Saying what we see

Among all the candidates in the current general election there are populists who are lauded (by some) as “telling it like it is”. Superficially this means not hiding the truth, however uncomfortable. But to most of us this is a euphemism for “racist”.

I’ve often wondered why being offensive was likened to being honest, but on consideration perhaps there is an explanation, which I can understand through a rather less dramatic personal experience.

Quite a few years ago I was asked to help a client resolve some internal challenges. When I spoke to staff there many of them complained about a lack of direction. “There is no business strategy,” they said, “the work seems all over the place.” The lack of a business strategy came up again and again, and it was clearly one of the more significant issues.

When I came to report back to the board it was very tempting to tell them, “You have no business strategy.” But I was mindful that I had to stick to the evidence and not jump to conclusions; after all, there was much about the organisation I still didn’t really know. Strictly speaking I didn’t know whether or not they had a business strategy—perhaps they had one and just kept it hidden. All I really knew was that the staff didn’t know about a business strategy.

And so with a good degree of self-control I told the board, “Your staff don’t see their work as aligning to any business strategy.” At this point the CEO stepped in and said, as I half expected, “That’s odd, because we do have a business strategy.” I was relieved that I had not jumped to conclusions. But he astonished me when added, “And we give it to all our employees when they start, and ask them to confirm they’ve read it as part of their probation discussion.” Somehow, that significant communication was failing to have the intended impact.

It was very tempting to jump to easy conclusions, and it was difficult just to stick to the facts, even though they were far less interesting. But it was the right thing to do.

When we profess to be honest it means two things. We may want to be honest with other people, even to the extent of delivering messages they may dislike. But first we need to be honest with ourselves, sticking to the evidence, and not jumping to easy conclusions.

Photo by Stuart Boreham