CXO

Have you crossed the border from useful candor into pointless whining?

When it comes to communications on the job, what's the difference between honesty and a little bit of healthy spin? In this week's Artner's Law, columnist Bob Artner explains why knowing the difference can improve your management skills and your career.


We all value honesty, at least in the abstract. If you look at corporate mission statements, you’ll see that many of them stress the centrality of honesty: both for clients and employees. I’ve never worked for a company that didn’t refer to the importance of candor and truthfulness.

The same thing is true when it comes to how we view ourselves. We all like to think of ourselves as relentlessly honest, the one person in the organization who can be counted on to “tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may.” We preface our conversations with remarks like “I’ve got to be honest…” or “To tell you the truth…” or perhaps “If you want to know the truth….”

In some future column, I’ll consider the question of whether we’re truly as candid as we like to think we are. However, this week I want to look at another facet of this whole truth-telling mania: When do you stop being perceived as a truth teller and start to be looked at as a complainer?

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The missing stories of the Honesty Brigade
I suppose to many people, even asking the question betrays the wrong attitude. Perhaps some of you are saying right now: “That’s the problem with too many IT departments! The minute you start pointing out a problem with a functional spec or a particular vendor, you get labeled as a troublemaker! Well, if that’s the way it’s going to be, then I’m out of here!”

Of course, I’m not advocating that IT organizations should ignore real problems. Nor am I saying that technical managers should adopt a “shoot the messenger” mentality, blaming the person who publicizes a mistake instead of the one who caused the error.

I’m not arguing against telling the truth. I’m arguing against one-sided truth telling.

By “one-sided truth telling,” I mean the tendency of some people to focus exclusively on the negative. These folks are candid, all right, but always about some looming crisis or some insurmountable workplace frustration.

To put it another way, why is it that a sentence that begins “To be perfectly honest…” never ends up being about good news?

Some men and women who pride themselves on being “brutally honest” have forgotten how to be “joyfully honest.” Their candor is one-sided: It’s all bad news, all the time.

This sounds very touchy-feely, but I think it’s important. A person or an organization that can only focus on the negative can cause several problems.

Reducing credibility
Since most of us by nature aren’t exclusively focused on the negative, working with someone who is can be difficult. Over time, if problems are all anyone hears from you, they will eventually cease to listen or believe you.

Deadening ability to triage
Almost all IT departments have more work than they can handle right now. Technical managers have to make tough decisions on manpower allocation and on which projects are going to get resources. If literally everything looks like a problem to you, how can you possibly decide which task to tackle next?

It’s contagious
The sad fact is that it’s easier to catch someone’s bad attitude than his or her common cold. A person who is solely negative can rub off on everyone in the department. The result is that what were minor irritants become problems, and problems turn into crises.

It’s bad for your career
While it might not be fair, many IT executives are reluctant to promote employees considered too negative. The reason is not that the IT executives can’t handle the truth but that they doubt such an individual could display sufficient leadership. After all, as an IT manager, a man or woman has to be able to inspire and motivate a team and get them unified behind a single goal.



What should you do?
Again, remember that I’m not advocating that you stop speaking your mind. I’m simply asking that you have some balance and be as eager to talk about good news as you are about bad news—assuming you’re this kind of person, of course.

First, try to determine if others perceive you this way. Take a good look at yourself. Try to replay the last three or four conversations you’ve had with your boss. Were they all about problems you were bringing to his or her attention? If so, then why don’t you go out of your way to bring your boss some good news? Highlight the contributions of a new team member or the functionality of some custom application that the group has just completed. You don’t have to be obsequious, just honest—in a positive way. If the very thought of doing so makes you uncomfortable, that says more about you than it does about the suggestion.

Second, look at your peers. Do any of them fall into this category? If so, then consider spending less time with them, at least during business hours. After all, bad attitudes are contagious.

When has this technique worked for you?
When it comes time for promotions or pay raises, it’s often the employees who are seen as problem-solvers who win favor. Has your positive attitude helped your career? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a nifty TechRepublic coffee mug.

 

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