On Guard

Executives are being more careful than ever about what they say at work. That should worry leaders.

What you don’t say can’t hurt you.

That, it seems, is becoming the new motto among corporate professionals. Nearly 70% of executives said they are more guarded in conversations at work than they were five years ago, according to a new Korn Ferry survey. At the same time, nearly 60% said they are more cautious when giving performance reviews than they were in the past.

Experts say the combination of increased political and social polarization and the changing dynamics of work is leading to a communication breakdown that could jeopardize an organization’s success if left to fester. “Everyone is walking on eggshells, afraid that saying the wrong thing will get them in trouble, sued, or on the news,” says Audra Bohannon, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry.

Korn Ferry polled more than 450 executives this summer, asking them to evaluate any changes in how they communicate with their direct reports and colleagues. The results underscore the fact that not many people at the office haven’t been able to develop professional relationships based on familiarity, comfort, and trust. “It’s creating a level of caution that is costing organizations in productivity and engagement,” Bohannon says. Executives seemed to agree; 58% said teamwork and camaraderie are suffering due to coworkers being more guarded in their words and actions.

But it isn’t just the #MeToo movement or increased attention on equality, diversity, and inclusion that is causing people to watch what they say. Tougher standards on conduct outside of the office, the growing use of artificial intelligence to scan messages, and a renewed emphasis on privacy also factor into the equation. Nearly everyone—98%, to be exact—said they are more sensitive when sending emails, both in respect to the tone they use and who may ultimately see the message.

“People stop talking and become guarded when they are afraid and/or are deeply frustrated,” says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader of diversity and inclusion solutions with Korn Ferry. “It is very important for leaders to understand what is driving that fear, and companies need to address the root causes swiftly.” That could be anything from frustration over a toxic work culture to fear of job loss because of technology or other changes.

Louis Montgomery Jr., who leads Korn Ferry’s Human Resources and Diversity Officers practice, says honest, candid feedback is critical to driving collaboration, inclusion, innovation, risk identification, and productivity. He sees the survey results as a teachable moment for how to have authentic, transparent, and safe communication in the workplace: “Clearly there’s an opportunity and need for organizations and leaders to help people communicate more effectively with colleagues and peers.”