You Can’t Handle the Truth!

How many times a day do you hear someone refer to “the real world” when they are trying to get someone to see an opposing point of view? Of course, everybody’s “real world” is different, so the new-speak translation of this line is really more like “you should really think more like me.” My world is usually a pleasant place to live, but I’ve been looking for this real world according to others and sometimes it is not a very pleasant place. Life has its little minefields (an excellent analogy) since you never know when or where problems will arise. It is always better to locate and defuse the mines rather than to find them by stomping around until they explode. Whether you are a corporation, a manager or an individual, when reality kicks your butt, you have two choices: defend yourself or pretend that it didn’t happen.  You are responsible for the outcome either way.

Social Media Branding Blindness

A rigid brand image which ignores reality and conforms uniformly to an unswerving militaristic corporate model reflects something about the underlying culture. Adding social media to a conservative branding approach can be a little scary. “What if somebody says something negative?” to which I answer, “How can you stop them?” If you don’t believe me, look at the successful 12-year run of or the Facebook page I Hate Microsoft. In May of last year, one of the boldest presentations on doing it right was at the Recruiting Innovation Summit when Larry Nash from Ernst & Young gave a presentation on recruiting college students using social media. The first key element of his program was in identifying the stereotypes that had to be overcome, such as a list which included “the company is too conservative.” Then they had the courage to make a decision to adopt rules which allowed adverse comments on their Facebook page…to which I add my thunderous applause. Where better to negate negativism than to avoid the appearance of censorship. Of course, this took a bit of courage not usually found in such a traditionally conservative industry and I imagine there were some reservations from the legal eagles, but it provided an opportunity to respond quickly and soon college students knew that they would get fast answers to their questions. This alone gave this brand authenticity by showing that it wasn’t just another marketing creation. People have become so skeptical of glitzy marketing ploys that it has become difficult to form positive images in the minds of consumers and candidates. As one crusty old marketing genius once told me, “You can’t gift-wrap a turd!” Probably a more politically correct, less colloquial phrase would be “You can’t camouflage reality with shiny stuff.”

The Culture of Management by Executive Edict

Most organizations do not really adopt the idea that all knowledge is centered in the top boxes of the organization chart, however the ability to foster a “listening” culture in search of reality means that the top bosses must let ideas percolate up to the top without being subjected to intermediate filtering. Within reason, radical new ideas must be given the chance to be heard and evaluated. Likewise, grievances and complaints should have the opportunity to be addressed regardless of source or perceived validity. If we have learned anything in our attempts to develop a diverse culture in the workplace it should be that discrimination does not have to be real in order for serious problems to occur. Listening and identifying problems is the only way to form viable solutions. It can be assumed that the best corporate vision comes from the top simply because leaders often have better insight to available resources, obstacles and profitability than the rank and file. This does not mean that input from the organization is unimportant. Deidre Campbell outlined in a Harvard Business Review article several key points about the culture of great organizations and among them is making an investment in employees and the recognition that culture is critical to talent retention. When I think of the word “culture” the analogy of “yogurt” comes to mind: Often the good stuff is on the bottom and it must be stirred to the top and spread throughout for the best results.

Thin-skinned Individualism

While we all have a breaking point with regard to negative feedback, to ignore the reality of the negative is to pretend that you are perfect the way you are…and you probably aren’t. One of the most difficult things for anyone to do is to find a lens that projects an image of how you want to appear without the filters imposed by others. Some input will be harsh, some will be painful and some will cut deeply. To ignore reality in favor of your utopian viewpoint means that you want it to get better without doing the hard work necessary to get there. Sometimes it IS your fault that you are where you are. Yes, there are hostile work environments and toxic bosses, but if the problem is internal to you it will never be possible to rise above the fray. On more than one occasion when I have been counseling job seekers on their unsuccessful efforts, I listen empathetically about the evil black hole, the impersonal ATS systems and uncaring recruiters and then ask “How many people in your network have you called today?” Silence…dead silence. “How many resumes have you sent out today?” answered by whimperings about the total uselessness of it all. Sometimes a little tough love is needed to make the breakthrough in an honest point-counterpoint analysis. Here is what might be wrong…here is how to fix it. You don’t make the bad stuff go away by ignoring advice from those who care about you and would probably help any way they can. You can’t assume that your management is only out to use you if you have not done your best and faced total reality. You will never have a shortage of potential enemies, so it is not advisable to treat your friends as if they are enemies.

