As part of a push to eliminate unconscious bias in the workplace, my employer has signed my organization up for diversity and inclusion courses. Because I am technically a part of the human resources team, our ability to remain neutral when confronted with race, gender and experience issues is paramount to conflict resolution and performance assessments. Being able to clearly explain to an employee why they are being challenged to raise their expectations and tolerance is never an easy task, especially due to cultural and generational differences. When we all have different values and morals working together will always be challenging, to put it nicely. This requires that we communicate directly with others, setting clear expectations and boundaries to successfully get the job done.
Businesses want strong outspoken leaders and advocates, assertive people that are “go getters” and can find a way but this direct approach is causing friction. It is hard to find employees that speak up when confronted with ethical issues and performance concerns, that feel empowered to call out quality and safety concerns because they fear losing their jobs. In a culture where privacy, obedience, loyalty and authority are seen as absolutes, it is hard to ingrain into the work force that being a “rat” is honorable. On top of that, many of us were programmed from an early age to downplay our strengths and contributions to appear humble because being overly confident makes one appear bossy, demanding and entitled. Speaking up is not encouraged. Period. This confounds the “born/taught to lead” philosophy since many of us don’t feel equipped to take on the task of leader, nor want to, and have to be brainwashed to do so.
It is hard to be direct when honesty is portrayed as a negative trait. Being mean and hurting feelings is a side effect of directness because we haven’t been taught to appreciate and receive criticism. Rejection has become a traumatic experience to be avoided at all costs and people who know how to say no are made out to be the villains. For women the situation can be worse because parents raise their daughters to be nice, and a woman who can’t grin and bear it has no value to mankind. Being brutally honest is almost impossible to do so without striking a nerve, especially if you are confronting insecure and ignorant peers. There is nothing worse than knowing that your concerns will be dismissed because of some unconscious bias towards you, the work, or the request. If you can’t ask for reasonable things like vacation time or a review of an item of concern without a bunch if excuses thrown your way, how can we expect people to care and be engage at the job when there are no perks for those who get it done or think outside the proverbial box. (Your paycheck is your recognition, right?)
To my chagrin, society has embraced passive aggressiveness as its new method of communication, exhorting us to be indirect or indifferent to others. If I speak my mind to rally the troops and unite against that which oppresses or bothers us, I will get in trouble. The status quo sees a driven and committed person with free will and analytical thinking skills as dangerous because they have the ability to move the complacent ones to action. We are told to conform and not cause waves yet they want us to innovate and create new opportunities for job growth and economic gain. When you go through great lengths to make sure everyone approves of your choices and achievements you open the door to unwanted opinions and lectures, to inefficiency. Being indirect wastes time and money which defeats the purpose of industry; we end up giving and listening to advice we will neither use nor consider. Nothing gets done unless there is a consensus, great for politics but bad for business. You want people that can get to the point, inspire and manage others to achieve the impossible in the least amount of time possible.
This is why being direct is an artform; a delicate dance that manages sensitivities, platitudes and courtesies while keeping in step with the music. It is an effort that requires great patience, delicacy and improvisation to gently match the rhythm of the moment. Be it fast paced or slow, the exchanges have to be synchronized to ensure everyone is satisfied at the end of the piece. If not, the dance may turn into an honor duel. Even though most of us love to be challenged and educated, many tend to see criticism and guidance as mortal enemies which is why being direct can clear a dancefloor fast if no one likes your tune. This is why being kind and compassionate while managing teams is a most coveted professional trait, one that we need to cultivate and bring back. All this backstabbing and whining is getting us nowhere. I don’t blame competition, I blame manners. We should bring those back too.
There is no need to cover up or hide our intentions if what you need or want is plainly in sight and reasonable. You shouldn’t care about what others may think about your request as long as you have the data to back it up; if it is justified or deserved it shouldn’t be denied. Our voices matter, more so if we are on the right side of the argument. The worst thing you can ever do is not inquire because the reason you are doing so is to learn the answer, to receive knowledge or guidance. Rejection hasn’t killed anyone that I am aware of, and honesty shouldn’t be perceived as a negative characteristic. After all, when you built trust and rapport with others based on honesty, people will be more prone to respecting you. Use your honest words wisely.
Tips for being direct:
1. Avoid using long lead ins like “I’m just…” “I know you are busy” “I think…” “I believe…”.
Take all unnecessary niceties out or things than make you seem unsure of yourself. Saying please may not get it done faster but a well placed thank you will.
2. Ask binary questions. Yes or No answers only.
Don’t ask open-ended questions that will take a long time to answer. Most people can’t improvise quickly and by asking open ended questions you put them on the spot. The information you will get will not be to your advantage and could be incomplete.
3. Separate fact from opinion.
If you don’t know say “I don’t know”. Do not give opinions in lieu of facts, it will bite you down the road. Take an action item and report back later. In many cases your conscious and unconscious biases will cloud your judgement and make you believe a platitude or opinion may help you save face, or worse, they will give you a false sense of security and you will say the wrong thing. Avoid using stereotypes and cultural norms to defend your assumptions. Opinions can be wrong; facts not so much.
4. Learn to say no, or state a request without explanations.
If you can’t do it, just say no. If the other person insists, repeat that you are not interested or available. No is complete sentence. In the case of requests state what you need, in what format and by when. If your team needs it state it clearly. If you need it and it cannot wait, do not use ASAP as an ICD. Say immediately or put in a deadline.
5. If you have a beef with someone, tell them face to face.
Don’t be passive aggressive. Don’t tell everyone but them about your problem. Take them aside and expose your point of view. Never expect someone to change their tone or mood if you don’t ask why or negotiate. They may not realize how they are coming across, especially if they are being rude. Don’t play the advocate either and let them figure it out even if you heard it second hand.
6. If you don’t feel comfortable, excuse yourself and walk away.
You don’t have to be nice if you feel threatened or uncomfortable. End the conversation and walk away. Safety first! If you do not want to be touched or addressed don’t smile and laugh it off. Say “No! Don’t touch me.” and move on. Create distance if you must. Saying “please don’t x so close to me” is fine.
7. Toot your own horn.
Learn to compliment yourself and your abilities. Make a list of your strengths and capabilities. If you know you can do it, and are up for the job, ask for more or better responsibility.
Prepare a report detailing what you have achieved before going in to a performance review. Focus on your strengths and talents. Don’t accept a bad review; take a union or HR rep to the meeting if you need assistance.