The price of honesty

Why it’s your fault you didn’t know

Truth - sOne of the things I often have to do while I’m working with a client, is to make difficult conversations happen. Sometimes I have to facilitate them in person, because it’s the only way to ensure everything actually gets discussed and resolved.

You might think, from that description, that I’m working with some pretty weak-willed people if they need my help to have those conversations, but actually it’s the reverse. It’s the strongest leaders who often need this kind of support most, and ironically, they’re usually the last ones to realise it.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. She’s also the author of the best-seller Lean In, and a role model for many women in business. In 2001, after stints at the World Bank and the US Treasury, Sandberg stepped into the private sector to head up Google’s advertising and online sales team. That year, Google’s turnover was around $70m. By the time she moved to Facebook, just 7 years later, that number had grown by a factor of 300, to over $21bn. In a recent interview with Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and no stranger to explosive growth himself, Sandberg described some of the painful lessons she learned during that time.

She recalls making a commitment to her team, which was just four people at the time, that she would be personally involved in every interview process, to ensure everyone they brought in would fit with the culture and the people they’d be working with. As her team grew past the 100-mark, the queue of interviewees waiting for her became unmanageable, and she called a meeting of her direct reports to suggest that maybe she was slowing down the process, and should stop being involved.

Sandberg was anticipating that they’d push back on her request and had all her arguments lined up and ready to go, but in fact, they spontaneously applauded. They were delighted and relieved that she’d decided to get out of the way and let them get on with it, and her reaction is very interesting. While her ego may have been slightly bruised by the response, her biggest concern was that all of them felt the same way, all of them wanted her to stop, but not one of them had actually said anything to her. And in her mind, it was absolutely clear, the fault for that lay with her.

“You didn’t tell me”, “they didn’t say anything”, and “why didn’t anyone raise this at the time”, should be red flags for any leader, particularly if it’s you who is saying them. Because if you didn’t know how the people around you really felt, the odds are, like Sandberg, it’s your fault.

There are three reasons someone might not raise their concerns with you, or tell you those things that you really should know. It might simply not occur to them to tell you, and sometimes that’s genuinely true. They might want to sabotage you by withholding it from you, but in 10 years of consulting, I can’t recall a single time when that’s actually turned out to be the case.

Most often it’s because the people who could have told you were hoping that someone else would, or that you’d work it out yourself, because they felt uncomfortable, anxious, or downright fearful of raising it with you, and of the reaction they might get. So, it’s no surprise that it tends to be strong leaders and high-achievers, the authoritative and articulate, the quick and decisive “red” and “type A” personalities, who suffer most from this effect.

The first step to overcoming this barrier, is to recognise that it’s you who is creating and sustaining it. Shouting at your team for not telling you is a guaranteed way to raise the barrier even higher. It’s up to you to find ways to make people feel safe in being honest, in speaking the truth to you, and that if you see things differently, which you probably will, they won’t be shot down in flames. It requires patience and generosity, and the constant self-reminder that someone else’s perception is their reality; what might seem trivial to you can be incredibly important to them.

Most of the conversations of this sort that I facilitate, are incredibly simple to resolve once people feel able to talk, and they can sense they’re being listened to and taken seriously. So, if you find yourself thinking or uttering those phrases, give me a call, I can help. But the first thing I’ll need you to recognise, is that it’s not their fault for not telling you. It’s your fault that you didn’t know.

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