Just Google the term: you’ll get over 20 million hits. Stand in the corner of any leadership development intervention (hate that term, but you know what I mean) and you’ll most likely hear it espoused. In fact the word “authenticity” itself appears on the list of values of quite a number of big organizations.
I get why it’s important: the more how you are in business and at work aligns to who you are and what you believe, the more resourceful and productive you can be. In leadership honest conversation can enable clear – if not always easy – progress. And results unhampered by hidden agendas and emotional baggage.
How easy is it to speak your truth?
But being yourself and speaking your truth is not always that easy.
I know you know that feeling. Something comes along that rankles with you. You have a strong point of view on it. You know you ought to put your opinion ought there. But the risk of doing so seems immense.
Maybe there’s an unspoken complicity in your business or team dynamic that things be done a certain way. And that how you want to do things breaks the taboo. You know that in breaking the taboo you stand to help things change and change for the better. But you fear that you run the risk at best of being judged as being disloyal. At worst of losing your job, your reputation, your career…
I know because I’ve been there too.
Some years ago I was the HRD of a business within a much larger business. My boss was the UK HR board director, reporting to the MD. Let’s call them Dan and Phil. They were both powerful, charismatic men, with immense, strategic business brains and a phenomenal view of where the company was going. I loved working with and for them because of the level of access they gave me to big, sexy stuff. This was, in fact, a double-edged sword because often they’d drag me into work that was well over and above the already heavy work load me and my team had in serving our own client business.
But part of the thrill for me was that both of them *got* the importance of the whole people dynamic in business. They valued talent and performance.
And yet, paradoxically, there was an implicit value in the business that success meant working all the hours God sent. To my cost, I did the hours most of the time, as did my boss. In fact, at the time of this story, both he and I were going through our own painful marriage break-ups. But I was careful on behalf of my own team not to expect that because I was choosing that lifestyle, they had to too.
At one point, we’d bought another company and my team were dealing with the sea of changes you have to manage from a people perspective in that scenario. And we were doing it to some major deadlines, which meant that I asked my team, for a period of a few weeks, to put in the extra time. They were happily doing this and doing a phenomenal job of pulling things together, but as time went by, I could see them start to look weary.
One evening at around 7pm as we were all engaged in figuring something out around a desk in the open-plan office, Dan walked up to us and began a conversation with me that everyone else could hear.
He was buzzing because he’d just had a great conversation with the Phil. He’d persuaded Phil to consider something and Phil had asked for data to follow the idea up. Problem was, in his enthusiasm, Dan had promised to have the information with Phil the following morning.
I could see my people’s shoulders drop as Dan warbled on, because they knew what that meant: the 8pm finish we’d promised ourselves wasn’t going to happen, because we were going to be the ones to pull the information together.
And inside, I knew that on this occasion I had a choice. I could cave in and just get on with the unasked request to do the extra work because that was what the culture required of me.
Or I could speak my truth and push back.
For a few moments I did nothing other than just sit with the maelstrom of conflicted feeling going on inside me. I may well have gone and sat in the ladies to give myself space to breathe. I knew the right thing to do was to push back, but I feared that in doing so these two powerful characters would think less of me. Which was a concern because, at the time, I was seen as a kind of rock star HR person and I wanted to continue to be seen in that light.
I was quaking when I walked into my boss’s office and said:
“Look, Dan, you had no right to promise Phil that we’d pull that stuff together, without asking me if that was okay. The team is already working well above and beyond their normal workloads. If I just expect them to do this stuff tonight, they will do it, and the results will be good. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect. You and I may not have a life right now, and that’s a choice we’re making. But they do. And I want us to honor it.”
He went crazy at me. I don’t actually recall now what he said. Just that he ended up escorting me out of his office and slamming the door.
I was mortified. Cursing myself for being so stupid as having opened my mouth. I was sure that I’d be fired. But I was also sure that I was going to stand by my word.
One of the women said, “So, do you want me to start working on that thing for Phil?”
“No,” I said. “I want us all to stick with what we were already doing and call it a night when we get through.”
I could feel their relief.
Next morning I was in before Dan. As in fact was my whole team. He’d normally come by my office and say hi, but this day he walked past me, still clearly angry, and with his head down. I spent the entire morning feeling somewhat distracted. I was getting on with all my stuff, but I was sure I was going to be let go for insubordination. Or worse, that I’d become one of the people that weren’t on Dan’s Christmas card list, and be subjected to one of his drip-drip crusades of organizational bullying that would mean I’d end up leaving anyway.
As it turned out, later in the day a huge bouquet of flowers arrived at reception for me, with a note. “Forgive me.”
I walked along to his office to say thank you.
“Thank you,” he said. “I didn’t like that you said what you said, or did what you did. I felt stupid having to tell John that we’d have to rethink when he’d get his data. But I reluctantly came to see that you were right. I was not respecting you or your people. I’m sorry. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Now, not all the times that I’ve spoken my truth have gone this way. There’s another story I’ll save for another day that happened more recently where, on the face of it at least, the sky did fall in. Or so it seemed in the beginning. I have no sense now of how speaking my truth on that occasion affected the other person involved. But I know that it was transformational in helping me shape the direction of my life and work to this point now.
Ask yourself these questions:
If you’re in a situation where you’re feeling challenged to either speak up or shut up – be yourself or be some version of you that business requires – there are three core questions you can ask yourself.
1. What is your truth?
Be really clear. What’s your position on this thing that sits uncomfortably for you? If you can’t immediately be clear, just sit with the morass of feelings for a while. Center yourself with some meditation, or at least some deep breathing. Let your clarity emerge.
2. How comfortable are you with your truth?
Hopefully, with clarity, comes certainty. If you are okay that your position is okay, then you can speak it with gravitas and be heard, no matter the outcome. The worst place to speak your truth from is one where you yourself feel on shaky ground. That lack of conviction and confidence translates energetically and people pick it up.
3. How safe is it to speak your truth?
I didn’t consciously logic this out when I was in the grip of my own story, but clearly some part of me felt that Dan – and indeed Phil – would be able to hear what I was saying. But I know that, bottom line, there can been situations where your truth may fall on stony ground.
Sometimes self-protection is completely appropriate. And then you need to make a conscious choice on what best to say or do in order to be true to yourself regardless.
What do you think? How do you put your truth out there when you need to? Have you ever spoken your truth and lived to regret it?
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