A few months ago Fenestra Journal published an article from MBA about dissent at board level within companies. The main thrust of this was that in order to be effective a board of directors and a Chairman or MD must be able to tolerate dissent (a very different thing from being disloyal). Good leaders understand and actively encourage this dissent however this issue is deeper than a ‘good debate’ at board level, lack of honesty is a real obstacle to progress in very many companies.
Most readers at this point will I’m sure be sitting back and thinking about their own companies and saying to themselves “well we might put a spin on it sometimes but we’re basically honest” and most companies are. However we’re not talking about deliberate dishonesty here more a lack of candour, a tendency in all of us to be less than frank about what we really think. Most people will instinctively not express themselves in a completely open way, we are brought up not to, it’s a behavioural trait that keeps societies together. From an early age we are taught to hide our true feelings so as not to hurt those of others or indeed so as not to get hurt. The British have made it into a way of life, almost a badge of ‘Britishness’ that is taught from the nursery. We don’t complain in restaurants, or if we do it brings a frisson of adrenalin to act so out of the normal, we accept bad behaviour from others with nothing more than a raised eyebrow and we listen to the fanatically politically correct or eye wateringly ‘health and safety’ conscious fringe lunacy with no more than a sigh.
Whilst this entirely normal way of interacting with others prevents social anarchy (although our inter office debates often advocate a slightly less passive acceptance of some of the fringe behaviour that seems to be becoming the norm from our political leaders!) it is damaging in a business context. How many meetings have you been to where underperformance is an issue and where people keep quiet in order not to provoke conflict or to make other people feel better. You know the sort of thing, the tendency to put the best ‘spin’ on bad news. We’ve all sat there and listened to the usual presentation, how hard it is to win in this tough market, how we’re doing everything we can and by the end of the meeting everyone is patting themselves on the back for the ‘relative success…..under the circumstances’. How different would those meetings be if we were all candid (and weren’t afraid of being blamed!). An honest appraisal of the facts would stimulate a debate about why and actions to correct, even if the answer was ‘we can’t win we aren’t good enough’. I always look around in these meetings at people who don’t talk and wonder what great idea’s some of them may have…. and never articulate! They don’t want to offend or pressurise the speakers, they don’t want to provoke a backlash when they have to present their own performance and most of all they have learnt the lessons of the playground and how to get on with other people. Be polite and whatever you do don’t tell them what you really think. Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating abuse! I can send my burnt steak back politely but if I don’t send it back the chef thinks he’s doing a great job.
Honesty and forthrightness is a really difficult thing for a manager to achieve within his team, it’s asking people to act against years of conditioning that started in the playground. Managers need to talk about it, speak about the need for it, reward it and most of all lead the way and demonstrate the benefits of it. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some leaders who were really good at this and the benefits should not be underestimated. Clutter is reduced and clarity is enhanced, focus if you will. People are drawn into the discussion and ideas proliferate, those ideas get dissected and improved, or scrapped if they won’t work. Meaningless meetings are ‘binned’, you know the ones, self justifying and with no real purpose other than to tell us what we already know! Lastly (and by no means least) things get done quicker. Small enterprises are good at changing direction and implementing good ideas because they suffer less from the stagnation that ‘playing the political game’ generates.
Like most tools candour can hurt if you misuse it or use it as a weapon but the lack of honesty in organisations is profligate. I see “we are honest with our customers suppliers and colleagues” as part of many a corporate ethos but honesty is not just not telling lies. Honesty also means not being “economical” with the truth.
© Chris Ball 2007