Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Negative information is often difficult to give.  So much so that we often avoid it.
How many times have you bitten your tongue even on something critical because to deal with it would have meant letting the other person know that they hadn’t met expectations or hadn’t got it right?
As Canadians we are especially good at compromise and being politically correct.  Perfecting being nice, however, comes at a cost.
Respect demands that we tell and are told the truth.  Honestly said, as hard as it may be to hear, don’t you would want to know the real message your boss or colleague is too nice to tell you?
You are intuitive enough to pick up that something isn’t being said, but if s/he doesn’t tell you the truth you are left guessing.  Even the hard truth shows you more respect and is better than a ‘nice’ half-truth or silence… as long as it is motivated by respect for each other.
Harmony at all costs isn’t harmony at all.  When you have to go home and tell your dog all the things you couldn’t say to your colleague, there is nothing more than a façade of harmony and the beginnings of a deteriorating relationship.  This is costly business behaviour.  We operate in an increasingly complex world that requires a way of being where our strength is determined by the strength of our teams, not the individual star players.  A team without strong, trusting, honest relationships is not a team – it is merely a collection of individuals.
The problem with not communicating honestly about different values, perspectives or expectations is that they don’t go away.  Instead, the person goes away none the wiser and trust is slowly eroded.
In employment law, precedence overrides contract.  This is also true of how people interact with each other.  You may have an agreed expectation around punctuality for meetings.  This is your ‘contract’.  How you deal with lack of punctuality creates precedence and sets a new default expectation or contract.  So, if you uphold the expectation by starting on time regardless of who is late or by taking it up with the individuals who are late and reinforcing the expectation, you uphold your contract.  However, if you allow people to arrive 5 then 10 minutes late and adjust you agenda to fit into the remaining time – they will assume you weren’t serious about punctuality and “arrive within 10 minutes of scheduled time” becomes the new contract.  So, by being “nice” and avoiding the issue, you have unwittingly redefined the expectations.
 If not being upfront creates unwanted results, why do so many people still resist confrontation?  Three possible reasons are:

  1. How you see confrontation:  If just the word confrontation makes you want to run in the other direction, it’s probably time for a new perspective on what it means to confront or deal directly with issues.The dictionary has a number of definitions for “confront”, only one of them involves hostility, yet that is the one most commonly held – that to confront is to be hostile.  The other two definitions; “meet or stand facing” and “bring face to face with” are much more useful starting points in confronting situations that need dealing with.
  2. How you see others:  If you see confrontation as hostile, it may be because you hold certain assumptions around the unmet expectations that leave you in a hostile frame of mind.  Separating observable facts (he is consistently late for meetings) from assumptions (he is incapable of organising his time effectively) allows you to confront the issue without hostility towards the person.If performance is not meeting a manager’s expectations and they bring the individual “face to face” with the short fall with a developmental intention, they are respecting the individual by trusting them to use the opportunity to learn and to improve.  This, of course, assumes that the manager believes the individual has the capacity to meet the expectations and does actually respect them.Suspending your assumptions allows you to focus on increasing understanding of what each parties’ expectations and accountabilities are, thus insuring that precedence supports and doesn’t override contract.
  3. A willingness to be confronted by others: As leaders, we need to model both speaking and receiving truth.  It is important that we create an environment that makes truth speaking safe.  That means you expect others to be upfront with you and to confront your thinking and/or actions when doing so serves the teams’ raison d’être. You thank  them for their input and loop back to them once you’ve processed how feedback has helped you and the team.

If you are serious about leading, don’t buy into the superficial façade of political correctness.  Rather aim for true harmony which uses confrontation to bring people face to face with their observable behaviours.  Have the courage to hear when others confront you and the commitment to confront them for the sake of building truly respectful, trusting relationships.  After all, as the leader, it is your job to ensure that the collection of individuals becomes a team.
Gil Davidson is the founder of advantage management consulting, specialists in “Life-Giving Leadership” of self and others.  By combining her business administration degree with a wide range of Human Resource experience in South Africa, New Zealand, Britain and Canada (as well as running her own business since 2002) she brings a good understanding of business priorities and people dynamics.