So, can you handle the truth? Are you paranoid or are they really out to get you? Dealing with the truth, no matter how painful, will trump putting your head in the sand every time. Life is hard enough without ignoring events that need to be analyzed to set things straight. Addressing a problem head-on is not a guarantee that sunny days are on the horizon, but the alternative is to do nothing and lock-in the affirmation of the negative which is always going to be there anyway.



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    • Cyndy Trivella on April 9, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    A great post Tom!

    I see a lot of the head in the sand mentality with companies and people alike. IMHO, it boils down to fear of the unknown. Education and experience help to assuage fear of the unknown, but when paralysis by analysis sets in, nothing gets accomplished.

    Also, to your point about taking responsibility, you are spot on. We cannot change anyone’s behavior other than our own. When we let those around us determine our happiness and satisfaction, it is a recipe for disaster.

    1. I agree with my colleague, Cyndy Trivella—GREAT POST! The imperative for organizations and people to not only take responsiblity, but use the challenges they face to move forward is something I am passionate about, and one of my areas of professional focus.

      There was an excellent article by MIT Sloan yesterday that I tweeted speaking to thought power no longer emanating from the top…the important thing about the MIT Sloan post and your post are:

      1. Command and control, post WWII militaristic model is no longer valid and a recipe for decline

      2. The imperative to build what you so aptly called “a listening and learning culture” is written on the walls of our organizations…many of whom are bleeding to death. Transparency is critical, as is a new mindset to take us forward

      3. Learning to take responsibility while also optimizing strengths and transforming challenges into a lever for vertical and horizontal comunication and leadership is CRITICAL.

      Thanks for a really great post, Tom!

  1. So true! You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge and that goes for organizations as well as individuals.

    Creating a transparent culture doesn’t always feel comfortable, but it does offer a way to address real issues that exist. Leaving those feelings to fester does nothing to improve the health of your organization, but begins an infection that can have a long term negative impact.

    From an individual perspective, it’s best to embrace examining the full truth of how you find yourself wherever you are. The only way to change it is to determine your options and pick the best from there. Stop doing what merely makes you feel better and start doing something to help yourself. Analyze to figure out your part of what put you in the situation to begin with. Better to learn the lesson than to be doomed to repeat it…

    Thanks for your good words, Tom.

  2. This article is spot on Tom. The simple fact of the matter is that the Social world has democratized the Branding of companies and if you don’t get with it then you will likely be left behind when the War for Talent starts to heat up again (and every indication says that is starting to happen).

    Honestly Branding has always been about making authentic choices, people would talk if your brand did not align with your culture….SoMe has simply become a broadcast tool that allows for stronger Viral Coefficients.

    And that’s my big word for the day.

  3. I enjoyed your article, especially the section on “The Culture of Management by Executive Edict”. I always chuckle to myself when I’m in the lobby of a corporation and I see lots of pictures on the walls of happy smiling employees with slogans about how wonderful everything is. Gee, isn’t life grand.

    Employees want to be valued and they want to make a difference. If there is no way for them to express their ideas without fear, they will move on. As an executive recruiter I talk to hundreds of employed job seekers who look like they have it made, but deep down feel disconnected and insecure. An outsider might even think, “Why on earth would they leave that job?!”

    You’re right, Tom, whose reality is real?

  4. “Within reason, radical new ideas must be given the chance to be heard and evaluated.”

    LOVE THIS! I have helped numerous clients set up “SAM” Boxes; suggestion boxes of sorts that help ANY employee within an organization suggest ways to SAVE, ACHIEVE or MAKE things better (SAM). Any and every employee has an equal opportunity to share ideas about ways to help their company save time, money, etc., achieve goals in another way, or make any system or process better. In a great listening culture, there are often multiple suggestions, and once a month they are “voted on” by a panel of peers and leaders. The one chosen will go into implementation phase, and the person who made the suggestion gets to work on the implementation team. It’s a great way to increase engagement and retention, and a great way to make your company even better than it is! The one word of caution I give to all of my clients is this: The worst thing you can do with negative information is nothing! You may not choose to implement a suggestion, but you simply cannot ignore the issue that caused the suggestion to be made.

    Great post, Tom!

  5. Well said, sir. This is definitely tweet worthy.

    • Ed Han on April 13, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Tom, this is excellent–as usual! Very true and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this!

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