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Is truthfulness a competency?

As human beings, we tend to ignore the elephant in the room because we fear the consequences. Truth is a time bomb; the fuse is lit, and when it goes off we’ll all get blown to bits. Really?… It could just be that when it blows there’s nothing more than a lovely colourful (and perfectly harmless) foam fountain. Why do we fear the worst?

Duncan Brodie, a former NHS Director I interviewed for Undiscussables.com a while ago, questioned the logic of a health service that effectively works a Monday to Friday schedule when those who depend on it (i.e. require medical treatment) typically do not conform to an office hours only schedule when falling ill. I’ve also talked before about the notion that what is undiscussable in an organisation is, in and of itself, often undiscussable, and idea that stems from the work of Chris Argyris.

Reading a pointed (as ever) and thought-provoking post by Roy Lilley at NHSManagers.net recently, what struck me is that the two states of undiscussability that Arygris describes may need defining separately.

The undiscussable undiscussable

A subject that is taboo and has yet to reach the stage that it can even be alluded to.

Sexual and physical abuse, whether that alleged to have taken place by Jimmy Saville or within the Catholic Church, often seems to fall into this category. The difficulty that those who have been abused have in having their stories heard, let alone believed, might suggest that this pattern is particularly difficult to break. In organisational/work contexts, they can arise also.

The discussable undiscussable

The taboo alluded to, hinted at, ‘known’, tantalisingly out of reach

Writing that heading I question my logic momentarily, and it is this category that Roy Lilley describes powerfully in another post re mortality rates in the NHS. Analysis of three years of data and four million patient outcomes have revealed a statistically significant increase in mortality rates the nearer to the end of a working week you have elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgery.

It’s a bit like ‘Area 51’, the US Military…. It’s an open secret. Everyone knows it’s there but the US Government pretends it isn’t. Just like MI5. Everyone knew about it but it took the British government until 1994 to admit it existed. And, The Stig, BBC’s Top Gear test driver; apparently everyone knows who she is.

Elephant in the Room, Open Secret.

This is the ‘classic’ elephant: the thing we all know is there but do not want to acknowledge and/or discuss, yet there is tacit agreement that it exists. The undiscussable undiscussable is different: there is no agreement, tacit or otherwise, of existence because the consequences of doing so are too high for some of those involved. Or because those who witness what is happening cannot bear the consequences of even acknowledging it (the bystander effect)?….

There is no easy answer, although I am drawn to two suggestions, both sparked by Lilley.

Data, data, data… Give me more data

The mortality rate issue above was revealed and discussed in sharper terms because not only was there data available, it has been used to make sense of complexity to reveal an underlying pattern. With data, you get to a conversation that takes you closer to a decision based on reality rather than the shifting sand of opinion.

Truthfulness is a competency

In the post on mortality rates, Lilley laid out a challenge for leadership in and around the NHS, in the context of the recommendations in the Francis Report calling for a new approach to leadership practice.

Truthfulness emerges as a key competence when an organisation is faced with the unachievable. Soldiering-on, to protect reputations and careers, not confronting the real issues leads to an environment fertile for fraud, fictions and fabrications. Obsfucation, cover-ups and smokescreens disguise the actualite and defer the inevitable.

Relative to the NHS, and given my own experience working with people within the UK health sector, I would agree. What is more, I am not aware of any psychometric tests, competency frameworks or similar that explicitly seek to inquire into the capacity of individuals in organisations to speak the(ir) truth, relative to role and context (suggestions welcome if there are). And…

A challenge to leaders and leadership development practitioners

My experience of working with(in) organisations and with leadership teams is that the desire for simple answers and certainty undermines those who make the case for slowing down to seek more data in order to establish what is real and not real, what is fact and not opinion. This desire for simple answers and certainty, delivered in as short a time as possible, places a primacy on an illusory form of truth. ‘Directness’ and ‘honesty’ are not the same as truthfulness, the essence of which is grounding in fact or reality, and means you are exposed to the possibility that reality may not be how you imagine it. So a couple of questions, relative to the taboos and challenges in your organisation:

  • To what extent do you know what is true (real), and based on what data?
  • To what extent are you prepared for the truth, whatever it is, or to speak a truth?
  • To what extent is your organisation ready for the truth?
  • What are the consequences, all of them, of speaking out and not speaking out?

Your move.

(Ed: This post was initially published on Undiscussables.com)


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A Chance Meeting

He had an idea. He felt it was very exciting because it was different and could even be important. But he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t talk to other people about it because he had learned that when he told them about it, they saw little in it for themselves, but a lot in it for him.

Many of them just cut him down, directly or through faint praise, explaining how they could see that it wouldn’t work even if he couldn’t. That left him feeling silly.

