"Our research for 30 years now is consistently clear that stepping up to crucial conversations does not decrease your job security," Grenny says. "In fact, it increases it. So this anxiety we have about being branded a troublemaker or muckraker ... it just doesn't play out that way."
The real problem, as he sees it, comes from flawed thinking about the nature of confrontation, or "a belief that you have to choose between candor and respect. In short, that candor means being disrespectful. Or you think that if you tell people what you really think about how things are run, they're invariably going to be offended."
He argues, however, that people who excel at confrontation have mastered the art of being honest and respectful at the same time.
Doing that successfully is less a matter of felicitous phrasing but rather one of intelligently framing an issue. Say your employer implemented a policy you think is stupid, unfair, and will hurt rather than help you do your job. Ask yourself, "How do I get the entire truth across in a way that the other person knows that I'm looking out for their interests, and that I respect them as a person?"
With that framework in mind, what seems like a binary choice -- candor or respect? -- is revealed to be a situation that's supple, more nuanced, even interesting.
Grenny is adamant that this advice is not akin to "give two compliments for every piece of criticism" type of advice. Making positive statements that don't reflect reality will neither help your case nor increase your chances of fixing a bad situation. "People who are really gifted at crucial conversations," he says, "don't undermine trust … by making disingenuous statements ever. They don't sugarcoat, and they don't give false praise and flattery."
So what should a frustrated employee do? Here are some tips:
Don't lead with the disappointment. Demonstrate that you have the emotional maturity to realize that a policy -- wise or not -- was implemented to solve or anticipate a real problem, took some effort to devise, and wasn't pulled out of thin air just to torment you.
Choose your issues wisely. If you confront every single issue, your colleagues will start to associate you with discomfort. As Grenny advises, "Don't say, 'I'm going to be this self-righteous example of someone that's going to be so contrary to the whole culture around here." Instead focus on one or two conversations that could substantially help improve your situation.
Be prepared. If you shrink from the full message, or if your unrehearsed, off-the-cuff remarks sound disrespectful, then you'll undermine your case.
Are there times when you really should just shut it? Grenny suggests that situations in which the conversation could completely backfire are more rare than many think. "More often than not, when people react defensively when we broach a crucial conversation with them, the problem was not their lack of character, it was our lack of skill."
The good news? If successful, stepping up to a confrontation could prove inspiring -- and create real change. "When somebody enters an organization and demonstrates that it's possible to talk about things in a more effective way, it has an influence," Grenny says. "It may take time, it may be incremental, but people don't like wallowing in misery."