Written by Ric Giardina | |
"The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others
and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us,
and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak,
the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls."
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
One of the casualties of living an outer-centered reality is that we can easily lose our ability to tell our truth honestly, openly, and freely. Sadly, this doesn't just mean being unable to tell your truth to others, it also means not being able to tell your truth to yourself. This state of affairs is part of the learned response that motivates us to give others what they want or at least what we think they want, even if it means sacrificing what we want. In the worst scenario, it means putting ourselves last.
Some of the difficulty we all have in this area comes from three possible sources besides our training in outer-centered reality: First, we believe that truth-telling will cause us to appear dictatorial and unyielding. We must each realize that there is no truth with a capital T in the human condition; there is only "my" truth and "your" truth and "her" truth and "his" truth and "their" truth.
Even if we assume that there exists such a thing as "The Truth," it is impossible for any of us to determine either for others or ourselves what elements of what we feel, believe, and say might constitute "The Truth" and what represent individualized personal truths. And therein lies the solution to this widely held belief -- I.e., the understanding that each of us is capable of telling the truth only as we see it. It has been my experience that when I make it clear that I am telling my truth, which necessarily includes speaking from my feelings, I am not viewed as being either authoritarian or immovable in my position.
Second, we confuse "tell your truth" with "tell your whole truth." I am not suggesting that all of the truth be told all of the time. Such an approach would lead to needlessly telling your co-worker that her new hairdo, of which she is so proud, actually looks awful to you or that you believe your father-in-law's taste in neckties is atrocious. A "tell your whole truth" requirement is one with which few of us could live comfortably and would give people license to be unnecessarily cruel. What I am suggesting, however, is that whatever you choose to say, make sure it is the truth for you. But at the same time, make sure that it is not misleading because you have omitted some important part.
Third, there is a general belief that we genuinely serve others by putting their desires before our own. I have come to understand, though, mostly through trial and error, that I best serve others in any given situation by being clear about what I want. Even if no one agrees with me or is willing to let me have what I want, my clarity and clear communication about what I want provide us all with valuable information to determine a course of action that will work for everyone. Too frequently we attempt to steer others toward accepting our own hidden agendas without making a plain statement about what we want.
Sometimes, too, we withdraw from the truth because we know it is not something an authority figure wants to hear. And this is the case most particularly in the workplace. For example, most of us have been in a situation where our boss has come to us excited about some intended plan of action. We instantly spot the flaw in the logic or we intuitively know that this is not the right approach, but we also know that the boss does not take kindly to being told that his ideas are not good ones, so we say nothing because it's dangerous to tell the truth.
More generally in the workplace, we fear we'll lose our jobs if we say something out of the ordinary or something that voices our personal truth. We fear we'll make enemies that will cause difficulties for us either immediately or in the future. We fear that by asking the "wrong" question or making the "wrong" comment, we will reveal how little we know or others will judge us as ignorant or as not conforming to the accepted norms of the organization. These same fears of reprisal come into play when we are faced with acknowledging a mistake we've made. Admittedly, these are not easy hurdles to overcome, but it is essential to negotiate them if we are to live an authentic life in the workplace.
Take a minute to reflect on your ability or inability to tell your truth, particularly in the workplace. Notice how frequently you say things that are safe or politically correct and don't say the things that are true for you but are not necessarily as safe. Don't do anything about this; just notice how frequently or infrequently you are willing to tell your truth in the work environment.
It is important to recognize the cost of withholding our truth, both for ourselves and for the organizations in which we work. For ourselves, each time we do not say what we think, another moment of authenticity is lost. Worse, we deny the value of our own contribution and the intellect, creativity, and intuition that are its foundation. As we habitually reject those inner stirrings to say what is on our minds, our connection to our inner self in the context of the workplace drifts farther and farther away, until like an unrequited lover, it stops calling for our attention. In short, another tiny piece of us dies in the process.
The organization loses even more. Information and knowledge are among the most important resources available to organizations in these times of global competition. Holding back the truth -- your truth -- hampers the organization from recognizing and making the best use of your knowledge, your experience, and your intuition. Multiply this loss by the hundreds, the thousands, or the tens of thousands of employees all operating the same way, and the loss to the organization is incalculable.
In companies where mistakes are hidden because employees fear reprisal, or where the proverbial buck is passed from one employee to another, with everyone avoiding blame for a mistake, nothing is learned. In a climate such as this, half-truths, strategic omissions, and doctored information contribute to spiraling organizational losses that have a negative impact on everyone.