Even worse were the few who saw his idea and encouraged him, but they were no closer to knowing what to do about it than he was, so that left him feeling bad too. Smart enough to think up something, but not smart enough to know what to do about it, huh?

One day, by chance, he found himself in the company of another man on a journey.

After a while, this man asked him what his interests were. He was too shy to give a truthful answer, muttering abstractions and generalities that didn’t mean much. Doing otherwise always ended badly.

But on this occasion the other man seemed able to read his hesitancy and be interested in what lay behind it. He gently persisted with his question as though he desired to learn something of his travelling companion. It was almost as if he was saying: ‘This is our opportunity. The Universe is large, but will still be richer for what we can make of this time. There is nothing to fear’.

Eventually he caved in. He told his companion his idea showing the excitement he felt as he talked about it. The companion listened intently then asked some questions to make sure he had understood what he had heard. Then he commented on how important and valuable the idea was, but agreed it was hard to see what to do.

They travelled in silence for a short distance then the other said: ‘You have been thinking about this for a long time. You must have ideas about how it can be done. I’d very much like to hear, if you are willing to reveal them.’

At this he became very nervous again because the words he had to speak sounded ridiculous from such as himself, who had never moved in the circles of making such lofty things happen. But again it was as if the other man ecould read this and gently drew him out.

And as the ideas poured out of him and were met with approval rather than ridicule, his confidence grew and he spoke with greater clarity and force. His companion grew more and more impressed and started to share the sense of excitement.

They were nearing their destination. The companion said: ‘You knew all the time how to proceed and now you have laid it out. I know people who would be pleased to support you. If you would allow it, tell me your name and I will arrange for them to contact you.’

He said: “They just call me EM”.

The companion said: “Doesn’t that mean Everyman in your language? It’s funny, that’s what they call me too. Lot of us about aren’t there?”


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Go for it

Confidence, and self-confidence, are very important issues in the organisations where I work.

Lack of confidence can lead to all kinds of problems: sometimes it can freeze us  – we find ourselves completely unable to enter new territory. A simple example: having the confidence to sell a new type of product or service to a new type of client.

I think it was in a book by Jesper Juul that I first saw the distinction made between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-esteem, the way I read it, is about how I feel about myself, regardless of my skills or abilities.

Self-confidence, by contrast, relates to my view of my skills, my abilities, and my behaviours. If I think I am good at things I do – then I am self-confident.

Following this approach I can, if my self-esteem is good enough, feel good about myself even if I am demonstrably rubbish at something. And if I unfreeze and take the necessary steps, then I’ll learn and build the skills I need – growing my self-confidence.

Children, of course, learn new skills like sponges, and only at a certain age start to worry about their skills and abilities. By the time we are adults, many of us seem to be depending on our skills and abilities to maintain our self-esteem.

So that’s the theory. But how can I ‘operationalise’ this? (I love that word). What can I actually do that will help me become more fearless and act as if I have high self-esteem, even when I have zero self-confidence in a certain domain?

Three things come to mind:

  • Tell the truth. Maybe I am the only one, but a lot of my fears and worries are fears of being ‘found out’. Fear leads to inaction. Without action I cannot develop the self-confidence I need. So to avoid ever being put in a position where I will be ‘found out’ I find it useful to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When I was younger, if someone said something I didn’t understand I might try to bluff my way through it. You can imagine the results. Anxiety and tension that only escalates as the situation gets more complicated because of my failure to understand a key point. Then scurrying away afterwards to research what I didn’t know.

A big waste of time. Today, if I don’t know I’ll say. That way I can put my energy into doing whatever I should be doing (like really listening) instead of wasting time watching my back.

  • Work as a team. Drop the commonly held expectation that you are somehow ‘serving’ the other person, in the sense of being inferior to them. I do believe in one sense that we always serve others. But often the worst way to serve another is to act as if they have some kind of hold over us and to pander to their demands.

Much better to treat other people as peers. The easiest way to do this is to change the language you use. If someone asks you a question, don’t always jump to answer it. Instead, use language that assumes you are working together in a team. Say “we”. Say “that’s an interesting question, I wonder what the answer is. Shall we work it out together?”

  • And finally, stay in the moment. Handle what’s in front of you “one step at a time”. Stop planning ahead. A year. A month. A day. Even a few minutes.

Instead, focus on your breath. On your body. Tap into your emotion. Feel the earth (the seat) beneath your feet (bottom). Look around. Listen carefully. Extremely carefully – to what is being said. And what your body is saying.

And respond to that, what ever it is. Don’t worry about what might happen – in the future. Bring your focus back to the present and respond to that. OK, so you don’t know the answer. What does that feel like? What’s happening to the other person? When you have an answer, respond. Take the next step.

Rinse and repeat.


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Did Ghandi blog?

A rather random thought: how would Ghandi have used blogging (and Twitter, and all the other social media tools) had they been available in his day?

