Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I have a propensity to say things without much ornamentation. It is a habit I come by honestly, a family trait passed on from my parents to my brother and me. When I say I do not ornament my speech, that does not mean I am not prone to fits of hyperbole or casual sarcasm, being human and all. Nor does it mean that I get in people's faces or am rude or impulsive. I talk straight, meaning that when I speak, I tend not to evade the truth or facts as I see them, and I abhor misdirection and obfuscation. This straight talk is a sign of neither arrogance nor aggression. In fact, a wise straight talker will remain silent and listen when her or his version of the truth might fall flat or be counterproductive or hurtful. One of my personal guides is that only fools speak when there is nothing to say, which is not to suggest that I am not such a fool more often than I would care to quantify or admit.
Straight talk can be jarring to some who demand what they consider more diplomatic speech. Indeed, I can be diplomatic and quite deferential in my tone and diction when necessary, but that last qualifier is essential: when necessary. Diplomatic speech is vital to the success of, well, diplomacy. In other situations it can be off-putting, mystifying, dilatory, or downright misleading. The same can be said for euphemism. At times euphemism is absolutely the right choice for reasons of politeness, gentleness, or cultural sensitivity, but euphemism, when used as a matter of course, can be tantamount to guileful manipulation. It places the audience, particularly during conversation, in the subordinate position by imposing unwarranted verbal limitations. Similarly, political correctness can be disorienting, but there is a caveat here. While some extremes of what is deemed political correctness can be quite silly and while political correctness can feel constraining to many audiences, political correctness is also a way for individuals and groups to create and possess their own identifiers rather than subjugate themselves to those imposed by more dominant groups. And, lest you imagine that the politically correct are creatures solely of the left in the United States, think again. Labeling a middle-class married woman a "housewife" will likely and rightly cause offense and evoke indignation from watchers of MSNBC, but what response can you expect from wishing a Fox News fan "happy holidays" around Christmastime (or, for that matter, spelling the holiday Xmas, which warrants some research if you are unaware of the origins)?
What do diplomatic speech, euphemism, and political correctness have in common? All three have their uses, as I have noted, but all three have their abuses. The worst cases result is evasion and deception, willful or otherwise. But even when used properly and benignly, diplomatic speech, euphemism, and political correctness create a sense of insider-outsiderism. Much as with sarcasm, if you are not in on the lingo or do not understand why it is being applied in a situation, then you are de facto excluded—an outsider. The gratuitous use of jargon can have a similar effect.
Straight talk may also seem to have an inside-outsider quality for those who are not personally or culturally disposed or comfortable with it. Some will say that straight talk is too curt and off-putting, but that is never its intent and need-not be its effect. Straight talk is a way of cutting through the clutter of language. Like all forms of communication, it is severely hampered by the human limitations of perception that plague both the speaker and the listener, but straight talk is an attempt to be more direct and emphatic and is often greeted as refreshing and freeing. In conversation, it signals a willingness to drop pretense and evasion and cut to the chase, to say what you mean and mean what you say. It gives the opportunity to converse mutually without ritualizing the process. In fact, as a tool of diplomacy, it can eliminate delays and misunderstandings when wielded with integrity and skillfully for mutual benefit.
Again, straight talk is not about rudeness, insult, or dominance. Those are hallmarks of bullying, which sometimes masquerades as straight talk and is anything but. Bullying is about mastery and control certainly, but it is also about evasion. The bully eschews exposure as a coward and values winning above all else as though every circumstance were a zero-sum game. Straight talk, by contrast, is a form of verbal collaboration for creating win-win scenarios. It evinces deep respect and regard and a willingness to share on an equal footing. The straight talker is not seeking to oppress or intimidate but to accommodate and welcome straight talk in response. The straight talker strives to maximize honesty and transparency and therefore is rendering her or himself most vulnerable in the exchange. Talking straight, unlike bullying, runs a risk because it seeks to remove the veils that conceal individuals from each other and too often from themselves.
Nonetheless, as a veteran and dedicated straight talker, I find the risk is worth it. Who wants to live in a world in which everyone habitually and relentlessly obscures meaning? Language and communication are slippery enough without the added liability of volitional evasion. Straight talk is not always the best tool and is sometimes inappropriate or ineffective, but as a norm it cuts down on the nonsense and frees participants in a conversation to come to terms as painlessly and effortlessly as possible. Straight talk is not perfect. Like its political cousin, democracy, though, it is the worst form of communication except for all those others.
