Pink Slips of the Tongue: VitalSmarts Study Reveals the Top Five One-Sentence Career Killers

83 percent have witnessed "catastrophic comments" that damage careers, reputations and results

08 Mar, 2016, 08:07 ET from VitalSmarts

PROVO, Utah, March 8, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- Marianne C. thought she was in a "safe" meeting where open discussion was encouraged and yet, following the meeting, she found herself in and out of the discipline process and shortly thereafter demoted—all because of one comment.

Pam S. witnessed a coworker sabotage his career when he slandered their workplace on his personal Facebook account. He was quickly turned in to HR and immediately terminated.

And then there's Sarah D. who was hired as a sales lead in a retail store. After both her managers left, she wrote to the regional manager to let her know she was "understaffed and overworked." The next day, Sarah was reprimanded for her "hostile" tone and "gross insubordination." Most damaging to the business was also being told that the possibility of any support was "out the window."

A new study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations and cofounders of VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty Company, shows nearly every employee has either seen or suffered from a catastrophic comment like Marianne, Pam and Sarah did. Specifically, 83 percent have witnessed their colleagues say something that has had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations and businesses. And 69 percent admit to personally committing a catastrophic comment.

Grenny and Maxfield also uncovered the top five most catastrophic comments people made (to read participant's real-life stories illustrating these comments, visit www.crucialskills.com/careerkillers):

  1. Suicide by Feedback (23 percent): You thought others could handle the truth—but they didn't.
  2. Gossip Karma (21 percent): You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public.
  3. Taboo Topics (20 percent). You said something about race, sex, politics or religion and others distorted it, misunderstood it, took it wrong, used it against you, etc.
  4. Word Rage (20 percent). You lost your temper and used profanity or obscenities to make your point.
  5. "Reply All" Blunders (10 percent). You accidentally shared something harmful via technology (email, text, virtual meeting tools, etc).
  6. Other (6 percent). All other uncouth and/or unfortunate comments.

The online poll of 780 employees shows just how damaging these slips of the tongue and momentary lapses of judgment can be on an individual's career:

  • 31 percent said it cost them a pay increase, a promotion or their job.
  • 27 percent said it undercut or destroyed the working relationship.
  • 11 percent said it destroyed their reputation.

Maxfield says that while putting your foot in your mouth is easy to do, recovering from verbal mistakes actually takes skill. In fact, the data shows that more than one in four people (27 percent) lack the skills to smooth things over and only one in five are extremely confident in their ability to fix mistakes.

"It's no surprise these catastrophic comments happen," Maxfield says. "We're all bound to have bad days, misjudge the situation or make a slip of the tongue. What is most concerning is our inability to recover in a way that actually repairs—rather than harms—relationships and careers."

And beyond employees' lack of skill, Grenny urges leaders to create the kind of environment where people can safely speak up. As it stands, almost half (46 percent) say their workplace does not allow for mistakes or take apologies into account when people inadvertently put their foot in their mouth.

"While there are occasions when people's words paint a clear picture of their incompetence or unacceptable moral judgment, these instances are the exception to the rule," Grenny says. "Often, people speak up about issues they see as important to the business only to be punished for their honesty—even if it is controversial. Instead of punishing employees' candor, leaders need to build the kind of culture where anyone can safely speak up to anyone else, regardless of power or position. And in those times when they may step out of line, there should be a plan that allows them to recover and get back on track."

Grenny and Maxfield offer three tips to recover from catastrophic comments in a way that saves careers, improves relationships and secures results.  

The blunder: You said something that was just wrong, rude or completely inappropriate.
What's required: A clear, unrestrained apology. The bandage needs to be as large as the wound. If you aired your colorful disgust for your boss, a simple "I'm sorry" won't cut it. Others need to hear an apology as intense as their disgust for you at the moment.

The blunder: You said something that was right, but it came across wrong.
What's required: While more complex, the apology must still match the fervor of the upset. You have three tasks: 1) Acknowledge that your message sounded as offensive as others took it to be. And don't move to step two until they're satisfied. 2) Say what you really think on the topic in the way you should have said it. 3) Repeat step one.

The blunder: You said something you believe, but that you shouldn't have said in your position.
What's required: Again, you must apologize. If you stated an opinion that is not the opinion of your company, then you must apologize as though you don't believe what you said. This could sound disingenuous, but it's not. It isn't "you" that's apologizing, it's your position. So your apology is righting the real wrong—your irresponsible lapse of judgment in realizing you don't get to represent your company in any way you see fit.

Grenny and Maxfield will share this research and tips in a complimentary Webinar on March 22 at 1:00 p.m. ET. Register at www.vitalsmarts.com/careerkillerswebinar.

About VitalSmarts
Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Accountability®, Change Anything®, and Influencer Training® and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 1.5 million people worldwide. www.vitalsmarts.com

About TwentyEighty
TwentyEighty is one of the largest workforce development companies in the world and is powered by some of the premier brands in the industry, such as Miller Heiman, VitalSmarts, Forum, Strategy Execution and Omega Performance. Our solutions are designed to help companies improve business results through the areas of Leadership Performance, Sales Performance, Credit Performance and Strategic Execution. www.twentyeighty.com  

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