I have been wondering whether being economical with the truth comes at too high a price. It is expensive for people, feeling uncomfortable, shifting in their seats in meetings, looking studiously at papers, and screens, and waiting for a subject to move on. I have always thought of myself as someone who would – within reason, well usually within reason – ‘speak up’, ‘challenge’ if I thought something could be improved on, was missing some facts, or I simply had a different view.
Then a few months ago, a very dear colleague and friend said, “you seem to be overly aware of how what you say will go down, and end up sounding unclear.” She recommended an approach she called ‘clear conversations’; stepping back from the detail, and getting clear on what needs to be said, and saying it with conviction, so starting with “I feel …”, “I know …”, or “have heard”. But it was only when I knew I was leaving the organisation that I found myself speaking with a new-found clarity of voice. “You’re on fire!” my friend encouragingly said after one meeting.
And sharing this with friends and colleagues, people nod and recognise the symptoms, “well, you’re freer … its not going to be brought up in an appraisal in six months.”
But, what I was giving voice to, was said with care for an organisation’s interests that I had fostered for over a decade. It was often views I had discussed with colleagues outside formal meetings; so I knew I was not alone in having these opinions. It was carefully said; aware of people’s status and that they would have other views that they were likely to be attached to. And I remember the comments as being well received. So, what had been preventing me from speaking like that before?
Reflecting about my reality of my previous employer has been uncomfortable – not showing myself to be the ‘courageous leader’ I thought I was. Was holding back about not wanting to look silly, about wanting to preserve good relationships with influential seniors? Was I picking up micro-messaging that said “it’s not worth it”? How did I see myself and my colleagues in order to have that perception? Did ‘my self’ quit the organisation as I ceased to voice what was important to me?
The sub-text of power relations seems woven through my experiences and reflections. My working hypothesis seems to have been “speak your differing views and there will be some form of negative consequences”. Would I become excluded?
So, how ironic that only when I was being formally excluded that I felt I had a freer voice. I had regained some sense of personal power through independence. It seems that Truth – Power – and Fear were floating, interdependent factors; the extent to which I would speak openly being moderated by the power held by those I am talking to, and by the fear I have that the other person will use that power. So, how are my experiments with personal truth going now I am outside my previous employer? I sometimes find myself trying to ‘position’ some feedback or reflections … fearful that they may find offence in what I am saying. When I have caught myself, and tried for a clearer and still caring message … so far, so good. People have been thoughtful in their replies, thanking me for my reflections and collectively our work has been improved. And I have felt liberated and more energised, as I have felt true to myself!
Truth feels like a neglected playmate in the playground. Trust, integrity, collaboration, are words thrown casually around everyday. Yet, what is regarded as a truth, and therefore what can be spoken about and what only with caution, and perhaps too much ‘care’, seems to be equally worth exploring and looking to promote. For me, this initial reflection, has opened up links to what is important to me as a person, and therefore how much value I perceive I bring. Truth goes deep.
“I promise to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God”.
A guest blog post for Mayvin by Organisational Change Professional Caroline Sharley