Back when I worked in telecommunications, I had to sit through a long postmortem where a group of highly paid developers tried to explain why the updates to our costing program had miscalculated the retail prices of several hundred thousand long-distance calls. This problem forced the company to delay the billing routines and recost all the calls to keep them from showing up on customer phone bills.

As you might imagine, it wasn’t a great day for me. After the meeting ended, I was alone in the conference room with one of our developer team leaders. He shook his head sadly and said: “Bob, I knew this would happen.” He went on to explain some fairly arcane points about our costing program he had learned from previous projects that he had predicted would cause us problems in this one—as they had.

“What did the director say when you brought this up to him?” I asked. He gave me a shocked look and said, “This wasn’t my project. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate me sticking my nose into it.” In other words, he never mentioned his concerns to the director.

This is an extreme example, of course, but we’re all guilty of not saying what we really think from time to time. In fact, I believe too many IT organizations suffer from a “candor gap,” where profound differences exist between what an IT manager says and what he or she really believes. In this column, I’m going to look at the reasons why technical managers find it so hard to say what they truly think and determine which of these reasons hold up under scrutiny.

The myth of total candor
Let’s start by looking at what I’m NOT advocating: telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For any organization to function, the men and women in it have to work together. For that to be possible, each of us daily confronts situations where we have to, if not lie, then at least evade telling the complete truth.

As an IT manager, for example, suppose one of your people sticks his or her head in your doorway and asks if he or she can talk to you for five minutes about a personal problem they’re dealing with at home. True though it may be, you can’t reply that you’d rather finish going over the monthly expense reports. You clear your desk and invite the person into your office.

In the same way, you can’t start a project team meeting by announcing, “I’d like to hear everyone’s ideas on how we can get this project back on track—everyone except Freddie, of course, since Freddie hasn’t had a decent idea since Michael Jordan retired—the first time!”

You might be shaking your head at your monitor, arguing that you have a policy of total honesty in your department and that you encourage your subordinates to tell you exactly what they think about all your decisions.

That may well be true. However, all it proves is that your employees are smart enough to think through the implications and decided not to sign on for the program.

If you’re lucky, your people are exercising responsible candor. They look at these issues on a case-by-case basis. The more important a decision is to the organization, the more important it is that you get their candid feedback. Therefore, it is hoped your staff is quite forceful about important issues and much less so about trivial ones.

Reasons for prevaricating: The good, the bad, and the ugly
So even after we understand that total honesty 24/7 is neither practical nor desirable, we still have a quandary. Too many technical managers avoid telling their boss or their clients what they really think, even when it’s important to do so. In fact, some of us are most reluctant to tell others what we think when it is more important. Why is that?

Well, as it happens, there are many reasons why we might avoid being totally candid, some good and some not so good. Here are some reasons that can be legitimate, depending on the occasion:

  • Picking your battles: As we discussed above, you can’t be totally honest all the time. You can’t go to the mattresses over every disagreement.
  • Legal considerations: Particularly when it comes to HR issues, there are legal implications to what you may say. Circumspection is required in such discussions. In fact, in some instances, what you say may actually be scripted by an attorney. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact of life.
  • Backing a subordinate: If your people are going to grow, you need to let them make decisions, even when they do things differently than you would have. The art of good management involves knowing when a decision is so important that you need to intervene. In other words, when do you let a subordinate fail?
  • Backing your boss/backing the organization: One of the less-than-thrilling tasks that eventually falls to every manager is the necessity of publicly defending a policy with which you don’t agree. If your boss chooses vendor A, for example, you need to try to make that decision work, even if you happen to believe that vendor B was the right call. You can’t spend your professional life disassociating yourself from every decision that didn’t go your way.

As I said, there are some occasions when you can defend less than total candor. Unfortunately, that’s not where you usually run into trouble. That happens when you withhold your true opinions for the wrong reasons. Here are some of those kinds of excuses:

  • It’s not my job: This was the lame excuse given by the team leader at my old company. While it’s true that nobody likes a busybody, you can’t let catastrophes happen just because you’re not directly involved. After all, if you see a pilot about to fly his or her plane into a mountain, don’t you have a responsibility to point this out?
  • Concern for office politics: Of course, every organization has internal politics, but you can’t let the ramifications of such intrigue paralyze you from doing the right thing. This is particularly true with your boss’s pet projects. Here is where you should make distinctions between private concern and public support. In other words, you can go to your boss and say, “I know that this project is important to you, and I’ll do everything I can to sell it internally, but I did want to tell you my concerns in private.”
  • Desire to build consensus: Some managers like to bring decisions to their entire team and try to find a course of action that everyone can support. For some kinds of decisions, that can be a useful strategy. However, that doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility, as part of that decision-making process, from telling the team what you think should be done. If you don’t, you’re just hiding behind your team in the event the decision turns out to be wrong.
  • Distaste for confrontation: This is the big one. Entirely too many technical managers are so uncomfortable with personal confrontation that they let potentially explosive personnel decisions fester, or watch important projects get derailed, rather than personally intervene. In other words, they don’t do their job.

As a manager, you owe your employer not only your effort but also your guidance. In fact, that’s really why you’re in management in the first place. So before you decide to hold your tongue the next time your boss asks for your opinion, take a second and consider your motives.

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