I read a book recently called Authentic Conversations, which is essentially an argument for honesty at work. That may not sound too radical, but it actually is. I’ve managed people for more than a decade, and the book made me think about how much conventional management theory and training is designed to replace authenticity with calculation, and how damaging that can be.
The book opens with a great story, in which the publisher of a struggling newspaper is doing a newsroom walkaround. 
It’s tough times for newspapers, so his staff ask him lots of anxious questions — is the company okay, what’s he doing about the advertising slump, has he figured out the pension issue. He talks confidently about how things are going to be okay. There’s a plan. The board is optimistic. And so forth. The authors (who were with the publisher that day, presumably starting a consulting engagement), say he clearly felt he was doing good work – creating an atmosphere of calm and confidence, so that his staff could focus on doing their jobs well.
And I have to say, I have definitely been there. I’ve never lied to anyone who works for me, but I worked for a long time in a troubled industry, and I certainly expressed optimism more strongly than I felt it, many many many times, and for the same reason the poor publisher was probably doing it.
The twist to the story is that back in the guy’s office, the consultants rip into him and tell him what he did was horrible. They persuade him to call a special meeting and tell his staff he’d been lying — that the company is indeed in trouble, and that neither he nor anyone can give them the reassurance they want. And that he’s not their father, and isn’t responsible for their security or for their happiness.
The story ends triumphantly, with applause all around.
I’d be surprised if things actually played out that way, because I don’t think that people necessarily value truth that much. But I do think that even when people don’t want the truth, or aren’t comforted by it, they deserve it.
The authors go on to decry that they call “speaking for effect.” Which again struck me as pretty radical. As a young manager, I was trained –over and over again, explicitly and by modelled behaviour– to carefully manage my words and tone in order to create the response I wanted.
- A mentor of mine was well-known for using silence to increase his authority. In big meetings, he’d be perfectly watchful, and would say nothing. Throughout the meeting, the other participants would get more and more nervous, wondering what he was thinking. They’d start second-guessing themselves and poking holes in their own arguments. Eventually they’d start actively soliciting his opinion, and by the time he finally spoke, whatever he said carried enormous weight. 
- Two friends of mine, who were also friends of each other and who ran competitive TV shows inside our organization, used to stage yelling matches in front of their newsroooms in which they’d argue over whose show warranted more resources from the shared services pool (like, edit suite time or PR support). They did it so their teams would feel valued and defended, and afterwards they’d go out for beer.
- I had a boss who was famous for his terrible temper. He’d shout, hang up on people, send all-caps e-mails, and storm around the office slamming doors and throwing things. But his capacity for anger –and his reputation for it– was mostly calculated — he’d slam down the phone and start laughing.
- A colleague was proud of her ability to shame her staff into doing better work. Her magic words, she told me, were “I am disappointed in you.” I once watched her role-play a performance assessment, and I found her acting ability pretty remarkable. She’d sigh, put down her pencil, make prolonged eye contact, and say something like “Jim. You’re really letting down the team.”
- And then there’s a very common use of speaking for effect: the deliberate expression of trivial agreement. This is particularly done, I think, in big, old companies where responsibility is diffused and group buy-in is critical. In those contexts, expressing trivial agreement (“sounds interesting!”, “good point!”, “great feedback!”) is the small coin of the realm. If you do it well, it costs you nothing, wins you allies, and puts money in the favour bank.
I’m not trying to argue that all these tactics are necessarily bad. It’s obviously true that managers need to be in control of their emotions, and need to be conscious of their effects on others. Undisciplined and reckless bosses can cause all kinds of problems.
But I think a little calculation goes a long way. And I also think there’s a cost, which sometimes goes unnoticed. People who are very studied, whose words and responses are calculated for effect more so than being spontaneous and natural — they’re behaving inauthentically. To a degree, they’re treating other people as means to an end rather than as human beings, and their behaviour also suggests that their minds are totally made up: they are not actually open to new information, they’ve figured out the correct end state, and the only work that needs to be done is persuading you to go there. Which means they run the risk that the people around them will learn over time to distrust them. It also means they miss the opportunity to engage authentically — to have real conversations, to stretch themselves, to learn.
 I don’t have the book with me, so I may have butchered specifics a little. But the gist of the story’s accurate.
 Warning to women who might consider trying this tactic: it doesn’t work for women. Truly. I liked a lot of things about that guy, and I tried modelling my own behaviour on his for a while, but it didn’t take long to realize that a silent woman is perceived totally differently from a silent man. Suffice to say that a silent woman is easily mistaken for a person without authority, regardless of how much she may actually have. Too bad :-(