The 11 Most Costly Hidden Problems in the Workplace

How to Cure Them and Boost Performance, Productivity and Profitability

While working with thousands of private- and public-sector executives and managers over the past 15 years on how to increase cooperation, innovation and productivity in their workplace, I uncovered problems plaguing their organizations that stem from an undiagnosed condition … common to all … that undermines collaboration, performance, progress and profitability.

So, what’s this condition and why does it happen? I call it failure to get the “unsaid” said. And, like a chronic disease, its symptoms become so familiar we stop noticing the toll they take on organizations’ ability to innovate, compete, prosper and grow.

There is a cure, however, for companies and governmental agencies seeking to improve their health. I’ve been it work over and over when managers probe beneath the skin to identify the problems, and commit to a prescription that will get them on the road to recovery.

If you’re beginning to think some of this might be applicable to your company, you may be interested in a few insights and strategies I’ve found effective in immunizing organizations across industry sectors. First, we’ll look at the 11 most costly problems and the degree to which they hamper performance and profitability in your institution. Then we’ll see how you can stamp out their infection.

Rate the 11 Most Costly Hidden Problems in Your Workplace

As you read the 11 problems below, grade each on a scale of 1-10, based on the turmoil it causes your company’s teamwork, growth and profitability. Then ask your managers to do the same to help you discover the principal problems afflicting your company.

“Erosion Glitch”
Poorly-executed programs, incomplete projects, missed deadlines and cost overruns are a few of the symptoms that eat into the bottom line when employees don’t share critical information in a timely fashion or when customer expectations aren’t managed effectively – either because contract terms and language may be unclear or because people don’t communicate realistically about what can and can’t be achieved (often resulting in ‘scope creep’). Schedules slip, time is lost and credibility and reputation suffer. The condition only gets worse when employees don’t speak up for fear of worrying their boss or client. This hurts the bottom line, especially when contracts are not renewed and or referral opportunities are lost.

“Email Shutout”
Research shows that 90% of a message’s meaning is conveyed by tone, body language, context and source, not just words. Therefore with email, tensions rise and problems escalate when people hide behind the keyboard to avoid the discomfort of talking directly about issues or because they think they can save time. This leads to distorted one-way conversations that lack the tone, context and body language that clarify messages in two-way dialogue. Thus, email wars erupt, clutter mailboxes, eat up time and thwart collaboration, morale and productivity.

“Double Trouble”
Lack of collaboration between business and functional areas can lead to duplicate and even conflicting endeavors. Senseless repetition, lost time, internal competition and conversations that go nowhere take their toll in this unproductive scenario when different departments and people don’t communicate and collaborate on strategies, tasks, projects and activities. The problems worsen when employees work in remote locations or have generational or cultural differences. Although people may be aware of these issues, they often lack the skill and empowerment to have the difficult conversations required to get them resolved. This leads to spiraling inefficiencies and wasted resources which obstruct the organization’s progress and productivity.

“Flickering Light Bulb”
Trouble festers and clients and customers turn elsewhere when they don’t get the creativity and innovative solutions they’ve asked for and expect.

This happens when employees down the line, working directly with the client, don’t communicate openly and share their ideas or the opportunities they see with the boss or client because they’re afraid they’ll be ridiculed, that someone will steal their idea and take credit, or because they’re simply ill-equipped to communicate their ideas effectively. In turn, they present half-baked ideas (if they share them at all), which management doesn’t pursue on behalf of the client, resulting in poor service delivery and lost opportunity.

“Not Another Meeting”
Been privy to back-to-back meetings, some of which lead nowhere, have no focus, lack candor, distract staff from getting other work done, and cost in time and salaries? This occurs when objectives are unclear, real facts are skirted, and follow-up meetings – or worse, hallway meetings – are called to resolve the issues. Thus, other problems arise due to bad decisions made by ill-informed staff and lack of buy-in from those not attending. This costs the company in productivity and progress.

“Assumption Presumption”
The key to good customer service is to know your customer, yet this commonplace syndrome comes from businesses and customers “assuming” they know everything about each others’ needs and capabilities when they don’t. For example, business development and salespeople often tell clients and prospects what they need, based on general trends or customer history, rather than getting to know the client’s current capabilities, strengths and challenges. On the flip side, clients may not ask counsel about certain services and programs they’re interested in because they think they know everything the company has to offer. Dissatisfied customers, missed opportunities, lost sales and unrealized profits are just a few costly by-products.

