Jennifer B. Davis
My own experience, and that of the icons of business about whom we read about in the papers and business school case studies, would confirm that as you rise in position and influence in the organization, the fewer people will tell you the truth. In front line positions, you are faced with truth and facts all the time: customers vent with call center agents, sales people struggle to push shipments to meet customer expectations, and administrative staff know the effect of the management style of the company's leaders. The failures of businesses, many of them spectacular failures, can often be traced to the leader making the decisions being sheltered from the metrics, the explanations, or the anecdotal information that might inform good decisions or course corrections. Perhaps people are too afriad to contradict the leader's ideas. Perhaps the office of the "President" or "General Manager" is too intimidating. Perhaps, they just don't care enough about the business or the leader to tell them the truth.

It is a blessing to have a team that is capable, smart, informed, effective, and accomplished. It is a greater blessing to have a team that is capable, smart, informed, effective, and accomplished, who will tell you when you are not and what you can do about it.

The same applies to personal friendship on many levels. You have to care enough to tell a friend that their spinach salad is ruining their smile. You have to care deeply to take a friend aside to ask about her marriage, his children's behavior, or a concern you may have about a financial decision they are considering.

An accomplished leader for whom I work told me recently that the secret to not "running a business into the ground" is to assemble the best team possible and build a culture where they are not afriad to tell you that you are full of it. I would add that two more things are required to make that work. First of all, you have to leave your ego at the door, which enables the culture where differing opinions from yours are valued and employees with ideas or concerns feel safe to air them. The second thing that is required: your team also has to care. If honest feedback from capable people (the right "people on the bus," as Jim Collins put it) creates the business performance you want, then the job of the leader is to inspire trust and commitment to the extent that people will overcome the natural tendencies to say "yes," and will tackle the hard and tedious task of saying "no."

I hope that I have colleagues in my professional life and friends in my personal life that will tell me the honest, sincere truth...even if I don't want to hear it. I hope I always want to hear it.
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6 Responses
  1. leslie Says:

    you know, i tell Natalya often that i think her mind is beautiful and that i love her brain. her thoughts and perspective have value to me.

    i'm really coming to appreciate yours.

  2. Thanks, Leslie. I don't think I have complimented anyone's brain before, but I think I should start!

  3. Allan W. Says:

    I recall reading something relevant in Good To Great about Level 5 leaders. One of their attributes was their willingness to face the full awfulness of the truth when required - but still stay confident in a successful outcome.

    To me, this is related to being willing to hear - to truly see - the truth, both in business and in one's personal life.

    It is important to let a team know that speaking the truth will not get them fired or demoted (as opposed to speaking self-serving lies that look like truth, which should). Creating a culture that embraces constructive critique and unvarnished truth is key.

    Another point of mine: access to the raw data. I don't mind hearing others' conclusions, but I want to make my own as well. This is a leadership style point that others differ on (Bush=delegate & trust; Gore=comprehensive knowlege & direct access to data). I seem to flip flop between the two.

    Now, I read what I just wrote, and I have to point that allll back at myself. Can I live that?

  4. Allan, I agree it is easier said than done. Separating facts from the explanations of those facts is really tricky, but if the people or the project are important enough to you, it is worthy activity.

  5. rodschmidt Says:

    Hey, nice brain.

    I read that during the Vietnam War, bad news was sanitized on its way up the chain, so it didn't look hopeless to the people at the top.

  6. That is remarkable, Rod. Makes you wonder where else this occurs regularly.