Try to picture a conformist in action. We will call him William.
William is a follower, someone who is forever riding on the bandwagon and never driving. William adheres to standards because, well, they are standards, and he adores traditions. William is ever conventional because the unconventional is to him uncomfortable and even at times offensive. William is neither adrift nor passive. Despite appearances, conformity is a proactive mode and can be hard work. A conformist, such as William, does not float with the tide. He swims with it because it is stupid to resist. William buys the trendiest sneakers because the are trendy. He has no pronounced tastes of his own but he is convinced they look great since everyone is wearing them. William chuckles and scoffs at people who wear other shoes.
If William were an animal, he would be an impala, a ubiquitous southern African antelope that is easily identified with a large figure M on its rump. Safari guides may tell you that the M stands for McDonalds because, like the restaurant chain, the impala is a reliable source of nourishment and can be found on every corner. When you see an impala in the wild (and you will), it will either be in a herd or dead. The impala runs with the herd for protection and companionship and eats a consistent diet of plant parts. The individual impala takes no risks, and the herd certainly does not. The impala plays it safe, relying on numbers and speed to escape enemies. That does not mean the impala has no fun. Herds of impala may frolic together and play and even fight, but one herd member is always cautiously on the lookout for danger. The impala are so consistent that they drink water and even give birth at the time of day least likely to attract predators. With any threat, the impala herd will bolt in an instant and scatter with tremendous leaps to disappear into the brush. William is an impala. And, William eats at McDonalds too, not because he likes it better than other places, but because it’s familiar, easy, and where everyone else eats.
Now think of a contrarian. Let’s call her Trudy, keeping in mind that there are many fewer Trudys than Williams.
If Trudy sees a crowd on the march, she heads the other way. Trudy swims against the tide, often making a big show as she flails about. In fact, she does not like popular beach vacations and prefers staying home to work in her garden, which is "at least doing something useful." She must labor at her contrarianism, which she takes very seriously and is hence not much fun to be around. She is not a misanthrope, but she just hates going along with the throng. Strict adherence to traditions are for losers and followers. Trudy rarely goes to see the fireworks on Independence Day and has not put up a Christmas tree in years. Everyone else does that, so why should she? Trudy checks out the latest trendy footwear. She may even find the look appealing, but everyone is wearing them. She chuckles and scoffs before buying something else.
If Trudy were an animal, she would be the infamous honey badger. Aggressive and solitary, the honey badger is a sharp contrast to the passive and social impala. I do not mean to suggest that Trudy or other conformists are aggressive, only to point up the contradistinction. Honey badgers work hard for their differences. Their only fun seems to be in reeking mayhem as, for instance, when they attack barnyard fowl and kill more than what they need or when they take over the borrows of other animals despite being superb diggers themselves. In addition, unlike the impala, there are no honey badger packs. The individual honey badger can and will fight even much larger predators, including lions, and has the added defensive ability to disperse a noxious odor from a gland if in danger. The honey badger is a risk taker. As for food, the honey badger enjoys honey, to be sure, but eats just about anything: insects, rodents, lizards, fruit, roots, etc. In short, the honey badger is just the opposite of the impala, and that is the point of contrarianism: to be contrary, to do the opposite as a matter of course. Trudy's diet, by the way, is probably less varied than the honey badger's. For instance, she would not eat McDonalds, but make no mistake. She enjoys the Big Mac just fine, but she prefers driving a bit further to eat at Bojangles', which has shorter lines. Finally, notwithstanding assurances from the viral video that "the honey badger don't give a shit," Trudy certainly does give a shit, perhaps even more so than the William.
So, what is the difference between the conformist and the contrarian, the impala and the honey badger? The impala and the honey badger contend with exactly the same things in their environment but in near-diametrically opposed ways. The impala moves in herds, the honey badger largely alone. The impala plays it safe, the honey badger not so much. The impala flees from danger, and the honey badger charges. The impala eats a limited diet, and the honey badger eats everything. Their reactions are different, but their drivers are the same. Still, what drives William and Trudy? Both respond to what is trending and what is popular and make their decisions according to their disposition, one in favor of the trend and one opposed. They are entirely reactive if not reactionary, and at times equally knee-jerk. As a practical matter, the only difference between the choices of the conformist and the contrarian is the outcome, which are equally predictable.