“Muddled Metamorphosis”
Mergers and other global initiatives should be a time for innovation and growth, but often the opposite happens. Disruption and lack of communication about these types of organizational changes, as well as realignments and layoffs, lead to rumors, conjecture, fear and an ill-informed workforce. When this happens, managers speculate and make bad decisions, workers resist change and hoard information, and both may spend time making personal contingency plans rather than focusing on organizational needs. Instead of speedy and productive cultural integration, slowed growth, internal competition and diminished creativity often come with these changes; all are counterintuitive to long-term goals.

“Deep Divide”
Sound familiar? Here’s a condition that runs rampant in many companies when the business and functional areas, such as HR, procurement, finance and/or marketing are adversaries, not partners. For example, a functional office may think it should police or control certain business practices so it focuses on what can’t be done rather than supporting the other departments’ activities.

In turn, the business area may see the functional department as an obstruction and try to circumvent it rather than working together. No matter who’s at fault, wasted time and resources, and missed opportunities and impediments to productivity negatively impact the bottom line.

“Slippery Slope of Success”
Sometimes success inhibits progress and makes people resistant to change because they think they have all the answers. The problem is if we are not progressing, we are regressing. “We know what it takes to get the job done,” they say when someone makes a suggestion, or “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Perhaps the latter is true, but something that didn’t work before might work now. This complacency keeps people from the innovation and continuous change necessary to maintain their competitive advantage in the marketplace. The savviest organizations understand that it is better to keep changing and improving before the competition makes you change. Think back to the 1980s Fortune 500 list; how many companies featured then are on the list today? Less than half.

“Next in Line”
It is important to avoid over dependency on any one individual. When businesses put employee development and training on the backburner, they become overly reliant on a few executives who could leave at any time, or they avoid difficult conversations with those persons for fear they’ll leave. The question becomes how can a business develop tomorrow’s leaders if it doesn’t teach its managers to communicate effectively, give and receive difficult feedback, manage change and inspire excellence? What happens is some talented people can’t move up due to their poor communication skills, so they get disgruntled and leave, and the organization loses. Others, less talented, get promoted anyway, resulting in mismanaged resources, program execution problems and lost business. Lack of leadership development systems and accountability negatively affect growth and profits.

“Brain Drain”
The number one reason people leave an organization is because of communication issues. Failure to retain top talent and high turnover occurs when good employees are afraid to communicate honestly about their issues and needs, or try, get frustrated and give up. The result is the real issues remain undiscovered rather than getting resolved. Furthermore, when employees leave, they also take their business knowledge, history, perspective and wisdom with them and significant money must be invested to find, hire, and train new employees. In fact, research shows that it can cost 25 percent to 200 percent of an employee’s salary to find and train a suitable replacement.

Bring on the Truth
Now that you’ve identified the most costly problems in your organization and the harm they can bring, let’s look at their causes and some tools that can treat your company’s health and increase teamwork, growth and profitability.

Working in the trenches with executives from Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, I’ve found the cause of their problems comes from one major disease: the lack of open, honest communication. I don’t mean truth versus lies or what people say. I’m talking about what they DON’T say. When this is clear, the antidote is obvious. We have to get the “unsaid” “said.”

Think back to some of the problems I described, and what’s NOT being said. Clients don’t express their real needs. Salespeople don’t ask the right questions. Valuable employees don’t bring up difficulties they’re encountering. People in successful companies resist new ideas and ways of doing things. Perhaps in your organization, the disease comes from people complaining, but not talking honestly about the real issues at hand. All of these situations cripple organizations and prevent them from flourishing.

Regardless of the symptoms, the prescription is the same. Organizations need to incorporate strategies and programs to promote open, honest communication and get the unsaid said.

Let’s face it, most people withhold information in some form or another; not necessarily because they’re malicious or unethical, but because they’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, of retribution, of ruining a relationship, of a negative impact on their career or that their feedback is a waste of time since it won’t make a difference. To make matters worse, people get defensive or upset when someone gives them bad news, sending a message, “Don’t tell the truth because I can’t handle it.” Inadvertently, this behavior discourages honesty and causes the whole organization to suffer.

But all is not lost. If people are educated about the toll that the lack of open, communication takes on their organization, they can be trained to change their behavior when management provides a safe and trusting environment. And, that’s where strong and committed leadership makes the difference. When executives instill practices that reward honest communication, they empower staff, fuel innovation, enhance teamwork and boost the bottom line.

Immunize Your Organization
There are many systems and tools available today to get the unsaid said. But, be aware: open and honest communication doesn’t come naturally. Putting systems in place isn’t enough. You need to train and teach everyone to use them.

