How We Work

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When The Truth Is Your Only Chance

Telling the truth, even if it's the hardest thing to do, is the best option.

A few months ago, Paul Franco* took a job working part-time for a company in the healthcare industry. At the time, Paul told me he thought the company had tremendous potential, both in the marketplace and for him personally.

So I was a little surprised when he called me, exasperated. “I think I’m going to quit,” he told me.

So we discussed it. The pros for staying were plentiful: he is free to work on his own time, from wherever he wants, doing what he loves, towards a goal about which he cares. Also, he’s making good money and a difference — both of which matter to him.

Sounds great, right? So what are the cons? There’s only one, really: His boss, the CEO/founder.

“He’s all over the place,” Paul told me. “Shifting from one vision to the next. He’s unfocused, unclear, unrealistic, and, most disturbingly, he’s burning bridges with potential investors as well as colleagues. He even reneged on a commitment he made to me, which I had already extended to other people. He’s hurting the business and I’m worried about my reputation by affiliation.”

Should Paul quit? Even with all the seductive pros, the answer seems glaringly obvious: Of course he should quit. And not just because the CEO is unfocused. He should quit because no opportunity — no matter how badly you need the money — is worth losing your reputation.

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I was itching to share my advice but I held back long enough to ask one last question:

“Have you told the CEO what you’ve told me?”

He hesitated. “Not really. Not so clearly.”

Now my answer was very clear though not the one I had planned. “Leaving now,” I said to him, “is a big mistake. I have a much better idea.”

Paul is in a situation I see all the time: An organization or a relationship is either stagnating or deteriorating and no one knows what to do to fix it. Just in the last week alone I’ve heard people talk about unsatisfying managerial relationships, languishing business results, and unhappy marriages. The only two choices seem to be to live the depressing reality of an unpleasant rut, or leave.

Instead, I suggest a third option: risk truth.

Remember when you were a kid, playing ball, and the ball got stuck up in a tree? At that point, you had three options: You could stare at the ball, with growing frustration (stay in the job), you could walk away and play a different game (quit), or you could find a stick long enough to reach the ball and knock it out of the tree.

Think of the truth as that stick.

If Paul doesn’t risk the truth, nothing changes. If he leaves, he will end up in a similar position again — we always do — and then he’ll leave again. The ball will remain stuck in the tree.

But that stick of truth shakes things up. He’ll have to stretch beyond his own comfort to share his observations with the CEO. He’ll have to think about it, work on it, take his share of responsibility, and communicate carefully.

But however uncomfortable that is, it’s not the scary part. The scary part is the uncertainty of the CEO’s reaction. The CEO might lash out. Or sit in denial. Or fire Paul.

Here’s the crucial thing though: There’s no real risk for Paul, because he was going to leave anyway. Paul has nothing to lose.

And the upside? It’s limitless. He might be able to turn around the company. He might develop a deeply trusted relationship with the CEO. He will undoubtedly increase his ability to engage in difficult conversations. He will know he did what he could for the benefit of the company. And, most of all, he will shake things up.

Anything else he tries — political maneuvering, avoidance, stepping cautiously around the CEO’s challenges, speaking poorly about the CEO behind his back, defending the CEO even though he doesn’t believe it, living with things as they are — is soul-sucking and will maintain the status quo.

The truth is his only chance. Not talking about something keeps the ball in the tree.

This is true of any stuck situation. Languishing business results? Asking the hard questions and getting to the uncomfortable truth of the obstacles – whether the truth leads to people or process or something else — is the only chance we have of stimulating a turnaround. The unhappy marriage? Share the truth and either things will get better or worse — but at least they’ll move.

The biggest problem most of us have isn’t that things are bad, it’s that they’re not changing. The truth changes things.

The hard part is moving through the mystery of what will happen when the truth is on the table. It’s that fear of the unknown — the risk it represents — that leads us to keep the truth hidden.

So how do we get over that fear? It’s simple and hard: courage.

First, you need to ask yourself the hard questions about what you really see, think, and feel. Are you projecting? Blaming someone else for your issues? Or seeing things as they really are? In other words, seek the truth. Be honest with yourself, first.

Then, once you feel confident about what you believe — or even if you don’t — tap into your compassion and care for the other person and be direct. Don’t sandwich your truth with apologies, soft-pedaling, and contradictions. That would be hitting the tree so softly that the ball never comes out. On the other hand, don’t whack the tree so violently and indiscriminately that all the branches break off. Share your perspective as “Here’s what I see, feel, think.” Be clear and own it. Then leave time and space for the other person or people to respond.

Finally, let go of your need to have the other person reply in any particular way. You’ve done your part by being clear, compassionate, and honest. You can’t control the rest. But your stick of truth will have shaken the ball free of the tree.

I recently got a call from Paul who sounded more excited about his work than I had heard in a long time. He had spoken with the CEO. “This is what I see you doing that is making my job harder,” he told him. “This is what I hear you saying and how it feels to be on the receiving end of it. This is what I saw you do last week that hurt the company’s reputation.”

Initially, Paul was disheartened. His boss received it well but Paul felt like it was all talk. Not much changed.

Now, though, a month later, things do seem to have changed. Some of it was the CEO — he seems to know more about his limitations and is sticking closer to what he does well.

But it’s not just that. Paul has changed too.

Speaking the truth loosened him up. He’s not as frustrated as before. He’s more committed, more willing to take risks with the CEO and in other areas of his job and life. Courage begets courage. That’s one of the gifts of speaking the truth.

“Today was an amazing day!” he told me on the phone. “The CEO is setting up great meetings for me and I’m doing really well in the meetings. We’re both in our sweet spot.”

That ball is back in play.

*Names and some identifying details have been changed.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review.

Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

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