While we need to hold our peace and refrain from spouting inappropriate and irrelevant comments, we are also enjoined by all management texts to encourage transparency in our operations and communications. Then the question arises: Does transparency in communications mean brutal frankness—'calling a spade a spade’—or do we restrain ourselves, even with what must necessarily be said?
In my book—Manager to CEO- I had talked about a young woman who was a fellow student in college who said, “My gosh, Walter, why are you so painfully thin?”
She was right.
I was painfully thin, though perhaps not as painfully as she made it out to be—not just in the words but also in the tone that she had used.
I also remember that our relationship was never the same after that. I hardly spoke to her again.
It taught me a lesson on the limits of frankness.
I happened to visit a paintings exhibition at the CJ Art Gallery in Mumbai. It was excellent work by one of India’s promising budding artists. At some stage, I found myself next to another artist whom I knew but who was not so well-known.
“Excellent work, isn’t it?” I ventured to say to her.
“Well, she replied, “it’s very interesting.”
She had been very careful about her phrasing!
How frank should you be? How will you know that going that far is going too far? What should you withhold—knowing that it does not pay to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
And when you do decide to tell only some of the truth, how do you say it anyway?
These are questions that executives on the success path have to ask themselves all the time.
Also, questions that all of us have to ask, whether we are parents, friends, lovers, colleagues, children, associates, partners or in any other relationship.
The accounts clerk, Anil, had given an excellent sarod recital at our company get-together.
The finance director shook his hand and gave him a backhanded compliment, “I wish you were as good with accounts as you are with the sarod.”
The smile left Anil’s face. True, he was a shirker and sometimes careless - but this frank remark in a crowd, at a happy function, did not improve the situation.
Unfortunately, the finance director said it exactly as he thought and felt. He was fearlessly frank!
The hard-driving managing director (MD) reluctantly closed the meeting at 6 in the evening. He knew that the personnel director was getting impatient and so—to a lesser degree—were all the others participating in the meeting. The office was a fair distance from downtown in India’s second-level city.
The personnel director had mentioned to the MD many times earlier that he was to pick up his wife from her office on the way home and that he liked to keep to this schedule unless it was an emergency.
The workaholic MD was in the office till 8pm every day.
As he closed the meeting, the MD added a barb: “I am sorry I overshot my time. Arun’s wife will be inconvenienced today and of course, Sunil will have missed his tennis match at the gym. But office matters are important sometimes.” A potent mixture of sarcasm and frankness.
Regular doses of this mixture had successfully helped alienate the MD from the rest of the group. The turnover of senior managers in the company bore testimony to the MDs style of functioning with his brutal frankness.
Once I was also shocked when I was sitting in the office of one of my icons, who was among the best-known managers in India 40 years ago. His secretary walked into the room where we were meeting—just two of us.
She gave him some papers to sign because they were needed urgently. He did that.
Then he looked at her and said softly, but I could still overhear: “That is an evening perfume, Asha. You should change to a day perfume!” He was right.
But did he have to say it in my presence?
The only good thing about the incident was that I tried to learn about perfumes appropriate for day and evening! It had never struck me before!
There is now a considerable amount of opinion that a warm and trusting relationship is the foundation for effective teamwork and a successful organisation.
Mc Gregor’s Theory Y spells this out clearly: trust people, be absolutely open with them, believe that they want to work and that they will do their best- and they will.
On the other hand, there are those who advocate “my life – an open book” approach as the panacea for countering executive stress, and thereby ensuring better health.
In theory, there is general disapproval of those in the executive circuit who are secretive, who seem to hold their cards close to their chest, don’t tell everything, and certainly don’t tell it as it is.
One of the tests of a good executive is the ability to not wear his heart on his sleeve. He should be open and trusting – up to a point.
Beyond that point, frankness can only cause hurt and a total shutdown of relationships.
Such total openness in marriages has only made for more clients for marriage counsellors and divorce attorneys.
Total openness has proved a long term high-risk area for executives because mobility has dramatically increased now. It could work against you when your colleague becomes your superior, or your friend becomes a friend of your enemy- and therefore now on the other side of the fence.
The executive path cannot be a journey to a popularity poll. Therefore, some amount of frankness is required. Provided it comes in adequate doses – and not too frequently, with a focus on issues rather than on personality- and provided it is verbalised in a manner and place that is acceptable.
Neither an overdose or an underdose will do!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are “5 Gs of family Business” with Dr Mita Dixit and “Marketing in a Digital/ Data World” with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)