Even when people understand the importance of dealing with issues headon, they can’t do it without developing communication skills that enable them to be firm but fair, clear not cloudy, persuasive yet sympathetic. This doesn’t just happen. People need to be trained and taught how to generate consensus and bring resolution to difficult matters. Most problems start small and can be nipped in the bud when managers know how to use, promote and reward honest, consistent communication and feedback.

Notice vs. Imagine
Here’s a helpful strategy. Teach employees to distinguish the facts of a situation (what’s “Noticed”) from opinions, assumptions and quick conclusions (what’s “Imagined”). When this happens, they’ll share critical information, assess situations accurately and resolve troublesome issues before they mushroom. These outcomes will enhance performance, teamwork, productivity and, most of all, the bottom line.

Remember the “Assumption Presumption” problem? Do people in your organization imagine they know what their customers want without investigating their real wants and needs? This was happening with one of our Fortune 500 clients that was losing business, but didn’t know why.

After some digging, we found Notice vs. Imagine and the unsaid were causing the problems, and we initiated communication strategies and training that ultimately won back a huge contract, increasing the company’s profitability. This led other business areas to adopt these strategies: one became the highest revenue generating business unit in the organization and another achieved the highest engagement score in the company.

How about the “Erosion Glitch” problem? Have you ever seen a project go awry because goals were based on assumptions and interpretations rather than facts and data points (Notice)? Too often, people make erroneous and costly decisions because they believe their opinions to be truth or facts (Imagine).

The situation can also be exacerbated when members of a project team have different agenda, backgrounds and goals. Consider the experience of one of my clients. Personality conflicts were wreaking havoc and the situation appeared near futile until we put “Notice vs. Imagine” to work, giving everyone a common language and platform for resolving issues that had seemed impossible to handle. Their new way of looking at things brought clarity to the forefront and a dramatically higher level of team spirit, productivity, customer service and revenue surfaced.

Now, suppose someone in your company knows about a small, but difficult problem. He can discuss the problem with colleagues or let it fester. With appropriate training, however, he’ll recognize the need to speak up, use his new skills to present the issue effectively and gain resolution – all to the benefit of your organization.

Influence With or Without Authority
Another strategy is to empower employees to use honesty to influence situations, either directly or indirectly, regardless of their position in the company. Why? Because opportunities arise daily and everyone can contribute to the health and prosperity of your organization, especially in a fast-paced environment where opportunities are fleeting unless someone seizes them.

Remember the “Flickering Light Bulb” when employees present half-baked ideas, get frustrated when they aren’t acted on, and when customers leave because innovative or fresh ideas aren’t put forward? This is a perfect example of lack of “Influence With or Without Authority.” Look at research and you’ll find the # 1 motivator for generating new ideas in the workplace is to show they’ll be used. And so, when employees are given skills to articulate and sell their concepts, and see their ideas put into action, they’ll be more forthcoming with new and creative strategies that will better serve clients and the company’s market competitiveness.

Road to Recovery
With your new prescription for open, honest communication in hand, your next step as a leader is to adopt appropriate strategies and promote the value of honesty to employees at all levels via consistent messaging and reinforcement. When everyone embraces the concept and gets the unsaid said, a new vitality will surface and spark creativity, collaboration, greater efficiencies and growth.

Consider this from a client: “At the time, I was the executive officer of an organization … and morale was abysmally low. The workforce was fraught with ambiguity and distrust. We embarked on an organization-wide effort … and implemented Steven’s tools for honest and effective communication. The dramatic, near immediate, positive results were evident in the surge in … customer satisfaction and workforce performance.”

For open, honest communication to take hold, managers must also leave the confines of their offices and seek opinions and feedback from all departments and staff of all ranks. One never knows what you can learn from the receptionist or young star on the way up. You might also uncover a conflict that can be rectified before it explodes.

In tough times especially, executives need to practice full disclosure and transparency or there will be a considerable cost. This happened at one company when management wasn’t forthcoming about looming layoffs for fear of losing employees. True to form, when they finally made the announcement, valuable staff who had lost faith in the company left because trust in the leadership was broken.

While there will always be challenges to your organization’s immune systems, such as economic slowdowns, competition and external factors beyond your control, you must stay focused, resist the temptation to react negatively, and instead, reward honest, open feedback. With steady and consistent adherence to open, honest communication, your business can stay healthy and on the right path to achieving its financial and organizational goals, suppressing the pitfalls of these 11 costly hidden problems.

Copyright 2010. For permission to reproduce this article in any format, or for more information about the Steven Gaffney Company, please call 703-241-7796 or email info@stevengaffney.com.

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