Contrarians often present themselves to and are perceived by the world as independent thinkers or even iconoclasts, and I have tried to demonstrate that they are anything but. Independent thinkers may take in all the same information—for instance, what is trending, what is not—but they go beyond simply binaries and fold in, well, whatever they want. They may go with the trend. They may reject it. They may find another option. There is no good animal analog for the independent thinker because there is no single model for the independent thinker. They can range from the less-than rigorous outlier on one extreme to the rigorous critical thinker to the true maverick or iconoclast on the other extreme. They can be leaders, loners, or the loyal opposition. To whatever degree, the independent thinker is marked by a lack of easily predictive reactivity.
While I admit to a bias toward the independent thinker, in our society the conformist and the contrarian certainly have their roles and their utility along with the independent thinker. My point is to demonstrate how the contrarian and the independent thinker are just two sides of the same coin. All too often, contrarians are held up to the world as bold thinkers. We hear this claim when some ignorant people deny well-established science, such as with the science of climate change. There are a few scientists who renounce the human causes and the consequences of climate change. Their supporters will point out that famous scientists like Einstein also bucked the establishment, but the comparison is weak. Einstein was a maverick and iconoclast, not a contrarian. He did not look at the establishment and pick the opposite stance. He applied rigorous thinking and self-awareness to forge new paths in areas of science that were not as easily verifiable or readily observable (and, in fact, not nearly as universally accepted) as climate science. In short, he was not simply reactive but was thoughtful and thorough in his analysis and left open the prospect that he could be wrong. His method was even more important than his conclusions and contributed to the accuracy of those conclusions. His methodology indicates that he was neither a conformist nor a contrarian but was an independent thinker.
The contrarian, though, is not driven by careful thought or the objective search for truth. The contrarian and the conformist are simply reactors to the same stimuli, no matter how the contrarian presents him or herself to the world. If the impala/honey badger analogy is a stretch for you, think of sheep and wolves. We have all heard the story of the wolf that infiltrates the sheep herd disguised as a sheep. But, imagine the sheep is a conformist, and the wolf is a contrarian. The sheep and the wolf would then lead their lives much as conformists and contrarians, reacting to the same drivers, albeit in antithetical fashions. Is the wolf so different then? If not, we must conclude that a contrarian is nothing more than than a conformist in disguise. The conformist is, indeed, a sheep in wolf's clothing.
“...yes I said yes I will Yes.”
This piece is about the power of positive leadership.
As a boss, I have long practiced a philosophy I call "always start with yes." It involves a simple shift in attitude away from negativity and ambiguity and toward prudent positivity.
Let's imagine a broadly sketched scenario together. You are a supervisor or group leader, and one of the people who reports to you has a request. You must analyze that request within the context of several concerns, some of which the employee may be wholly unaware. For instance, perhaps you manage a budget, or perhaps there are implications regarding the purpose or mission of your organization. How do you handle the request?
Unfortunately, whatever their natural disposition, too many leaders see their primary duty as protecting resources such as money and workers' time. While these resources are vital and should not be squandered, they exist for a reason: to further the ends of the organization. Treating them like coins in a piggy bank, as though once spent they are gone, is unwise. Resource management is not a zero-sum game Good bosses invest resources while husbanding them closely. One of the resources that is most difficult to identify and impossible to measure is good will and the trust it engenders, but it is also among the most valuable if managed correctly. All too often, perhaps because it is so etherial, leaders squander good will in the name of protecting the more measurable resources, like money.
One way to counter this impulse is to start with yes.
In the scenario I laid out before, you could greet the employee's request one of three primary ways. The first is to view it as hostile to the smooth operation you have so carefully cultivated, as an attempt, however unintended, to rock your boat. Most people are not so narrow-minded as to take this stance as a default, but it is easy to reactively move to the negative position as a means to preserve the vaunted status quo.
The second response is possibly more common and involves meeting the request with a mushy maybe, which is almost alway tantamount to saying no but tends to introduce ambiguity and misgivings into a situation. The choice of terminology, whether you say "maybe," "possibly," "we'll see," or "I'll get back to you," is irrelevant. The sentiment is always the same. Saying maybe may convey a promise of consideration, deliberation, or even hope, but it really means that you are stringing someone along in order to either have the suggestion die of neglect or to find a way to say no down the line. Just saying no may be harsh and reactionary, but saying maybe is even more often just a lie.