The only solution is to create a working environment where open communication becomes second nature and where owning up to our mistakes is not only tolerated but also celebrated. In such an environment, better ways of doing things are discovered, the atmosphere becomes creative rather than defensive, productivity increases, and people find real pleasure in going to work.
I once worked in a very enlightened company where the approach to mistakes was exemplary. Not only was it refreshing and fun to work there, but the environment gave the organization the best possible chance to recover as fully as possible from errors. Our corporate procedure for dealing with mistakes was this: When you found you had made some significant error, you would go to your manager and announce, "I screwed up, and here's how I am going to fix it." Then, without making any excuses -- which are nearly always irrelevant anyway -- you would explain what had happened and proceed to outline your plan for getting the matter rectified. What invariably followed was a dialogue, sometimes with others called in to assist, that focused on the corrective action without in any way berating the person who had caused the problem. The result was always in the best interest of the individual and the organization. As I said, this was a very enlightened company.
It is just as critical to tell your truth in interpersonal relationships in the work environment, even though they pose a unique risk because of the emotions involved. I've certainly had my share of experiences where I failed to tell my truth because I feared reprisal. And I also know that for every time I failed to tell my truth, I gave away another piece of my authenticity. Interestingly though, it is not the times that I failed to be authentic and speak my truth which stick in my mind; it's the times that I took the risk and declared my truth, no matter how horrible it seemed at the time. Sometimes, we just have to be big enough to acknowledge to another human being how small we can be and bravely tell the truth about how we are seeing things and feeling about them.
Fairly early in my career in high technology, I worked for a software company that had fallen on hard times. The investors brought in a Harvard MBA type to manage the reorganization and downsizing, which was dramatic by any standards. The company laid off half of its employees within two months of Mitchell's arrival and half of the remaining employees within two months after that. It was a difficult and frightening time for everyone involved. Things looked particularly bad for me, as it was apparent to me from the start that Mitchell intended that I be laid off as well. For reasons I still do not completely fathom, that never happened.
A year passed. Mitchell was no longer an outside consultant but had become part of the executive management team, of which I remained a member. I was forced to work shoulder to shoulder with him, even traveling with him, all the while loathing him for his serious but failed attempt to cause me to lose my job. For that and many other reasons I had accumulated, to me he represented everything bad that had happened to the company.
One day Mitchell and I arrived in Boston only to learn that our business meeting had been cancelled before our flight had even left San Francisco. We were grounded in Boston together for about thirty-six hours. Mitchell, who was from Boston, suggested that he show me around during our free day together. It is a testament to my level of unwillingness to face the truth -- my truth -- that I agreed. In retrospect, I think I was still in survival mode about my job and found it necessary to keep Mitchell happy.
Then it happened. I had spent the better part of two hours or so glumly accompanying Mitchell while he showed me the sights in downtown Boston. I was no longer willing to put up with this charade whatever the cost. I decided to tell Mitchell right then and there what I was thinking and feeling.
"Mitchell," I said, stopping and turning to look at him, "there are a couple of things I need to tell you before we do anything else."
"OK. What is it?"
And so I told him everything. To this day, I'm still not sure what it was that prompted me to do that, but my sense is that my Authentic Self had just had enough of me being something and someone I wasn't, even in the name of self preservation. As I told him everything I thought about him -- that I believed he had tried to get me fired when he first arrived and that I felt that his approach to dealing with the company's problems caused many people a great deal of grief -- Mitchell just calmly stood there listening to me with what I can only describe as honest interest in his face. He wasn't offended. He didn't get upset. He didn't defend and he didn't attack. He just listened.
When I was done, he told me that in looking over our interactions since his arrival at the company, he could certainly see how I felt that way. And, yes, he had wanted to get rid of me when he first arrived. But what I didn't know -- and he took responsibility for me not knowing it -- was that he no longer saw me as part of the company's problems, but rather, for many months he had viewed me as one of the people who held the keys for solving those problems. He then went on to justify his revised view by underscoring some of the things he had seen me doing over the past twelve months.
I was flabbergasted with the results of telling my truth to Mitchell in the most brutal and uncompromising way. Mitchell had listened. I've discovered many times since then that people will listen when you are telling your truth. People want to hear your truth, even if that truth is "I hate you." We humans seem to have an innate understanding that we cannot move through a space such as "I hate you" to whatever is next -- frequently, it is just the opposite of hate -- unless there has been an acknowledgment of where we truly are, i.e., our truth. Without speaking our truth, we are doomed to stay stuck right where we are.
