First appeared in ‘Across The Board’ (U.S.A.)
The older I get, the easier some parts of my life get. A simple phrase I picked up on a training course a few years ago has solved so many problems. You don’t believe me? Try it.
“When in doubt, tell the truth. When not in doubt, tell the truth.”
Simple. Easy. Brilliant.
Use it as the staple answer for many of your managerial concerns. Your staff have problems, and they want you to help. More often than not, their problem is you. This gem of advice works for them too.
A typical training course:
“What do I do if my boss keeps interrupting me and I can’t get my work done?”
“Tell her, ‘You keep interrupting me and I can’t get my work done.'”
“But I feel really awkward about telling her-she’s my boss.”
“Tell her, ‘I feel really awkward about this as you’re my boss, but you keep interrupting me and I can’t get my work done.'”
“But . . . “
“What do you think will happen?”
“What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?”
“I’d get sacked.”
“Well, you hate the job anyway. I’m joking. You won’t get sacked for telling the truth, will you? Trust me-I’m a trainer.”
A few days later:
“I did it. She never had the faintest idea that it was annoying me. She thought I looked lonely and came to chat to me.”
It’s that simple, usually.
The first time I ran this experiment was at a very senior manager’s meeting. The very senior manager was talking about our attempt to comply with a national standard for training and development. I had no idea where she was going with the discussion.
I took a deep breath. Then another.
“Irena. Excuse me for interrupting, but I have no idea where you are going with this.”
The whole room held its breath until she replied, “Neither have I, come to think of it.”
The room laughed, slightly too loudly.
This approach does work, usually, but you can get too blasé and lazy. There’s a temptation to use this to show off. On one memorable occasion, I lost concentration midway through a discussion with my boss and thought I’d show her just how honest I can be. I asked, “If she’s not running the workshop, and he’s not, then who is?”
My manager, never one to let me get away with any nonsense, replied, “You are, you idiot. Keep up.”
It’s an excellent tool. Use it wisely. Use it honestly. It could help cut through the corporate code that all large organizations use. And there is a lot of corporate code. Having been on the interviewing end of many promotion boards, I’ve seen many reports about employees who appear to be saints. Virtually all of the candidates have never done a bad thing in their lives, according to their managers. They’ve never done a bad deed. Never had an evil thought. Then they walk into the room.
After a while, you spend all of your time looking through the reports for secret code words. For example, “Angela is sociable” would be code for “Angela can be loud and a party animal and may have the odd Monday morning off work with a hangover.” One secret word is usually. “Alan is usually calm and even-tempered” translates to “Alan has psychopathic tendencies.” “Rebecca usually responds well to customers, particularly on the telephone” means “Rebecca can lose it on the phone now and again.”
It would be so refreshing to read, “Fred is an ace worker in all aspects apart from figure work. He couldn’t add up two numbers to save his life.” I’d promote him and keep him well away from the accounts department.
I attended a seminar concerning management of people with mental illness. It was absolutely fascinating-full of top tips for managing people who have been off from work with problems. The top tip for me was what to do when they return to work: Don’t ask them how they are. They will tell you the truth-unashamedly, totally, and honestly. That’ll be your whole morning gone.
I heard some similar stories from an equality-of-opportunity course I attended. It was run by an incredibly successful partnership of disabled people.
One of the partners, who had multiple sclerosis, was late coming back from lunch on the first day. He arrived in the room 30 minutes late and cursing.
“What happened?” we asked.
“I had to go to the bank,” he said. “I asked someone how far it was. She said, ‘Oh, it’s only five minutes down the road.’ It took me half an hour!”
They had a wealth of stories about how people react to disabilities. My favourite was the other lecturer’s story about sitting, in his wheelchair, outside Marks & Spencer on a hot summer’s day. He was waiting for his wife and drinking a can of Coke.
A middle-aged woman walked past, looked at him, opened her purse, took out a pound coin, and dropped it in his can. “There,” she smiled and walked off.
“What do you want us to do?” we asked. “Ignore you? Help you?”
“Just tell the truth,” was the answer. “If you see someone in a wheelchair struggling to open a heavy door, say, ‘Excuse me, I can see that you’re in a wheelchair struggling to open that heavy door. Do you need some help?'”
It’s so simple. So easy. So do it.