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Avoiding high-stakes conversations costs organizations time and money.

Joseph Grenny, co-founder of the VitalSmarts consultancy, provides an example in Training Magazine of a chief executive who had two direct reports he had not talked to in two years. He considered them to be insubordinate and incompetent.

Rather than address those issues, he just worked around them. Much simpler. And much dumber.

Ironically, the CEO was preaching to staff the need for a culture of accountability while excusing his own behaviour as "politically complicated."

VitalSmarts surveyed 1,025 managers and employees about a time when they had a concern at work but failed to voice it. From hundreds of stories emerged five categories of people who go silent rather than communicate concerns:

Prickly peers: The failure to confront rude, abrasive, defensive or disrespectful colleagues.

Ticking time bombs: The failure to speak up when proposals or organizational procedures suffer from faulty thinking or inaccuracy.

Lazy, incompetent colleagues: As with that CEO, not talking to peers or direct reports about poor work habits, lack of engagement or incompetence.

Abusive bosses: Not discussing the damage created by people in power who are overly controlling or use their position to push their agenda.

Management chaos: Not getting clarification when people feel uncertain around roles, responsibilities, specifications and timelines.

You may have fallen short yourself in such situations by clamming up. The survey found that, instead of speaking up, the subjects engaged in wasteful and hurtful behaviours such as complaining to others (78 per cent admitted to this), doing extra or unnecessary work (66 per cent), ruminating about the problem (53 per cent) or getting angry (50 per cent).

"These behaviours aren't just unhelpful, they're costly. … The average person wasted seven days a year complaining, doing unnecessary work, ruminating about the problem or getting angry. A shocking 40 per cent admitted to wasting two weeks or more," Mr. Grenny said

It's not easy to change, of course, but here's the direction he says you need to take:

Reverse your thinking: Instead of worrying about the dangers of speaking up, worry about the dangers – those high costs – of not speaking up. "This simple reversal of risk assessment makes effective communicators far more likely to step up to crucial conversations," Mr. Grenny said.

Change your emotions: Often such crucial conversations spin out of control because we enter into them without control over our own emotions – we're angry or disgusted. Naturally, the person we are approaching reacts to those emotions. "So before opening your mouth, open your mind. Try to see others as reasonable, rational and decent human beings – a practice that softens strong emotions and ensures you come across more agreeably," Mr. Grenny said.

Make others feel safe: Start a high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for them. They are now more likely to begin to listen, even if the topic is a challenge to them personally.

Invite dialogue: After creating an environment of safety and expressing your concerns, invite the other person to speak and to disagree. "Those who are best at crucial conversations don't just come to make their point; they come to learn," Mr. Grenny said.

Obviously, that's challenging to try and it doesn't come with a guarantee it will work. But not speaking up is costly, so it's worth a try.

Where salespeople go wrong

There are seven prime reasons salespeople fail to close a deal, consultant Steve Martin said. None are novel. But all require attention since they could be tripping you up:

  • Not being trusted or respected: You want the potential buyer to see you as a trusted adviser, not a mere salesperson or even a supplier with whom they do business, or a strategic partner who is important to their business. His research of buyers found just 18 per cent of salespeople fit the bill.
  • Not being able to converse with senior executives: “While salespeople frequently meet with lower-level and mid-level staff at a client company, the rare conversations they have with C-level decision-makers directly determine whether they win or lose the deal. Therefore, it is critical for salespeople to understand how C-level executives think and to communicate with them in the language they use. Unfortunately, buyers report that fewer than one in three salespeople can hold an effective conversation with senior executives,” Mr. Martin warns in Harvard Business Review.
  • Inability to explain how their solution helps the buyer’s business: The buyer needs to gain information to explain the strategic value of the purchase to senior management. But only 54 per cent of salespeople can provide that rationale.
  • They are too self-centred: The buyers feel pressured by salespeople who are only concerned with fulfilling their own agenda. “Instead of focusing solely on revenue, salespeople should concentrate more on helping buyers accomplish their goals,” Mr. Martin said.
  • They use hard sale closing strategies: Forcing a yes-or-no decision is a failing tactic. Instead of saying, “This is the last time we’ll be able to extend this offer and we need an answer now,” an example of a hard close, try a soft close, which implies the buyer has choice, such as, “If you spend another $100,000, you will receive an additional 10-per-cent off the entire order.”
  • They don’t alleviate the risk of buying their solution: Buyers are skeptical and that’s why they ask for extensive documentation. But they don’t feel they are getting sufficient explanations.
  • They can’t establish a personal connection with the buyer: Among the reasons that crop up are salesperson being too pushy, different communications styles or personalities, the salesperson being too eager to befriend the potential client and age differences.

Keep those in mind as you sell.

Improving your cover letter

To improve your cover letter, make it more personal. Brian Lee, chief of product development at Lifehack, read more than 500 cover letters and found that in an Internet/LinkedIn age, it's relatively easy to find the name of the hiring manager – so you should not be writing to a generic "Dear sir or madam" as so many people do. Instead, use their name. Study their career and mention one commonality between their life and yours. Also, mention one skill or concept you think you can learn from them. "Now the cover letter is directed at one person and wholly personal. This is a great first step," he wrote.

Play up your connection to the company as well, something in your background or family history that ties you to the firm. And keep the attributes you highlight to three, a better number for the person to remember, rather than rambling on about a zillion reasons to hire you.

Quick hits

  • Short quotations pack a greater punch than long ones, ad consultant Roy H. Williams notes. Boring people take too long to say too little, he says, while interesting people know what to leave out.
  • We hear a lot about meaningful work, but it can be vague as to what that involves. Human-resources consultant Tim Sackett suggests searching for two components. Is the work something you’re good at? Is the work important to you?
  • Business coach Mike Whitaker says we all make bad decisions, but successful people correct their course more quickly.
  • There’s a huge (and important) gulf between something that “feels risky” and something that is actually risky, entrepreneur Seth Godin says. In that gap lies the potential to create something valuable. So if you generally stop when something “feels risky,” he suggests getting better informed about what actually is risky.
  • If you’re tired of turning to website where videos start playing as soon as you land and you use Firefox, try the “mute site by default” extension.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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