Should we be too frank?

Although we must remain silent and refrain from making inappropriate and irrelevant comments, all management texts also direct us to encourage transparency in our operations and communications. So the question arises. Does transparency in communications mean blunt frankness – “calling a spade a spade” – or are we restricting ourselves, even with what necessarily needs to be said?

In my book – Manager to CEO – I had written about a young woman who was a college classmate who said, “My God, Walter, why are you so painfully skinny?”

She was right.

I was painfully skinny, but maybe not as painfully thin as she claimed – not just in the words but also in the tone she used.

I also remember that our relationship was never the same after that. I hardly spoke to him anymore.

It taught me a lesson about the limits of the franchise.

I happened to visit an exhibition of paintings at the CJ Art Gallery in Mumbai. It was a great work from one of India’s up and coming budding artists. At one point, I found myself next to another artist that I knew but who was not very well known.

“Excellent work, isn’t it? I dared to tell him.

“Well,” she replied, “that’s very interesting.”

She had been very careful with her phrasing!

How frank do you have to be? How will you know that going this far is going too far? What should you remember, knowing that it doesn’t pay to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

And when you decide to tell only part of the truth, how do you tell it anyway?

These are questions executives on the path to success must ask themselves all the time.

Also, questions that we all need to ask ourselves, whether we are parents, friends, lovers, colleagues, children, associates, partners or in any other relationship.

The accountant, Anil, had given an excellent sarod recital at our company meeting.

The finance manager shook his hand and gave him a sideways compliment, “I wish you were as good with the accounts as you are with the sarod.”

The smile left Anil’s face. It’s true that he was evasive and sometimes careless – but this frank remark in a crowd, during a cheerful reception, did not improve the situation.

Unfortunately, the CFO said it exactly as he meant and felt it. He was intrepidly frank!

The hard-driving General Manager (MD) reluctantly closed the meeting at 6 p.m. He knew that the personnel manager was getting impatient and, to a lesser extent, everyone else in the meeting. The office was a good distance from the city center of India’s second-tier city.

The personnel manager had repeatedly mentioned to the MD that he had to pick up his wife from his office on the way home and that he liked to stick to that schedule unless it was an emergency.

The workaholic doctor was in the office until 8 p.m. every day.

As he closed the meeting, the MD added a beard: “I’m sorry I went over my time. Arun’s wife will be inconvenienced today and of course Sunil will have missed his tennis match at the gym. But office stuff is important sometimes. A powerful mix of sarcasm and frankness.

Regular doses of this mixture had succeeded in driving the MD away from the rest of the group. The turnover of the company’s top executives was a testament to the MD’s operating style with his brutal directness.

Once, I was also shocked when I sat in the office of one of my icons, who was among the best-known managers in India 40 years ago. His secretary came into the room where we were meeting – there were only two of us.

She gave him some papers to sign because they were urgently needed. He did that.

Then he looked at her and said quietly, but I could still hear, “It’s an evening scent, Asha. You should change to a day perfume! He was right.

But should he say it in my presence?

The only good thing about the incident is that I tried to educate myself on the appropriate fragrances for day and night! This had never struck me before!

There is now a considerable opinion that a warm and trusting relationship is the basis of effective teamwork and a successful organization.

McGregor’s Theory Y makes it clear: 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 the “my life – an open book” approach as the panacea for countering the stress of executives, and thus ensuring better health.

In theory, there’s a general disapproval of those in the executive circuit who are secretive, who seem to hold their cards close to their chests, don’t tell everything, and certainly don’t tell it as it is.

One of the tests of a good executive is the ability not to wear your heart on your sleeve. He should be open and confident – up to a point.

Beyond this point, candor can only cause harm and a total closure of relations.

Such total openness in marriages has only created more clients for marriage counselors and divorce attorneys.

Full openness has proven to be a long-term high-risk area for executives, as mobility has increased dramatically today. It could work against you when your colleague becomes your boss or your friend becomes your enemy’s friend – and therefore now on the other side of the fence.

The executive journey cannot be a trip to a popularity poll. Therefore, a certain franchise is required. Provided it is given in adequate doses – and not too frequently, with an emphasis on problems rather than personality – and provided it is verbalized in an acceptable way and place.

Neither an overdose nor an underdose will suffice!

(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a business executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consultancy in India in 1975. As a consultant, he worked worldwide on four continents. He was the first elected Asian President of ICMCI, the global umbrella body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; business columnist; visiting professor on marketing at United States, 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 his time in NGO.)

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