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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the often harsh and brutal truth



Can you imagine quality advice and brutal honesty anywhere being more important than in the executive chambers of our organizations? I can’t.

The executives that we rely on to run our profits and nonprofits decide, most importantly, on the strategy and the culture of the company and thereby they decide on the health of the organization, on the guarantee of income for their employees, on the survival of our companies, and ultimately on the prosperity of our communities.

These top executives don’t operate in a vacuum and they don’t decide on their own, or at least they shouldn’t. Executives require sound and candid advice and feedback that they can rely on, but they are at the same time the very people who find it hardest to obtain, researchers say. There is so much at stake when advising your executive, with your own future within the company at the top of the list. How is he or she going to respond when I share my inconvenient truth and my unpopular perspective? Will the messenger be killed before the message is out there? Whether the dangers of speaking up and standing out are real or perceived, this dynamic is a reality, a fear-based reality as well as a reality born out of habits. We, or at least the majority of people, are simply not accustomed to providing others with candid feedback, no matter the industry, context, or level you operate at. That’s a very sad situation directly linked to accountability and transparency. Research shows the more senior a business leader, the more they attract flatterers and yes-men instead of people capable and daring enough to tell them all truths, including the tough and uncomfortable ones. "My advice would be to remember that the higher you are, the more likely you are to be ingratiated, and therefore you should make sure you get advice from people who do not depend on you," says Kellogg School of Management assistant professor Ithai Stern. Stern has studied the effects of flattery, opinion conformity, and ingratiation on corporate leaders for a decade and states:

“Our theory suggests how high levels of flattery and opinion conformity can increase CEOs’ overconfidence in their strategic judgment and leadership capability, which results in biased strategic decision making” Stern writes this in one of his studies, co-authored by Sun Hyun Park, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and James D. Westphal, a professor at the University of Michigan.

So in addition to the self-deception with blind spots and psychological protection mechanisms that is rampant in many of us, executives are deceived by the people that surround them as well. I’ll pick it up where Stern leaves it: What to do about this phenomenon? There are many different perspectives and numerous routes to take. I will stick to two of them:

-       Become a member of an executive group such as a True North Group (book by Bill George and Doug Baker) in which confidentiality, transparency, and honesty form the pillars of your group. True North Groups have only one goal as far as I’m concerned: Profound personal and leadership development through transparency and brutal honesty. They are groups where members from different companies and industries increase each other’s and their own emotional intelligence, where members openly share their mistakes and embarrassments, and where members learn through and with each other, knowing that the failing and the learning will never end.

-       Invest in creating a climate of trust and candid feedback within your organization, with the executive taking the first steps. It is top management that needs to realize that despite their level and standing in the organization, they are human too. It might be shocking, but they will be mistaken at times and they might not be (and generally are not) the most knowledgeable in a certain area. If the executive requires compliments and reinforcements for ego-saving purposes, for securing self-esteem and maintaining confidence and respect, then all is lost. If the executive is willing and daring (because capable we all are) to hold himself openly accountable for misjudgments and failings, then there is hope.

Not knowing the full extent of risk-taking and failure management within Google I have heard that Google employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time, a full day per week, on risk-taking and on working on things that they want to explore, even if it leads to failure. This is apparently how many improvements and inventions were born but, most importantly, it is one piece in the puzzle of stepping away from the often strongly risk-avoiding and honest feedback evading culture so dominant in many of our organizations.

A friend from my business network called me a week ago and volunteered that there was one thing that really stood out about me, and that was the word ‘provocative’. He suggested I call myself “The Provocative Coach” and I’m chewing on that suggestion. Quite a few of my intervention techniques are provocative indeed. However, many of them are interventions and feedback that is only perceived as provocative, but it really just abides by my rule of telling the truth, whether it’s an easy, comforting truth or a harsh and brutal truth. Knowing how easily politics, timing and other excuses are used to justify not telling the truth, my conclusion is: The requirement of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, should not be limited to the court of law.

For one of the articles on Stern’s research and theory: http://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/index.php/Kellogg/article/flatterys_dark_side

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