When starting with no or maybe is the default, it makes getting to yes nearly impossible. If that is your intent, congratulations, but habitually leading with no or maybe, will most often lead to a culture of mistrust and demoralization. You may be able to ameliorate this disfunction through other means, but you will expend a great deal of your own resources to achieve little in the end. Reactively starting with no or maybe might preserve your quantifiable resources in the short run, but over time many resources, both countable and uncountable, will attrite into oblivion.
Starting with yes requires, first, a shift in attitude and a subsequent shift in approach. Again, this is not about being a pushover. Quite the contrary. It is a strategy to empower and embolden employees in a positive and productive way while asserting and maintaining your own authority—goals that should not be anathema to any boss or organization. If you are inclined to manage people using raw authority, your impressive title, or brute force, this approach is not for you. And godspeed to your underlings. Consequently, starting with yes only works if it is a part of an overall open approach to leadership.
Starting with yes is simple. It presumes that interactions, any interactions, with employees and colleagues are opportunities for positive relationship building. It is not a naive outlook, though it may affect a naive stance, and is in fact quite canny.
In the scenario I sketched, a start-with-yes approach would open a conversation while requiring you to be fully open to the possibility of yes. Yes should be the default opener. In the conversation, you lay out all the relevant facts for your employee, who can then help you reach a decision or better understand your ultimate judgment if it is not favorable.
Here is a slightly more fleshed out scenario to consider.
Mary is Tom's supervisor. Tom has an idea on how to approach a key process more efficiently. Mary knows that the process their company uses is well established and that, while not as efficient as she would like, it works. She also knows that tinkering with that system could be politically fraught, and she is concerned about burning capital on a new idea. If Mary is a no person, then problem solved. She shoots him down, and he goes on his way. Of course, she may have just passed on a transformational idea and the personal benefit of its halo effect. Also, if saying no is her default, she risks promoting ill-will and mistrust and creating a different sort of problem. Her employees, over time, will come to resent her. They will keep their ideas to themselves. Mary will become the prime evaluator and the sole source of innovation, and, unless she is a solitary genius, progress and productivity will slow.
Let's play this out with Mary as a maybe person. This time, she tells Tom that she will take his idea under consideration. If he is new or has little experience with Mary, he may take her at her word. Inevitably, though, it will become clear that "maybe" is just a dilatory "no." If this keeps up, then Mary's maybes will have the exact same effect as saying no except that her employees will grow even more resentful that she will not level with them. See previous paragraph for consequences.
But, what if Mary is a yes person? Does she automatically give Tom the green light with no consideration? Of course not. What she will do is offer positive encouragement and understand that she now has several options. This is not a simply reactive response but is the beginning of a thoughtful process: hence, prudent positivity. One favorite possibility is to charge Tom with researching and pursuing the idea himself and even offering him modest resources as necessary without promising any particular outcome. Another option is to charge someone else or a group with studying the possibilities or doing so herself, again, without promising any particular outcome. The key here is that Mary's response must be sincerely positive while projecting shrewd discernment. She must take Tom's idea seriously and honestly pursue it without being credulous. Doing so will almost certainly require a commitment from Mary and may even constitute a burden on her or others. If Tom's idea is good, then the extra effort is worth it. If it fails, Mary and Tom will seek to learn from the failure. Either way, Mary and the organization gain from the good will Mary has generated with Tom and with others. In short order, Mary's continued benevolence will accrete and become a powerful and bountiful resource in good times and bad.
Sometimes, though, an employee's idea is just untenable on its face. Perhaps it was tried before and and did not succeed or requires resources beyond the capabilities of the organization or will trigger a political backlash in the organization. If for some good reason Tom's idea is simply a nonstarter, Mary will explain precisely why she must reject it as fully as she is able and urge him to continue to come up with more ideas. Her reputation for candor and transparency will again work to her benefit.
Certainly this approach will not be appropriate in every situation and with every employee. Organizations are human endeavors and are as imperfect as those who comprise them. The point is to create a culture of trust that originates at the top. Sometimes you may find that you will begin with a sincere yes but must end with a hard no. That is just fine so long as there is an honest analysis and a mutual understanding of the reasons behind the final decision. The point is to lead with a positive attitude toward the ideas and requests that may come your way. Do not treat them as distractions from what you perceive as your normal work or, worse still, problems to be dismissed or solved. Instead, recognize and embrace the fact that receiving employee requests is a significant part of any manager's job. It's really not as hard as many may have been led to believe and will reap dividends in innovation, productivity, and trust that you and your organization can profit from for years to come.