I’m a bit limited here because I don’t really know much about the man. Other than a few random sayings that I much admire, what I have read on Wikipedia and from the Richard Attenborough film.

Maybe others know more and can correct me. But it seems to me that Ghandi’s tools of non-cooperation, non-violence and peaceful resistance could work well in a world enabled by social media.

I suppose first off, Ghandi would have blogged. He was a teacher amongst other things, and I guess would have used blogging to share his teachings. Each post might have been written around a saying such as  “live simply, so that others can simply live”: expounding the value of vegetarianism and a simple life.

He would have encouraged dialogue, rather than preaching, of course. It would have been as important to him to learn from the discussion as to teach. Comments on his posts would have been remarkable and many.

Twitter might have been a daily source of wisdom. Something to inspire us and move us to mindfulness: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

One a day perhaps: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes”; and “Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.”

These would have been personal meditations. Not written to appear smart. But as least as much to help him learn.

And most importantly he’d have been on Facebook and LinkedIn. With Meetup.com working overtime. There would have been hundreds if not thousands of groups and communities – organising boycotts, strikes, marches and so on. Groups for people who committed publicly to non-violence and peaceful resistance.

The public demonstration, and thus solidarity, often being as important as the action itself.

Finally, in terms of style I feel sure he’d have used wry humour much of the time, to soften the blow of accurate words.

When asked what he thought of Western civilisation he reportedly said “I think it would be a good idea.”

Isn’t it great how the good ones last?


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Navigating through difficult times

In difficult times, as in good times, I think it’s important to focus on the basics. Perhaps more so.

What are the essentials for a sustainable business? I can feel a list coming on.

Firstly, be agreed on what you are trying to achieve. Knowing this can get you through the toughest times.

Secondly, believe in profit. I know this is a little controversial. Some will say it is obvious. Others will not like the idea of profit as essential.

Profit is such a emotional topic, although mostly we don’t admit that. For many it has a bad name. And on the other extreme, even those who seek it above all else might be feeling a little guilty about it now.

But for a business to be sustained, whether it has a social or a purely economic goal, profit is needed. Profit builds reserves. When reinvested it creates strength – primarily through skills and knowledge. Excess profit can be harmful. But reasonable profit, reinvested, is essential.

Beliefs about profit are often so deeply held they’re hard to shift. But unless everyone in your company shares a positive view of reasonable profit, then you really do have difficulties if you want your business to survive and meet its mission.

Thirdly, everyone involved has to have a can do/will do attitude. It’s easier to believe that if things get hard we can give up. But to succeed we have to believe there is a way to get through – even in the hardest times. And we have to believe that we, and we alone, control our progress.

This is somewhat related to understanding that fear is normal. Fear of meeting people. Fear of doing new things. Fear of failure. And most of all fear of change. Know that fear is normal, and you are part way to overcoming it. If you know it and admit it, then you can ask for help, as just one example.

Being open to learning more generally – not being afraid to look a fool, and being unafraid to duck difficult things – is part of the same skill.

I believe even the strongest among us are afraid of change. We all fear the new and unfamiliar. Some like to change the world; but few are brave enough to change themselves.

But in an ever-changing world, what could be a more essential attribute for a sustainable company or an individual?

Fourthly, do the right thing. This doesn’t mean moralising. It’s more of a felt sense. For me, it mainly means overcoming fear so you can move towards a bigger goal. It’s about knowing what that bigger goal is. And sometimes taking the time to check the goal, so that it doesn’t get too big for its boots.

It also means a sense of proportion in other ways. For most of us in the developed world, it means remembering how lucky we are even when things look bad. Most of our lives contain many good things. Remembering to be grateful for them helps keep everything in balance.

Fifthly, do what you say you will, most of the time. Avoid promising to others; but if you make promises to yourself, then keep them. It’s all too easy in times of uncertainty to let a fog settle over us. And that fog provides the perfect shield to hide away, to let things slip, to quietly drop promises – even the most important ones.

Holding on to and reinvigorating your vision is one way to dispel that fog. Another is simply not to let yourself or others off the hook.

One way we let ourselves off the hook is by failing to “bottom-out” things. To me, this means starting a conversation, but when it gets a little hard, giving up. It means failing to push through the mental pain barrier to get at the roots of a problem.

The antidote might be stopping and declaring a time-out, and admitting one is lost. With no idea which way to go.

Being right, knowledgeable and on the ball is so important to most of us that sometimes we’d rather let confusion reign than admit we are lost.

But if you are wandering around in a mist, you are unlikely to get out of it by just wandering around. You need to get a grip. Work out what you know and what you don’t. Assess your resources. Form a plan. And then move steadily forward.

Another way of saying this? Tell the truth. Not just any old truth. But THE truth. The truth that is true for you right now.

However hard that may be.