One of my favorite movies is A Few Good Men. One of the best scenes is when Tom Cruise cross examines Jack Nicholson about the incident and after much banter, Jack loses it and says “You Can’t Handle The Truth.”
Sometimes, your management can’t handle the truth and yet, you need to tell it.
Why The Truth Hurts?
Mangers are funny creatures. They tend to think that once they say something, it’s automatically gets done. They also tend to believe that as long as everyone does what they say, everything will be all right. They also assume they have control over their company or employees. The harsh reality is they don’t.
Managers make up for a lack of control by convincing themselves that they have more control then they do. This delusion is sometimes the only way they can get through the day.
The higher you go in an organization, the less control you have and the stronger the reality distortion field becomes.
Reality Distortion Fields
Reality distortion fields are created by mangers to make them feel like they are in control. These fields are actually strengthened by other mangers and an executives staff who share in the same delusion.
When these fields are created, they are hard to penetrate because they serve as a buffer between the real world and what the manager wants to think. You see this all the time in politics where a politician is so out of touch that they see reality one way when it’s completely different. Just ask President Bush when he proclaimed, Browine, you’re doing a helluva job.
These reality distortion fields happen at all levels in an organization and can be frustrating to deal with. What makes it even harder is most mangers don’t want to hear that their great plan is a total flop, the project is late, customers hate the Beta and morale is low.
Even though most managers don’t want to really know what’s going on, someone has to tell them. That person is usually either the curmudgeon, the naive new-bee, the savvy operator or some on the senior technical staff.
Surviving Being the Messenger
If you have to be the bearer of reality, then you want to be as savvy about it. You don’t want to lie but you also don’t want to be overly negative or bring them crashing down to reality too fast. Remember, managers are sensitive when it comes to anything that ruins their grand vision or perception of reality. The person that crushes their reality is going to be looked upon in an extremely negative way.
The secret to surviving the management reality distortion field is to get your facts straight and be the calmest person in the room. This can be extremely difficult to achieve since there are a ton of people who want reality distorted. To help you through this, take a look at some of these simple techniques to bring reality back:
Be data driven: Data is your best friend. Use it as much as you can and make sure it’s from a creditable source.
Remain calm and get calmer: Calm yourself and be as matter of fact as you can. You can show emotion as long as it’s excitement for getting the job done. Don’t be overly subdued but don’t freakout either.
Show a sense of urgency: All managers like to see a sense of urgency. For some reason, they equate that to progress. You should want to solve an issue quickly but even more important is to make sure to show the passion to solve it.
Present solutions: Always, always, always present a possible solution. Never just present the problem without a solution — no matter how half baked it might be.
Know the hot buttons: Everyone has hot button issues. Know them and avoid them if you can. Nothing strengthens the reality distortion field like tripping a hot button.
Talk two levels up: If the situation is highly visible, assume you are talking two levels up your management chain. This means you need to be concise and ready to explain details to people who might not understand the full issue.
Each reality distortion field is different and it may take some prodding to figure out the best way to pierce it. One thing that is always good to do is tell the whole truth about an event or situation.
Telling The Whole Truth
A while back, I wrote a post titled Tell The Whole Truth. The main audience was technical managers (e.g. Engineers and scientists ) because those types of people tend to focus on problems and not solutions.
All of us can benefit from focusing on solutions and applying the whole truth to a situtation. Simply put, you have to Tell them what works, what doesn’t and what you are doing about it.
Step 1: What Works
Always start with the good news so that management knows that at least something is working. Starting from success will give you a better chance of getting your message through.
Step 2: What Doesn’t
Explain the issues or problems in a way that shows you have mastery of the situation. Once that’s established, dig into the details if required. Most managers (in fact, most humans) will overly focus on the negative since it’s a threat that needs to be neutralized. When explaining the issue or problem, be as upbeat (but not glib) as you can. You want to come across as being concerned and in control.
Step 3: What You Are Doing About It
Action on problems should be specific and timely. Explain your action plan in simple concepts and words. During a crisis, most people don’t fully engage with the details — they are too busy freaking out inside.
An action plan will also put management at ease. Knowing that you are taking steps to resolve the issue will make everyone feel better.
Beyond The Whole Truth
Once you have told the whole truth, a funny thing with happen — time and space with accelerate in the reality distortion field. I’ll explain.
Every managers have a defect. This defect is the I said it, now it’s done. syndrome. What this means is that as soon as your boss says go get it done, to them, it’s done. It might take weeks or months to actually get the task done but for them, they will wonder why it’s taking so long to complete.
This complicates things because they think it’s done, even when you told them how long it would take. To combat this syndrome, try these techniques:
Remind them of the time line: Reinforce what the timeline will be. Better still, get commitment and remind them of that commitment.
Keep track of tasks: All tasks related to the problem need to be tracked somewhere. Make sure they all have due dates as well.
Ask what’s a priority: Priorities change so make sure whatever you are working on is still a priority. Sometimes, you will get the “everything is a number one priority.” Clearly, that’s wrong. You might have to make a judgement call if your boss gives you an answer like that.
Give progress updates: Keep management in the loop on progress — even if none has been made. This closes the loop and shows you are still on top of things.
You Get What You Get
Every boss and reality distortion field is different. Each one needs to be probed to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes your approach will backfire while other times, what used to work, now does not. The key to dealing with the truth and the reality distortion field is to adapt your techniques to the situation. Be flexible in your approach and attacking it at different angles will yield the best results.