We all do it. Those after-the-conversation fantasies about what we could have said or should have said during the exchange.
For some reason, one of those times has come up for me lately, one that involved a presentation I did years ago for a CEO peer learning team, a small group of top executives who were getting together regularly with a facilitator to share their experiences and help one another.
Most often it’s not worth the time to indulge the fantasies, but I stuck with this one to see where it might go.
It involved a presentation I did about Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, the book I co-wrote regarding speaking up in the organizations and the negative effects of “undiscussable” issues. My presentation emphasized the inadvertent behaviors displayed by executives that could contribute to closed, “silent” workplaces where good ideas get squashed and important issues never quite make it to the arenas where something constructive can be done about them.
There was considerable positive discussion among my audience of ten experienced executives. Close to finishing time, however, John, one of the CEO’s present, challenged the whole concept of my book. His tone was one of frustration and patronizing critique.
“I read books like this from time to time and they are all well and good, but they are not at all useful for me. This is another example of a book based on anecdotes and stories. There is no rigorous, professional business model to back up any of your conclusions nor anything that shows me in a demonstrable way that I or my company would benefit from your advice. As a consequence, I cannot possibly see how this discussion is of value to me.”
“What do you mean, “rigorous, professional business model?” I asked, off guard, puzzled, and suddenly a bit rattled.
“There is nothing measurable in your ‘study,'” he said, referring to the fact that my co-author and I had interviewed 260 people in a wide variety of organizations about their experiences with not speaking up. “I have no idea whether or not there would be value to my business from the actions you suggest. Where are the industry benchmarks? Where are the proven results?”
Other executives in the room suddenly seemed to agree with his forceful conclusions. The moderator said nothing. Other participants (who later told me they liked the presentation and agreed with my conclusions) also said nothing. It was up to me.
I cannot recall exactly what I said in reply but I know I was thrown back on recounting the results and value of our survey work. But I did not address John satisfactorily — that was for sure. Moments later, moments filled with tension for everyone, the meeting hastily concluded and everyone left. I felt as if I’d been spat on by an adversary as he walked out the door. As in all such situations, it wasn’t the words he used, it was the demeaning tone.
So years later, I am still remembering this, the embarrassment and vulnerability I experienced. From a logical standpoint I can chock it up to being his problem. But apparently, internally, I’m not done with learning from this event.
In my fantasies, I’d like to think I could have said something like:
“Okay, John, sure there’s no formal Profit and Loss Statement regarding the value of psychological safety within organizations, so you are correct about that, but may I point out that the way you are speaking now, your challenge about measurability and the way you making it, is an example of the very behaviors that shut down open communications and create undiscussable issues?”
And then in my mind I go a step further, touching more explicitly into my emotions.
“Okay, John, let me make you a wager. I’ll come to your company and interview a sample of your executives, managers and employees, asking about undiscussable issues. Just for ducks I’ll include questions about your own leadership of the company — and we will just see if there are any issues, should you be strong enough and open enough to address them sincerely, that might save you some costs or make you more money. If I can do that, then you will pay my fee (which will be a lot) or I give you the results and analysis for free. You up for that?”
And going even darker…
“How come you even joined this group, John? Was it to learn? Really? Are these statements of yours an example of how you go about learning? By challenging and dismissing rather than learning and exploring? Is this the reason someone suggested you attend this group, so you would finally get some feedback about how destructive your interpersonal style really is?”
Oh, I know, this is all anger and fantasy. Opting for such responses may have only served to play the game his way, and my credibility as a consultant might very well have died on that sword even more quickly than the non-response I in fact offered.
And all of this is not the most important part of the fantasy, anyway.
What’s important is how the situation hooked me. Destabilized me and made me and others tense. How even when I knew something, I had a hard time expressing it and acting on it in a cool, Clint Eastwood kind of way. And that in turn raises a new question: Am I expecting myself actually to be that way? Is that really what I want of myself?” Another “pale rider” or “high plains drifter?”
I offer you my apology, John, for not trying harder to understand you in favor of just defending myself. I wish I’d offered in the moment to feel whatever you were feeling, including perhaps how criticized you may have felt by what I had said in my presentation.
I wish I’d trusted you enough to explain that we might well be from separate worlds, that I respected you, and that I saw our job in that room at that moment as creating a kind of bridge. Would it be too much to send you, at this late date and putting aside my useless regrets, a fragment of a later peace?
RSS, email post subscription, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of this page.