The ending of the story with Mitchell is that, nearly nineteen years after that conversation in Boston, we are still in each other's lives, and we have supported each other emotionally and professionally on several occasions. This will not always be the result for everyone, in every situation, but telling the truth lays the groundwork to make outcomes like this possible.
I am not suggesting that you show up for work on Monday and line up all the people with whom you are having trouble to tell them honestly what you think of them. You may need to wait until your own special kind of lightning strikes you. Be aware, though, that your lightning can be as simple as that voice your head saying, "You can't say that!" when something suggests itself for you to say. Why not? Just remember that when you are coming from your truth -- and nothing but your truth -- people will often listen with an open heart.
The next time you think of something to say that you know is true for you and your mind offers something like, "You can't say that!" ignore your mind and say it anyway. Be sure you are telling your truth and be sure to include a statement of your feelings. Stay aware of and gauge the reaction of your co-worker or co-workers.
My friend Kathy Kirkpatrick once shared with me a five-step process for dealing with particularly gnarly interpersonal issues. She calls it the "Five Steps to Assertive Communication," and I have used it with great success as an alternative method for approaching someone with whom I have an issue.
Assertive Communication allows you to tell your truth in a non-threatening and respectful way. The Five Steps to Assertive Communication are as follows:
I have used the Five Steps to Assertive Communication on many occasions, often in those situations that are highly charged with emotion (mine) and where I require something of a script to assist me in getting through the process. These five simple steps have never failed me. Try them yourself. Make a list of at least five people with whom you are having difficulty telling your truth. Rank them in order of difficulty -- most difficult at the top to least difficult at the bottom. Write out an assertive-communication script to deal with the most difficult person. Practice it and then perform it, staying present during the entire session. Keep working down your list.
It's important to realize that you don't tell your truth for the other person's sake. You tell your truth for you. That's not to say that it won't have some effect on the other people, even if they give you no indications whatsoever that your truth-telling has affected them.
I've had people tell me I'm wrong. I've had people respond by telling me, "Oh, you can't possibly feel that way!" and then going on to explain why this is so. I've had people shut down because I've struck too close to something they were hiding in themselves, and they steered clear of me after that. On more than one occasion, I have even had people get angry because I'd told the truth as I saw it. I've had people deny that what I had said to them had any element of truth in it, only to have them reveal years later that what I'd said had forced them to face a difficult truth in their own lives.
In a few cases, my willingness to tell the truth became a turning point not only in my own life but also in the lives of others. The important thing to remember in every situation is that you aren't telling your truth for the other person; you're telling it for you!
I once interviewed a young man right out of graduate school for a position at a high-technology company that was known for its no-nonsense attitude, late hours, and overachieving culture. During the interview, he asked a series of questions I would never have had the courage to ask when I was his age: "I understand that employees receive three weeks of vacation during their first year. Do we really get those three weeks or is that just on paper?" Later he wanted to know if he could be successful if he worked just forty or fifty hours a week in the face of the company's reputation for having employees who worked an average of sixty to eighty hours each week. At first I was a bit taken aback, but then I realized that his commitment to a balanced lifestyle was something I wanted to encourage in all the company's employees. Consequently, I was impressed with his candor and by the presence of his Authentic Self during the interview process as evidenced by his willingness to ask those questions. He got the job and went on to do extremely well.
Consider for a moment what might have occurred if he had not been willing to risk "offending" the interviewer -- me -- by telling the truth and asking questions about what he could expect his life to look like if he were employed by my company. He might have gotten the job nonetheless -- indeed, conventional wisdom would dictate that he would have been more likely to get the job -- and both of us could have been in for some very unpleasant surprises. So stay completely conscious during your interviews, tell your truth, and present your Authentic Self in its full glory. Quite simply, if your potential employer does not "take to" your Authentic Self, you do not want that job. The right job for your Authentic Self will present itself to you if you pass up the ones that do not support its presence.
I cannot tell you the number of people who get into trouble in the workplace because they are not willing to tell the truth as they see it. They'd rather not hurt somebody's feelings. They'd rather not be in touch with what's really going on with them. They'd rather do or say anything but their truth. But what always works is to tell your truth!
This article is excerpted from:
Your Authentic Self: Be Yourself at Work
About the Author
For more than twenty-five years, Ric Giardina has worked in corporate America as both an attorney and a business executive. He served as the director of business relationships for two of his eight years at Intel Corporation. As the founder and president of Spirit Employed, a management consulting and training firm located near Silicon Valley, Ric presents innovative workshops that focus on how employees can incorporate more of their personal values into their work environments. Ric is the author of a book of poetry calledThreads of Gold.