Skip to main content

Marcin Balcerzak

Her boss wanted to talk to her about her absenteeism. But the employee managed to duck her male superior at least a dozen times over two months by hurrying into the women's washroom every time she saw him heading her way.

Finally, the boss called her bluff. "He followed her in with a summons to report to his office when she was through in the ladies' room," recounts Joseph Grenny, principal of Utah-based leadership consultancy VitalSmarts, who learned of the woman's tactics through a recent survey his firm conducted.

That woman is just one of many employees for whom conversation with the boss strikes fear - and those workers will go to great lengths to avoid them, the survey found.

And there has been more hiding and shirking in this economy, as the downturn has sparked the need for many tough conversations, says Mr. Grenny, the author of eight managing books. His works include the recently revised Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, which he co-authored with three other U.S. leadership consultants.

"Economic stresses and restructuring have created more conflict, competition and fear. This means employees have more worries and frustrations that can spill over into performance and behavioural issues," Mr. Grenny says.

Many employees who dread a discussion with their boss over poor performance or bad behaviour are able to avoid the day of reckoning for a remarkably long time, a new survey finds.

It's remarkable that they're getting away with evading feedback for so long at a time when employees should be performing at top efficiency, he says. But he also points his finger at managers who are also dodging difficult discussions with employees because they feel uncomfortable or uncertain about how to resolve discipline and performance issues, he says.

All of the 990 U.S. office workers polled in the VitalSmart's survey said they had dreaded some conversation at work. For the largest proportion - 37 per cent - that conversation was with their boss.

Nearly 20 per cent said they were able to postpone the scary conversation for a week, while a third - 34 per cent - evaded for up to a month. Another 22 per cent said they were able to put off a frightening encounter with a manager for six months, and 24 per cent managed to dodge the conversation bullet for a year or more.

How did they duck? Thirty-nine per cent followed that woman's tactics, simply avoiding the person. Twenty-six per cent danced around the dreaded topic whenever they spoke. Other ploys included calling in sick when the talk was scheduled or transferring to another office. Five per cent actually quit rather than face their moment of reckoning, the survey found.

Violated expectations and competence concerns were the most popular topics being avoided, according to 38 per cent of respondents. Another 12 per cent said they were ducking performance reviews and 8 per cent said they faced encounters for unethical behaviour, such as stealing office supplies. Other issues cited included potential layoffs, changes in work rules, absence from work and obnoxious behaviour.

Mr. Grenny says discussions he has been having with employers suggest that the reason so many employees are getting away with avoidance tactics is because their bosses are also ducking frightening confrontations.

"Faced with a growing load of potentially uncomfortable discussions to have, I hear leaders admit they have been putting off discussions they should have had about issues such as failing projects, missed timelines, and team failures," he says.

"They invariably say they have not had a talk with an employee because they did not feel comfortable and are not confident that they could resolve the problems," Mr. Grenny says.

"But adopting a code of silence sets a tone for the entire organization and gives implicit permission for everybody to say it's all right to ignore tough issues, because everyone else does," he warns.

So what's the best strategy for facing up rather than running?

It doesn't require great courage as much as it does confidence that a discussion will result in a resolution of an issue, Mr. Grenny says.

That requires creating a comfort level for employees so that they are less likely to fear tough discussions and will co-operate to help resolve the issues that are causing concerns.

Mr. Grenny advises creating a "psychological safety net" for the employee. "At the start of the conversation, indicate that you have a mutual purpose and that their viewpoint and input will be part of the discussion," he recommends.

"Irrespective of whether someone has been behaving badly, there must be a sense of civility and respect," Mr. Grenny adds.

In the discussion, state your observations not as facts but impressions you are getting from what you see or that others have reported to you, and then ask the employee for his or her side of the story. Restate what they say, to indicate that you have heard them and that it is safe for them to share what they are thinking, he advises.

If there are points on which you agree, say so, to indicate you are making progress in working together on a solution, he recommends. Then ask the other person to help you explore actions they could take to resolve the remaining points of disagreement.

"Skilled leaders gain confidence when they are humble enough to realize that they don't have a monopoly on the truth," he says.

"This means they're willing to both express their opinions, but also encourage others to do the same, which makes the employees willing to co-operate and be open to working with you finding a mutual solution."

When those conditions are met, "even the toughest conversation will lose its scariness and employees will be less likely to duck and more likely to welcome discussions in the future."

Sorry, can't talk now ...

Employees dodging difficult discussions? Here are tips for managers from leadership coach Joseph Grenny on how to ease the way to tough conversations:

Talk face-to-face

  • Don't chicken out by reverting to e-mail or phone, which can seem cold and uncaring.

Keep it private

  • Confidentiality is key to creating the comfort to honestly discuss underlying issues and concerns.

Assume the best of others

  • Act more like a curious friend than an angry superior.

Give equal treatment

  • Everyone should be treated as a reasonable, rational person who deserves respect.

Use tentative language

  • Describe the problem by saying, "I'm not sure you're intending this ..." or "I'm not sure if you're aware of this ...."

Share facts, not conclusions

  • Not only are assumptions often wrong, but they also create defensiveness.

Ask for their side

  • Get the person engaged by expressing interest in his or her viewpoint.


  • The employee may see the problem quite differently. Being given a chance to get in his or her side of the story will make employees more open to having a dialogue.

Show empathy

  • Increase a feeling of safety by respectfully acknowledging the emotions people appear to be feeling.


  • Restate what people say about their situation, not only to show you understand but indicate that it's safe for them to share more.


  • If you are on the same wavelength on some points, acknowledge the fact, most simply by saying, "I agree" to build a sense of common purpose.


  • Where you differ significantly, don't suggest the other person is wrong. Compare your two views.

Create a mutual purpose

  • Ask the employee to suggest actions you could both take to resolve the conflict. Use a version of the statement: "I'd really love for us to work together to come up with a solution that satisfies us both."

Wallace Immen