Telling the Truth Upward

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

A senior executive has made a request, something impossible to achieve, born of a lack of understanding and rising frustration. It’s passed down until it lands in my email.

I understand the frustration, and I share it, so I respond politely, directly to the executive. I explain why it’s impossible.

One of the people copied on the email stops by with a bit of advice. “You need to be careful saying what you did,” he says. “You could hurt your career.”

This reminds me of the old line about Socrates: he told the truth, so they poisoned him.

Later, I consider the statement. Why did my fellow employee think that telling an executive the truth would hurt my career?

Perhaps he spoke from personal experience. Perhaps he said what he did because he understood the corporate culture better than I did.

The corporate culture is definitely top-down, and some would call it “manage-up.” We’re team-based and consensus-builders. Consensus can often take time, and that is difficult when we increasingly operate in internet time. But, I admit to myself, a decision, an idea, or a suggestion can look like a runaway freight train when an executive’s name is attached to it.

Still, none of that really occurred to me. I responded with the best information and the best advice I had. I did not say that the explanation was obvious, or that the executive simply didn’t get it. I didn’t think I was being particularly “counter-cultural” in that I communicated a straight, unvarnished answer.

Perhaps we tell upper-level executives too much of what they want to hear. It doesn’t mean you have to become an official corporate protestor or conscientious objector, but one must consider, in some cases, that telling an executive what he (or she) doesn’t want to hear can hurt one’s career.

I ask myself, how can executives make good decisions when they have only partial, incomplete, or bad information, even if the truth may be difficult?

The answer is, they can’t. And that might explain how a lot of bad decisions get made.

A situation like this can be approached in three steps:

First, I try to understand what prompted the question in the first place. Is it lack of understanding or experience? Frustration or fear? The possibility of embarrassment? I remind myself that most organizations exist to do two things simultaneously: achieve an objective and control circumstances to the fullest extent possible. The question of control, and the lack of it, is often critical.

Second, I attempt to persuade. I don’t respond immediately. I do consider the right response, or all of the possible responses. I look for ways to connect a difficult answer to an executive’s own experience.

Third, I provide a rational, straightforward explanation, as concisely as possible. I’m mindful of the executive’s time. I don’t argue. I can't force an executive to accept my advice; I can give him options with the most likely outcome for each.

I don’t always do this perfectly. Sometimes I don’t have the time that’s needed to reflect before answering. Sometimes I’m put on the spot in front of 30 other people, and I have to provide what I believe is the best course, knowing full well it’s not what an executive wants to hear.

But I can’t tell an executive what he wants to hear if it’s wrong.

The executive responds with an email of his own. As it turns out, he understands, and he accepts my answer. “Sometimes,” he says, “I get frustrated, but I know you gave me the right answer."

It doesn’t always turn out that way. But it should.

Post by Glynn Young.

Image by Tim Miller. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.