“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.” – Frederick Douglass
Where It All Started – My Disdain for Hemming & Hawing
I grew-up appreciating telling it like it is as a phrase describing one who does not equivocate or wastes time using pretty language and/or outright lies in making a point or seeking a specific need. I have been conditioned to believe truthfully stating your case or posing your questions as concisely as possible provides a favorable look into your level of expertise. Being crisp in how you speak conveys strength and confidence, undeniable authority even. I am unsure if telling it like it is represents a fair metric of such qualities, but it is one that I believe has some validity. Much like a candidate sweating on TV during a presidential debate, I thought verbosity and equivocation connote incompetence, lying or secrecy of some sort.
My upbringing in the Deep South exposed me to all sorts of personalities and life lessons. This is rather unremarkable insofar as people are shaped by regional culture and customs irrespective of who they are and where they were reared. However, I think the customs and mannerisms of Southern Hospitality are in a league of their own. Conjuring up thoughts of fried chicken, a dialect that is either revered or reviled, and porches furnished with rocking chairs among other things, Southern Hospitality is a way of life to which any proud resident of the Deep South aspires to lead. From never showing up as a visitor to someone’s house empty-handed — a faux pas of epic proportions — to enjoyably eating one’s cooking as the highest compliment you could ever pay, Southern Hospitality has taught me several traits that I credit to my upward career trajectory as well as stable personal and professional relationships I have developed to date. This also includes striving to tell it like it is.
One of many useful lessons my parents have instilled in me is to never beat around the bush. Hemming and hawing, as far as my parents were concerned, brought about unnecessary confusion and may result in your not getting what you want or deserve. Being the native southerners that they are, they understood Southern Hospitality as shunning any form of equivocating — which represented the opposite of telling it like it is and is not to be respected.
Mincing words resulted in uncertainty which may lead to spending money we did not have, physically working harder than necessary or enduring drama and other manufactured social crises that could have been averted. Telling it like it is was a badge of honor, a status symbol informing those around you not to question your integrity and motives. What was inherent in telling it like it is, is an unquestionable level of honesty and goodwill. It means your every idea, action and word were founded on the ethos that — while not always shared by everyone — was respected because you were respectable.
The Evolution of Telling it Like It Is
As an adult, I realized telling it like it is had begun to take on different meanings. In all fairness, the phrase may have always had multiple meanings. My revelation was not the bearer of entirely bad news — I simply became more open to the notion that the maxim I learned in my childhood should no longer be seen as so cut and dry. I realized telling it like it is may now refer to a person who wants you to take their word for it because (s)he is insecure in being unable to weather any push-back or criticism — regardless of its constructive tone.
Conversely, others may not be telling it like it is because they were raised in accordance to the mantra; if you do not have anything nice to say, do not say it at all. This stance does not have any inherent malice; it is actually built on being respectful, and depending on the situation, not sweating the small stuff. No longer telling it like is may mean people find themselves in toxic work environments or strained personal relationships where such a stance could get them fired or worse physically assaulted.
Additionally, choosing not to tell it like it is may be necessary as a means to a more important end such as helping a family member or friend get back on his/her feet while recovering from a traumatic experience. Here, telling it like it is connotes lying through omission less if at all, with a stronger focus on exercising discernment in how and when information is delivered.
I want to stress the point I am not implying people are becoming fundamentally dishonest in exercising contextualized judgement in deciding which information to share or otherwise foregoing telling it like it is. On the contrary, as I have gotten older and matured professionally, I more cautiously interpret one’s guiding principles (e.g. telling it like it is) as an illustration of his or her different experiences. This openness shapes how I can better hear beneath the words.
Returning to the examples above; in my sphere of friends, family and colleagues; I want to ensure I actively allow room for them to be human. That is the part I am sure my parents implied in their teaching me the importance of telling it like it is, yet somehow did not resonate until I was older. We all have insecurities and fears we must assuage. As someone who truly wants to do the most good for the most people — including overcoming my own internal fears and self doubt so I can show-up stronger for those around me — leading through example is a surefire approach. With that, my motivating factor is no longer solely getting the uncensored truth from people at all costs. Rather, I am striving to create an environment that earns people’s trust so that being forthcoming with their truths — inconvenient or not — is a low-stakes ask.
Consider Some of My Experiences and Lessons Learned.
Create a culture of openness and dialogue free of rabble rousing — including personal attacks. Shun the urge to use the non-leadership tactic, do as I say not as I do.
I seek input and buy-in regarding which projects we should take, allowing my team to contribute at a level that broadens their skill sets while not fraying their nerves. We have short and informal meetings or, when necessary, longer discussions where each team member speaks freely and honestly about the progression of our work and/or the happenings of the public health world. Also, I strive to create a space that allows the more reserved to speak up about things when left unsaid may lead to unintended consequences. Lastly, I validate my team’s concerns without patronizing them, offering my honest take and pushing back in a respectful way when warranted.
Check your own insecurities and reflexes to endlessly defend yourself when constructively challenged on an idea or antiquated process. Refrain from delegitimizing sources of information and at times shooting messengers not showering you with congratulatory remarks or unyielding accolades.
I heed my team’s feedback in a way that is not smug and condescending. We all know that boss who says (s)he wants your input yet responds coldly or otherwise unproductively when given. I am keenly aware of how that can demoralize or infuriate team members. Admittedly, receiving feedback can be tough. I value the teachable moments constructive feedback fosters more than dwelling on what is almost always a temporarily wounded ego. It is one critical way I can show up better for my team. Finally, no-strings-attached feedback provides my team another way to be purposeful while tapping into their best strengths. This builds trust, cultivates respect and just creates a fun and exciting space to work.
Refrain from saying no to ideas and suggested changes in processes without offering sound, respectable reasons for doing so — solely relying on your being in charge as the reason to say no tramples your credibility. Thinking you do not owe your team an explanation makes you look insecure, and yes perception is reality.
Generally, I believe people dislike hearing no and those having to say it find doing so equally loathsome. Saying no hinges on a number of reasons. Well founded no responses delivered in a respectful and equitable manner can build one’s credibility — serving as a indicator of his or her values and willingness to make tough calls when it is most unfavorable. I do not like saying no yet understand I must at times — decisively and succinctly. While my team members may not agree with my choosing to say no, I honestly feel they continue to respect me because I have shown them that I do so from a place of as much objectivity as possible and/or principle — that I am telling it like it is.
Reading, about two books monthly, helps me better articulate my thinking around making tough choices. Everything from heeding others’ lessons learned from navigating similar situations to expanding my communications skills as a result of continual exposure to different authors’ prose, reading provides me the language with which I can express why I draw certain conclusions. My team and I have made reading for this purpose an integral part of shaping our team dynamics. It is a communal activity that rests on recommending our “must reads” — which may or may not be work related — to each other as a way to share the benefits of our own personal development and intellectual enrichment. Every time I quote or paraphrase a line from either Good to Great, Daring Greatly, A Whole New Mind or other books to drive home my point; my team harmlessly smirks, let out a chuckle or jovially utter “oh boy.” However, they understand my rationale, receive my point and we move forward.