As the year turns and I find myself reflecting about my work, what comes forward is the whole dynamic of denial by all of us in leadership roles and positions. By denial I mean that we all too easily push away uncomfortable or unacceptable truths. We push them away in a variety of ways. I know I am doing it most when I feel offended by feedback someone else has given me, and I see this pattern over and over again in my work with client leaders. This is right at the core of the patterns in organizations around the fear of speaking up. The receiver, a boss or colleague or report, becomes offended and expresses frustration or anger with the information that has been brought forward. Suddenly the relationship with the receiver is at risk and judgments are being made about the messenger. The sense of offense, not necessarily communicated to the messenger directly, then leaks into interactions, undermining them in more or less overt ways. Personally, I am beginning to notice these moments for myself and paying more attention to them. They are telling me I need to listen rather than defend, calm down rather than button up the armor, but the cycles and habits of emotional reaction and judgment can be awfully difficult to break. Put the force of organizational power (whether “up” the system, sideways or down) behind these negative reactions and we have everything we need for retaliation to occur, real or perceptual.
Recently, I was asked to make a keynote presentation at a midwestern university about what it would take for an organizational culture to be strong enough to sustain the truth. It was a wonderful topic, driving me to revisit everything I thought I knew about integrity. I came up with three principles:
1. Accept feedback without taking offense.
2. Speak up about the tough topics even before trust is present.
3. Really care about other people, how they feel and what happens to them.
There is too much to say about each of these points in a single post, so I’ll only share the headlines. Number one is the ability to stop, even when aggravated or insulted, to listen. Being aggravated or insulted by data about one’s leadership and what’s really happening is to me the number one issue, causing denial and mistrust in relationships — flip sides of the same coin, and enormous emotional waste. Number two is about safety. People want to bring forward their messages in an environment of trust. Yet the environment of trust is created by people taking the risk to speak up even when trust is not yet present. Waiting for an environment of trust to be created by others is a co-dependent position keeping an organization or team stuck. You must be able to go first if you want to change things. Finally, really caring about people means that there are no tricks. You can’t create an organization able to sustain the truth if you are thinking “management technique” or holding onto a negative view of your receiver. No one hears truth very well if they also sense they are not cared about or are being attacked. Effective messengers surround their messages with genuine empathy.
The bottom line is you can’t beat people into living with truth. We are so constructed as to have infinite capacity to hold onto what we know and believe is so. For every difficult fact there is a countervailing fantasy that protects us from its acceptance, and only when we are ready to examine our own fantasies do we begin to create the real capacity to hold truth. Truth and compassion — for self, for others — are inevitably linked and are both necessary ingredients for wholeness.
As for my keynote, I received positive feedback for suggesting that really all three of these pieces depend on a spiritual vision. You can’t lead very effectively if you don’t allow the spiritual aspect of your personality to bring forward its essence. Truth and care are contained within this essence inseparably. This isn’t about religion, but about the quest to be fully human, which is what I believe causes a leader to be a leader. We are intrinsically inspired by this quest when we see it in someone because ultimately it touches and heals the wounds of own past experiences of inhumanity.