Stop Paying The Price For Conversational Cowardice At Work

March 27, 2017

Conversational cowardice at work

If the number one fear among people—public speaking—had a younger sibling, it would be the fear of difficult conversations.

Even powerful executives with strong personalities cringe at the thought. Employees at all levels demonstrate almost supernatural ingenuity in their ability to create workarounds to the difficult issues and difficult people they might have to address head-on.

The individual cost of conversational cowardice

Every day, people in the workplace pay a high price for dodging potential conflict out of fear. A few items on the bill include:

  • Energy and focus allocated to worry and rumination rather than to work, which diminishes productivity and effectiveness.
  • Increased stress caused by the worry and rumination, which takes an emotional and physical toll.
  • Avoidance of the person and topic that needs to be discussed, which further compromises efficacy and productivity.

The organizational cost of conversational cowardice

The individual price tag, when multiplied across an organization, adds up to a staggering cost, including the following line items on the invoice:

  • Decreased profitability due to operational friction caused by relationship friction, due to people not being willing to have an important conversation.
  • Lost opportunities for innovation and process improvement because key people avoid each other, dismiss each other’s ideas, or withhold potentially game-changing contributions out of anger and resentment.
  • A toxic culture that leads to low morale and low engagement, because leadership is unwilling to confront dysfunctional behavior, including bullying.
  • Difficulty attracting talent because of the toxic culture.
  • Compromised ability to retain and engage talent, because employees are unwilling to confront managers about their engagement-destroying behaviors.
  • Compromised customer service, because employees who feel resentful or stressed due to a toxic culture are less likely to give spirited, compassionate service.
  • Increased employee-related expenses created by escalating stress, including costs associated with more health insurance claims, accidents and injuries, lawsuits, and disability claims.

What will you do with this?

If you are unwilling to pay the price of conversational cowardice any longer, here are some first steps you can take:


1) Ask yourself these questions:

  • What results am I not getting at work that I would like to get?
  • What conversations do I need to have for those results to happen?
  • Are there conversations I have been avoiding that—if they were to go well—would make a huge difference in my happiness and effectiveness at work?

2) Seek out a coach, your mentor, or a wise friend and explore these issues:

  • The fears that have been holding you back.
  • Different, more empowering ways of viewing these situations.
  • How you might bring up a difficult issue in a way that would foster a collaborative, non-defensive conversation.


1) Share this article with your fellow managers, and use it as a catalyst to discuss its relevance to your organization and the price you’re paying.

2) As a group, explore your willingness to develop the skills needed to engage each other in courageous conversations. By doing so, you’ll access the benefits of open, candid, collaborative conversations in your workplace.

3) Invest in constructive conversation training.

What being courageous does not mean

As you reflect on the above questions, keep in mind that engaging others in courageous conversations does not require that you lose your fear of conflict first. By definition, being courageous means facing one’s fears, not the absence of fear. That being said, the more you build your constructive conversation skills, the less fear you will have to overcome and the more success you will have, which will result in greater confidence and less fear to overcome.

Second, engaging people in courageous conversations is not about engaging people in battle. It is about transcending your anger and resentment and getting to a place where you can approach the difficult person and difficult topic with a collaborative spirit.

Each time you do, it becomes just a little bit easier.

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About The Author

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@Work and the creator of Stories That Change. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Powerful Storytelling Techniques (ATD Press) and nearly 100 articles and book chapters, including one on using storytelling in onboarding in the third edition of The Talent Management Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2017). You can contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at @HumanNatureWork.

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    […] would feel awkward to approach the boss with the topic. The thought of doing so would strike fear in the heart of all but the most assertive […]

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