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Know when to hold your cards close to the vest

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I know many people who run successful businesses … and you can’t believe a word they say.

Most employees can spot a phony without any trouble. He or she is the boss who goes around each day making little canned speeches, like “Hang in there; you’re a critical part of the team!”

The employees I know are a pretty cynical lot. They don’t put much stock in words; they prefer action. They respect someone who works late with the troops during a crisis, but they don’t believe in someone who pontificates about dedication but is nowhere to be found when the real work starts.

Falsity has a role

Still, I confess that, sometimes, even the best leaders have to fake it. I’ll be the first to admit that, while sincerity is a worthy goal, it’s sometimes necessary and/or prudent to pretend a bit.

Here’s an example: Last year, I realized that I’d have to cut personnel costs. Revenues had dropped and something had to give. My CFO and I crunched the numbers and concluded that I needed to lay off some people.

When you’re dealing with something this sensitive, you want to handle it right and treat people as fairly as you can. You want to offer all kinds of support and communicate openly about what’s going on. So I prepared a timetable for everything: how we’d let people know we were reviewing staffing, how we’d notify those people who would lose their jobs, how we’d prepare a package of generous benefits to soften the blow and give them a head start in finding work.

Yet, rumors started flying almost immediately: before I even had a chance to follow my plan. So, when employees casually asked me if anything big was about to happen, I fudged. “Not at this time,” I told them in a firm, confident voice.

You can say I misled or even deceived them. But I would argue that it’s better to control how you communicate such important news than to let the rumor mill dictate events.

Wear your game face

Another situation that calls for faking it: when I’m really worried about something. Let’s say we’re having confidential talks about acquiring another business.

That kind of tension can eat you alive. Yet, I can’t show it to anyone; I’ve got to maintain my “game face” and act as though every day brought only business as usual.

Maybe I’m a phony because I sometimes have to be diplomatic instead of letting everyone in on the inner workings. But I’ve found that I have to weigh my words and choose an approach that will cause the least damage and yield the most good.

If I’m privately upset with a manager for messing up, I might pretend to be pleased—or oblivious—if I know that manager is trying hard. I figure I’ll be in a better position later to make my case for improvement, because then, he’ll see me as an ally, not an adversary.


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