Most employees can spot a phony without any trouble. This is the boss who goes around all day making little canned speeches, saying things like “Hang in there, you’re a critical part of this team.”
The workers I know are a pretty cynical lot. They don’t put much stock in words—they prefer action. They’ll respect someone who works late with the troops during a crisis, but they won’t believe in someone who pontificates about dedication while taking long vacations and letting others do the dirty work.
Falsity has a role
Still, I confess that sometimes even the best leader has to fake it. I’ll be the first to admit that while sincerity is a worthy goal, in some cases it’s necessary or at least prudent to do a bit of pretending.
Here’s an example: Last year, I realized I’d have to cut personnel costs. Revenues were down and head counts too high. Something had to give. My board and I concluded that some layoffs were in order.
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 that we were reviewing staffing, how we’d notify those people who were losing 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 up, I fudged. I said in a firm, confident voice, “Not right now.”
You can say I was misleading or even deceiving 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 is when I’m really worried about something. Let’s say we’re having confidential talks about acquiring a company. That kind of tension can eat you alive.
I can’t fret and make everyone’s day miserable. They’ll probably think it’s something they did! Instead, I have to put my game face on and not let my guard down.
Maybe I’m a phony because I sometimes have to be diplomatic instead of telling people what I really think. But I’ve found that I have to weigh my words and choose an approach that will do the least damage and elicit the most good. If I’m privately upset at a manager for screwing up, I might pretend to be pleased if I know that the individual’s trying hard. I figure I’ll be in a better position later to insist that he improves—because he’ll see me as an ally, not an adversary.
Each month, “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 20-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $10 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.
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