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Employees increasingly want hard conversations, but managers are unprepared

Discover why two-thirds of U.S. and Canadian employees are advocating for difficult conversations in the workplace.

Two-thirds of U.S. and Canadian employees want to have tough conversations at work, according to Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable at Work report

1,500 U.S. and Canadian employees were surveyed to reveal insights on the importance of tough conversations, defined as interactions around sensitive business, societal, or personal issues at work and prioritizing the complete welfare of employees. The study finds that, while most workers want to have tough conversations at work, one-third of employees feel unsafe having difficult discussions with their managers. The report also reveals that trust in managers is a key predictor of feeling safe in tough conversations and highlights the need to upskill managers with trust-building behaviors.

“Modern employees are completely rewriting the rulebook on employee-employer relationships and expectations,” said Caitlin Nobes, head of Workforce Research and Content at Achievers Workforce Institute. “There used to be this unspoken rule that left work at work and home at home. But now, younger generations are urging their employers to make space for the uncomfortable, take a stance, and acknowledge and meet their multifaceted needs.”

Understanding a fundamental shift in workplace expectations

Half of employees say they want to work for organizations that take public stands on world events, signaling a blurred boundary between work and life outside work. Just 17% say they don’t want their company to take a public stand. This expectation for public displays of company values will likely increase as older workers (Gen X and Baby Boomers) exit the workforce, as younger generations (Gen Z and millennial) are nearly twice as likely to want their companies to engage in global events publicly. The generational divide has not gone unnoticed. Two-thirds of employees believe younger generations have put more pressure on organizations to take a stance on world events and politics.

Despite their differences, multigenerational workforces do see eye-to-eye on the importance of pleasant, relaxed conversations at work. A strong majority of employees (88%) voice a desire to have light, fun talks at work. This finding underscores the importance for business leaders to invest in employee connection tools. These technologies not only encourage friendships, but data shows they can increase retention by 36% and make employees 51% more likely to trust their company’s leaders to guide the organization through challenges.

The gender discomfort disclosure gap

Women are the least likely to trust their manager or co-workers across all demographics. This is compounded for women from other traditionally marginalized groups, such as women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities. Women are also less likely to feel safe, recognized, and have fun conversations at work, and less than one-third say they bring their whole selves to work. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ women are twice as likely as men to say they’re not out to anyone at work.

“The data paints a particularly bleak picture of how women feel in the workplace,” added Nobes. “Women aren’t bringing their true selves to work, begging some difficult questions – do we really know the women we work with, how much are they holding back, and how much energy does that take? Knowing that women have faced discrimination for centuries, rectifying their challenges in modern workplaces is no simple task. The most worrisome question is—can they be helped?”

Employers can take small but meaningful steps toward a brighter future for working women. Specifically, organizations can measure how often women meet with their managers and receive recognition, then deploy behavior-driver tools to incite positive actions and mitigate disparities.

Transforming managers into trusted, compassionate leaders

People leaders play a challenging role at every company. Each day, they must coach their teams to drive results, provide feedback and mentorship, celebrate wins, and help their teams through struggles. When it comes to the latter, managers feel the most unprepared. AWI data indicates that just one-quarter of managers have received sufficient training on having hard conversations with direct reports.

Employees may be noticing their managers’ shortcomings, with less than one-third of employees saying they trust their managers. Employers can deploy training to build managers’ skills across contact, recognition, and coaching, which AWI finds are critical behaviors in trustworthy and effective managers. Activating on just one of these steps can be impactful. For example, employees who feel recognized by their manager are twice as likely to have high trust and are almost twice as likely to feel safe having tough conversations with their manager.

“Taking a company-wide stance on global events and politics is difficult, especially when you have intersecting generations who have different perspectives on company publicity,” said Hannah Yardley, chief people and culture officer at Achievers. “But there is one stance employers can take based on the report’s data — almost universally everyone agrees that employees want to be able to have fun or light conversations. If you do choose to foray into global events, empower people leaders with tools and resources, create safe spaces, and support those who want to create space for life outside work in the workplace and for those that don’t. This approach will also adhere to the needs of employees who want work to be a haven from personal obstacles and devastating headlines.”

*Achievers Workforce Institute (AWI). AWI is the research and insights arm of Achievers

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