A new study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations, shows nearly everyone has either seen or suffered from a catastrophic comment. 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.
The truth is, putting your foot in your mouth is easy to do. But can just any slip of the tongue be fatal to your career or are there some comments that are far more damaging than others? Grenny and Maxfield also uncovered the top five most catastrophic comments people made:
“A co-worker made suggestions to a technical process in a meeting. Although he was more than qualified and his comments had merit, the manager took the suggestion as a personal insult. He verbally attacked this co-worker and put him in his place in front of everyone. My co-worker spent the next year trying to dig himself out of a hole. Everyone was afraid to associate too closely with him for fear of retribution. He was eventually pillaged by another firm that recognized his skills.”
“Our supervisor did not share with us important details about the reorganization of the company. My team was broadsided with issues that significantly impacted our work. I and others voiced concerns about the reorganization and we were completely shut down. Two of us were passed over for promotion. We felt it was retaliation for raising important issues for our unit. The person who got the promotion did not have the qualifications but he does schmooze the management.”
2) GOSSIP KARMA: You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public. How common? Experienced by 21% of respondents. What it looks like:
“I had recently found out my husband was cheating. At work, the company was circling the drain financially and morally. My department was one of the few in the green and was under pressure to perform even better. Fed up and frustrated with my current married boss flirting with peers (and triggering my own heartache), I blurted out to one of my staff—who turned out to be a friend of the boss—that the boss was sleeping with one of her married direct reports. My boss blamed me for that rumor. It took two years for her to find something to use to force me out of my job. In those two years, I received death threats, my car tires were slashed, and well-meaning peers even suggested I leave the state.”
“A friend and school teacher thought she was ‘talking’ in private on Facebook and made an insensitive (presumably funny) comment about all kids being germ bags, meaning they bring their germs to school. As luck had it, her social media privacy filters had been turned off. Parents saw the comment and were outraged. They went to the school administration and she was asked to resign. Her confidence was shattered. She hasn’t yet found another position in a school system.”
3) TABOO TOPICS: What it looks like: You said something about race, sex, politics or religion that you thought was safe, but others distorted it, misunderstood it, took it wrong, used it against you, etc. How common? Experienced by 20% of respondents. What it looks like:
“During an exchange with a much younger, less experienced nurse, an older nurse became exasperated after repeating the same instruction multiple times. She finally said, ‘Am I not speaking English?’ The younger nurse who was of Laotian heritage used this statement to claim racial profiling. As a result, the older nurse was treated like a social pariah, even though she apologized. Although the older nurse had extensive experience, all the other younger nurses no longer listened to her—excluding her from all conversation and social events.”
“A male coworker made an inappropriate sexual comment about an older female coworker. He said it too loud so more people heard it than he intended. He was the first to go in layoffs that happened a few months later.”
4) WORD RAGE: You lost your temper and used profanity or obscenities to make your point. How common? Experienced by 20% of respondents. What it looks like:
“Someone was frustrated by the project partner’s lack of response and decided to verbally confront this person in the heat of his frustration. He raised his voice and others around the interaction heard it. It was a very aggressive and unprofessional way to approach the situation. As this person’s leader, I had to administer disciplinary action which contributed to a year-end performance evaluation that will cost him his incentive.”
“One of my subordinate managers resigned verbally in a rage of anger, then proceeded to announce his resignation to all of his staff and our client only to try and retract it a day later. No luck, we accepted his resignation.”
5) “REPLY ALL” BLUNDERS. You accidentally shared something harmful via technology (email, text, virtual meeting tools, etc). How common? Experienced by 10% of respondents. What it looks like:
“About six or seven people were in an in-person meeting and one person was remote. We did a Lync screen share with the remote person so she could show something to the group. After a while, she evidently forgot she was sharing her screen. She started a separate messaging conversation with her boss. I (Scott) was the official leader of the meeting, but was still new to the organization. She chatted her boss, ‘Do you think it is possible Scott could be more incompetent than the previous person in this role?’ To which her boss responded, ‘Ha ha! Doubtful, but we’ll see.’ My predecessor in this role was in the meeting too. Finally, someone said, ‘Emily, did you know you are still screen sharing?’ She quickly took it down and tried to offer a quick, subtle apology. Apparently there were other issues with Emily’s boss and this was the straw that put him over the edge. Within two weeks of this incident, he was terminated.”
“Two employees were discussing the sexuality of our Director in a disparaging way in email and one of them accidentally hit ‘reply all’ and all of the administrators saw the comments. The two employees were terminated the same day.”
The stories illustrate why we call these verbal blunders, catastrophic. You can literally ruin your career with just a few words. In some cases, these comments do reveal people’s incompetence, their unsavory moral compass, or their true colors which may be ill-suited for the corporate culture. And when it comes to discrimination, racism, or violence, there are clearly comments that should never be tolerated in the workplace—or any place.
And yet, so many of these comments are uttered by well-meaning and talented employees who maybe just had a bad day. According to the data, every one of us is bound to make an unintentional slip of the tongue or misjudge a situation at some point during our career. And when you introduce the X factor of technology into the communication equation, all sorts of things are bound to go wrong despite our best intentions. So when, not if, we put our foot in our mouth, what can we do to ensure the results of our verbal blunder aren’t catastrophic, but rather recoverable?
Join bestselling author Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, as they discuss the skills for recovering from catastrophic comments in their complimentary webinar on March 22 at 1:00 p.m. EST. To register or watch the archive recording, visit www.vitalsmarts.com/careerkillerswebinar.
View the results of our study in the infographic below or download a copy for yourself.