Few people want to stare into a mirror (real or psychological) and look with brutal honesty at the reflection. We often require a mental crash helmet to protect us from the worst elements of the external environment. That’s why some women’s clothing shops specialize in ‘generous’ dress sizes and men pretend their golf handicap is lower by not submitting scorecards when they have bad games. In similar vein, leaders sometimes tell themselves lies to help them feel more powerful and in control. These ‘white lies’ help executives face a tough world, day after day.
Lies Versus Delusions:
However, ‘white lies’ can cross the line and morph into delusions. People start to deny the obvious and defend the ridiculous. Sometimes the issues are personal: “I don’t have an alcohol problem, I only drink white wine”; “All kids need discipline. I don’t use excessive force”. Sometimes they are organizational: “The Operations Director has been here for 14 years. How could we replace her?” Excuses are the way we defend the lies we tell ourselves. The central role for consultants (assuming they are not overly-focused on securing ‘follow-on’ contracts) is to highlight delusions that negatively impact performance.
The Un-Magnificent 7:
Here are some of the ‘internal tapes’ which I’ve seen in play in 2014.
- When it comes to written communications, I have incredibly high standards (“Why is perfection so important to you?”).
- Emotional outbursts are a way of signalling what’s important (“What are the triggers which make you respond in this way?”)
- You cannot focus on weaknesses (“Is there something about confronting other people’s performance which makes you feel uncomfortable?”).
- This problem is temporary (“All the evidence points to the contrary. Why are you avoiding this?”).
- As the CEO, everything depends on me (“Are you taking on too much of the burden for the organizations’ success?”)
- I’m a great listener (“Lets just step back through the earlier board meeting. I think that you either ignored or missed a number of important clues…”).
- I always welcome new ideas (“Where is the actual evidence to support that contention?”).
Great consultants act like a mirror to CEO’s, management teams and organizations. They first listen and try to understand. They watch and observe what happens in practice. They gather data as evidence. They should try to support and build confidence. But they also have the ability to intervene skillfully, when the leadership team starts to lie to themselves or to others. Consultants should not collude with delusions or leadership lies.
Labelling this as courage probably debases that particular word. Normally there is no physical threat involved and few consultants are 100% dependant on any one organization. But you do need guts. And some skill in deciding when to be ‘friend’ and when to be ‘foe’. While it’s not about tearing off someone's mask in public, it is about stepping up to the bar when the need arises. Are the consultants you work with up to this task? Or just focused on that next invoice?