfield. For example, he says to consider all the people who hate their managers. The study shows more than half have either shared their resentments with others or have hinted about it to their boss.

How to Open the Vault

Grenny and Maxfield have spent thirty years studying those who speak up and those who don’t. They offer 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!” They 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 misperception 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.”

Note to Editor: Grenny and Maxfield are available for interviews. Copies of their book Crucial Accountability, full survey results, an executive summary and hi-res infographics are also available. Watch their Behavioral Science Guys video here.

About VitalSmarts

Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide.

About TwentyEighty, Inc.

TwentyEighty is a global provider of workforce performance solutions designed to help companies in the areas of leadership performance, sales performance, credit performance and strategic execution.


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