Have a Concern? The Clock is Ticking
The health of a relationship, team or organization is a function of the average time lag between identifying and discussing problems.
For example, this morning you attended the executive committee meeting with your new manager. You were there because you’d helped prepare a budget she was going to present. Then, during the meeting, she changed her mind and buried the proposal.
You are a bit concerned, firstly because your team needs the additional budget, and secondly because you’ve seen this kind of behavior before. Your last manager never fought for your team. In fact, he’d throw you and your teammates under the bus whenever he thought it might help his career. Now you wonder if your new manager will do the same.
It turns out that how you handle your concern—specifically how long you wait before you discuss your concern with your manager—provides an accurate and important measure of the health of your relationship. People who have strong, healthy relationships speak up as soon as they notice their concerns. The rest of us dither, delay, and defer.
According to a new study by VitalSmarts, organizations lose an average of $5,000 in productivity costs when a problem, process or strategy isn’t addressed within three days. We surveyed 792 professionals about the time lag between identifying and discussing problems, and we asked them about the costs these delays incur.
As we’d predicted, time lags are common. We looked at fifteen different kinds of concerns and found the average time lag between identifying and speaking up about a concern is about a month. People are less likely to put off concerns that relate to workplace safety and sexual harassment, but more likely to put off concerns that involve peers or managers or that relate to workplace politics or controversial topics. Below are some results from the survey:
- Unsafe actions or violations of a safety rule. 76% speak up within a week.
- Any form of sexual harassment or misconduct. 44% speak up within a week.
- An idea that might improve a process, increase quality, decrease costs, etc., but that encroaches on somebody else’s turf. 28% speak up within a week.
- Peer performance problems (taking shortcuts, giving poor attention to detail, doing the minimum, etc.). 27% speak up within a week.
- A manager has gone back on his/her word or broken a promise. 26% speak up within a week.
- A policy decision that is beginning to create unintended consequences. 23% speak up within a week.
Let’s go back to our example. When your manager changed her mind and buried your proposal, it probably felt as if she was going back on her word. Our data suggest that only about one in four of you would share your concerns with her in a timely way. Why wouldn’t you?
We wanted to know, so we asked our respondents. The top reasons people gave for delaying these conversations included: worries it will damage the relationship; fears of retaliation; concerns it won’t do any good; and the belief that others won’t step up to support them.
Let’s suppose you are among the three out of four who decides to delay the conversation. What do you do instead? Do you somehow put the concern out of your mind, or does it affect your behavior?
Our data show that delaying these conversations has a profound and negative impact on your actions: 44 percent avoid working on projects with the person; 43 percent stay away from the person altogether; 39 percent engage in dysfunctional workarounds, and 64 percent internalize their frustrations.
None of these actions help to resolve the concerns. Instead, they create problems that are likely to further undercut the relationship and undermine performance.
Finally, we wanted to see if we could calculate the dollar cost of avoiding or putting off these conversations. We asked our respondents to estimate the cost to their teams.
These delays are very costly. For example, when the problem is addressed within three days, the damage is limited to $5,000. However, when the conversation is delayed by five days or more, employees estimate the damage at more than $25,000.
The lesson here is “When you see something, say something.” This sounds simple, but it takes skill. Only 8 percent of those surveyed said their team members were skilled at discussing sensitive, touchy, or political topics. Invest the time to skill up. Be the one who can raise concerns in a way that is honest, frank, and yet respectful. You will build a better relationship, avoid painful workarounds, and save your organization big bucks.
About the author: David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He leads the research function at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.