"Decent" is a slippery word, which does not exactly qualify it for stand-out status within the English lexicon. On the one hand "decent" just means mediocre, acceptable. A grade of 'C' is decent. If someone says that their team has a decent chance of winning, save your money. It is not a full-throated endorsement of a sure bet. A decent song is one that I will not complain about but do not care if I ever hear again. A decent television show is one to watch if there is nothing else on. No one will be pleased to drive a long distance or pay a lot of money just for a decent meal. Decent is good enough and nothing more.
On the other hand, "decent" as a mark of character is high praise. Saying that someone is decent indicates that they have a goodness of spirit, honesty, and integrity. I may not agree with a given politician, but if I deem her a decent woman, I am suggesting that I respect her rectitude if not her opinions or convictions. Saying an actor is only a decent performer but is also a decent person is neither redundant nor contradictory. It offers faint praise for the actor's thespian prowess even as it commends the actor's personal righteousness.
So, in one sense, as a broad descriptor, "decent" means "good enough" while on the other, as an assessment of human behavior and motivation, it means "better than good." (I told you, slippery.) Obviously, achieving decency in the first sense is the definition of unremarkable. Achieving decency in the second is a mark of distinction, particularly in our current environment of rampant indecency.
This latter sort of decency of character can be exemplified by a particular episode that took place in an organization when the longtime CEO was in her last year before retirement. This CEO was a woman of deep conviction and honesty. In short, she was a decent woman. In her last year, the organization committed to a multiyear contract with a vendor that promised to help put the organization on a whole new economic footing while maintaining its focus on its mission. The CEO and her staff probed this offer in every way, including contacting the vendor's current clients, and, while they learned that the road might be rough, they were assured that any struggles would be well rewarded.
As it played out, though, the vendor was unwilling or unable to deliver on its promises. In addition, and more troubling, the vendor pressured the organization's staff to commit to directions that were perilous to the organization and to its ability to deliver on its mission. Upon learning of this looming crisis, the CEO first sought to reset the agreement with the vendor, but the vendor failed to meet the terms of the revised contract as well. She then negotiated to rescind the contract altogether after that first year, thus sparing the organization unnecessary struggles and sparing her successor as CEO the burden of an untenable contract.
Think of the wherewithal her action required. The CEO first had to accept and admit that the arrangement with the vendor, however well intentioned, was in error and that she herself had been mistaken. She further had to convince herself that despite strategizing and budgeting around the tantalizing promise of financial rewards for the organization, the promise was empty. Now the organization had to make up for a budget shortfall. Had the contract been successful, it would have sealed her legacy as a CEO, so breaking the contract must have required an extraordinary act of self-discipline. Indeed, she scuttled the deal as almost the final act of her longtime career in leadership. It was the right thing to do and could not have been easy to present to her board. The correct decision required a leader with a core of fundamental decency who was more interested in the ongoing mission of the organization than she was in securing a legacy or protecting herself.
In a counter example, a CEO at another organization discovered, upon taking office, that the organization was in dire financial straights. To his credit, he worked with his team to devise techniques to keep the organization afloat. He did not, though, devise a strategy for moving past its precarious state, and those emergency actions quickly hardened into norms. Over years, they became sacrosanct practices, "the way we do things," and any effort to undo or even question the efficacy of those norms was met with extreme hostility and even viciousness. Anyone who proposed or sought to modify the practices was suppressed or purged, no matter their intention or approach. The organization's mission was subordinate to the practices that had been established. This CEO did not have the wherewithal to unwind the web of emergency actions he had undertaken because he did not possess a decent character. His method was to bluster, distract, and bully to get things done the same old way even though he was accomplishing little—all symptoms of his rampant indecency. The overall quality of the organization itself, inevitably, diminished with no hope of improvement due to the CEO and his team's fecklessness and malevolence.
Both stories are true although with identifying details altered.
The CEO in the first example was inherently decent and possessed the integrity to make difficult decisions even when they might reflect badly on her. The CEO in the second example was truly indecent. While he rose admirably to face the crisis early in his tenure, that effort exhausted his stock of mettle. Hence, one organization could continue to be excellent and deliver on its mission while the other inexorably sunk below the mark of mediocrity and could not fulfill its primary objective. It was less than decent.
So, human decency engenders excellence, which should not be surprising. A wise man said that "excellence is the result of habitual integrity" (often attributed to Lennie Bennett). Since decency and integrity are merely separate words to represent a person's inner strength and potency of character, it is not surprising that both describe the ingredient necessary to foster excellence in all we do.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.