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Truthful Employees Can Survive

Published
  • January 01 1998, 1:00am EST

Amy was rewarded with a promotion to the senior management ranks six months ago. She was thrilled and so were her employees, who thought she richly deserved it. However, her enthusiasm soon paled as she began to interact with her peers. She discovered that they were a highly political bunch, prone to sabotaging and backstabbing each other to win points with the senior vice president. She found herself on the defensive and began to seriously question whether she was cut out for the job.

Jack is a technical specialist in the computer department of a large company. His work often puts him in very political situations, since he designs programs that cross departmental boundaries. Conflicts and turf issues are brought to the surface as he sorts out who does what and how to get work done more effectively. Jack was getting so embroiled in the politics he wondered if he should quit and find a less political company.

Claire is a survivor of her company's recent downsizing. As a supervisor, she saw several of her peers get the axe, as well as some of her own people. The company could have done a better job of communicating with people about the changes; and now there is cynicism, resentment and a lack of trust. The political climate is clearly, "Watch your back and keep your mouth shut." She knows that won't solve the problems that the company is now facing.

Amy, Jack and Claire began to feel powerless and backed into a wall. They didn't want to get sucked into the counter-productive political game. How could they survive?

All three decided to use a strategy that seemed foolish at first. They decided to speak openly and honestly about what they saw. They decided to hold up a mirror to those around them, and 1) describe the problem non-judgementally, 2) propose some straightforward solutions, and 3) offer to take ownership for solving their part of the problem. They knew they would need to be tactful and diplomatic but they also knew they had to be honest and clear.

Amy began to talk openly about issues that were causing conflict. She proactively approached her peers and one by one disarmed them by talking truthfully and non- defensively about the problems and potential solutions. Her honest, win/win approach was startling and disturbing at first but soon altered the dynamics in a positive way. The senior vice president began to drop in to get Amy's opinion on key topics, and recently he put her in charge of a key, cross-departmental project.

Jack decided to accept the fact that the best service he could provide to the company was to facilitate the differences that were blocking his technical progress. Even though his job description didn't include conflict facilitation, he realized he had no choice. He discovered that when he talked openly and objectively about the issues as he saw them, it forced people to face them and discuss them. His boss began to hear comments about the value Jack provided.

It wasn't Claire's style to stay silent and keep her head down. She decided that she had nothing to lose. After all, she reasoned, "What are they going to do, fire me?" She felt confident that she was marketable and if speaking the truth was a punishable offense, she'd find another job. But to her surprise, she discovered that her honest, proactive approach was exactly what the management team needed. Others began to rally around her. She emerged as a positive catalyst for needed improvements. She was asked to spearhead the quality improvement process in her department.

Do these sound too good to be true? (Each of these situations really happened.) Do you believe that honesty and openness are political liabilities in your organization? I hope you'll reconsider and reflect on your choice of strategies. Never before have organizations needed more truth. And it is often such a rare commodity that those who use it rise to the top as courageous leaders who truly are dedicated to doing what's right.

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