Mark Murphy’s latest book, “Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages,” dives into everybody’s favorite topic (not) — confrontation in the workplace. According to Murphy, nine out of 10 employees and managers are reluctant to speak the truth. This ambiguity is responsible for productivity delays and non-action on good ideas. But by opening up conversations, avoiding personal feelings and focusing on facts, Murphy said it’s not as hard to get everyone at work to receive and accept hard truths.
Chief Learning Officer: When was this research conducted?
Murphy: We’ve been tracking it for the past five years now, and it’s still ongoing. The research we captured before cutting it off to do the book ended about mid-December 2016, but it’s still in process. When we did the book, we had about 166,000 people participate in that research; now it’s up to 176,000; it keeps growing. We will probably release an update every six months or so if there’s something significant to add.
CLO: Who were the survey respondents?
Murphy: The respondents are mostly managers. There were a few high-potential types who are aspirational leaders, but not necessarily company leaders. About a quarter of respondents are senior level executives and it works its way down from there. We have an open study, which is open to the public so people can go take the assessment on our website. Then we have a closed study, which is a select group of organizations that we targeted to survey the employees. It’s predominately the English-speaking world, but it still gives us a nice check of whether or not we have any biases on our own survey selection.
CLO: Why do you think employees and managers are so reluctant to speak the truth?
Murphy: People don’t like hearing contradictory or negative information. When you add the fact that managers are often not particularly well trained to deal with these issues, and that a fair number of organizations have a strong affiliative bent — meaning they prioritize collaboration and harmony — there can be a price to pay for speaking the truth.
Most of the time, employees aren’t trained on how to communicate information to their boss in a way that doesn’t cause problems for themselves. A lot of performance management systems are broken at worst and just inadequate at best; people don’t think that performance appraisals, for example, are communicating useful and meaningful information. These factors together create an environment that makes it much more difficult than it should be to have an open and meaningful conversation.
CLO: What should companies do to establish a foundation of truth in order to create a culture of accountability?
Murphy: There are simple early warning signs that companies should be on the lookout for to see if they have a culture that is suppressing the truth. This can be done through a simple survey. You can go and ask your employees questions such as, “If I shared my work problems with my direct leader, I know they would respond constructively,” which we have found to be hugely predictive. Making sure that leaders are trained on how to have these kinds of conversations and that they know how to deal with cognitive dissonance and how to strip the emotion out of their messages is so important.
CLO: How does this apply in a learning and development context?
Murphy: From a CLO perspective, we’re talking about giving leaders a much greater skillset and the tools to deal with this information. It’s not just about people being happy right at this moment, it’s about making sure you have a pipeline of information coming through that is going to keep you ahead of the competition; make sure you’re not blindsided by some giant market trend out there that your employees knew about but weren’t taking seriously.
CLO: How does this research affect learning and development in the workplace?
Murphy: Our findings shows that only 29 percent of employees know whether their performance is where it should be. We also know that about 70 percent of leaders are engaging in “compliment sandwich” feedback [when managers will beat around the bush to avoid giving tough criticism, sandwiching the information between compliments, rather than just being honest and straightforward], which is damaging their ability to give criticism.
When we think about learning and development, we see it in a top-down manner. We give leaders the skills and tools, and then they go out and communicate this to lead their employees better. That leaves the employees in this passive role where they just sit back and get led. But it’s about giving the employees the skills to more effectively communicate the truth to their leaders.
One of the major strategies for CLOs is dealing with this both top-down and bottom-up. But as employees learn how to communicate difficult issues, they also learn to hear difficult issues.
Camaron Santos is a Chief Learning Officer editorial intern. Comment below or email editor@CLomedia.com.