Truth, Power and Equality of Opportunities

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

‘When in doubt, tell the truth. When not in doubt, tell the truth.’

A simple phrase I picked up on a training course a few years ago has helped me to solve so many problems. You don’t believe me? Try it.

Simple. Easy. Brilliant. Use it as the staple answer for many managerial problems and concerns.

One definition of a manager is that you have staff to manage. If you have staff, you have problems. It goes with the territory. Don’t be surprised. It’s like doctors complaining that they only get to meet sick people – it’s going to happen. Your staff will have problems and they will want you to help. Those 13 short words can really help – ‘When in doubt, tell the truth. When not in doubt, tell the truth’.

How often have you been in a situation, perhaps a meeting, where, for some reason or another, you aren’t sure what’s really going on? Can you recall how frustrating that is for you sitting there trying to look as if you know what’s happening? Try this approach. Tell the truth.

The first time I run this experiment was at a very senior manager’s meeting. The very senior manager was talking about our bid for Investors in People. 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 took a sharp intake of breath.

“Neither have I come to think of it”.

The room laughed, slightly too loudly.

This works incredibly well with all sorts of problems especially personal problems, especially managerial problems. There’s the standard problem that gets asked, in one shape or form, at many interviews; “What would you do if a member of your staff has B.O.?” This type of problem arises all too frequently in life. Someone has a problem, perhaps their work is slipping, they need to change jobs, any number of situations. Try this approach. Ask yourself how you feel about the situation. More often than not I guess you feel uncomfortable, nervous. Address the problem;

“Ken, can I have a word? I feel really uncomfortable doing this but I feel I’ve got to let you know – You obviously haven’t recognised it yourself but I think you’ve got B.O.”. Then wait, listen and keep explaining until they understand. You may not be loved, initially, but I bet you’ll be respected far more than if you’d ignored it and they’d found out another way.

Tell the truth – as it honestly appears to you. There are many types of truth and you can only tell the truth as you see it. Let my explain. If your watch stops and someone asks you the time and you get it wrong – you’re not lying are you? You’re telling the truth as you see it.

This concept of truth is linked to power. There’s a certain power that comes from telling the truth.

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.”


“What do you think will happen?”

“Probably nothing.”

It’s that simple.

There are a number of success stories. Often it’s the smallest things that make a difference. I was training a group of Personal Assistants and one of them was very worried about telling her boss that she wanted to change the layout of the office. It was becoming really stressful for her. She spent a great deal of time complaining to other Personal Assistants, anyone that would listen in fact. She felt her boss would hate it and get furious. We discussed it, acted it out and eventually she decided she’d deal with him. Two days later I got a call – the office had already been changed – it worked out that he hated it as well and didn’t say anything as he felt she would resist. The amount of time and effort that was saved just by this was incredible.

It’s an excellent tool. Use it wisely. Use it honestly. It could help cut through the corporate code that all large organisations use. And there is a lot of corporate code. Having been on the interviewing end of many promotion boards I’ve seen so many reports about saints. Virtually every candidate has never done a bad thing in their life, according to their managers. They’ve never done a bad deed. Never had an evil thought. Then they walk into the room. Please…

After a while you spend all your time looking through the reports looking for secret code words. One secret word is ‘usually’. Alan is usually calm and even -tempered. This translates to Alan has psychopathic tendencies. Rebecca usually responds well to customers, particularly on the telephone. This means Rebecca can lose it on the phone now and again.

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.

It would be so refreshing to read “Fred is an ace worker in all aspects apart from figure work. He’s useless. He couldn’t add up 2 numbers to save his life.

I’d promote him and keep him well away from the Accounts Department.

On a recent equal opportunities seminar the question came up about managers feeling unable to help. After some discussion the problems were really in the managers’ heads. They were afraid of getting it wrong, afraid of upsetting someone. Having run a number of events with disabled staff and having worked through similar concerns with people with disabilities this approach works extremely well. My advice is – tell the truth. People tend to treat people with respect. They trust peoples’ intentions. If someone makes a mistake but their intention is to be helpful most people will forgive them. If you are unfortunate enough to ask a partially sighted person why they can’t read the signs (as I have) you’re far more likely to get a huge laugh rather than an embarrassed silence.

The question arose: “If you see someone in a wheelchair struggling to open a heavy door, what do you say?”

“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.


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