You can’t manage a secret!” Alan Mulally
This quote from Alan Mulally is my new favorite mantra. It comes from his time as Ford CEO and helming their legendary turnaround in 2006.
I really value candor, openness, and straight talk. With my clients, with my friends, with my leaders, and co-workers. Yes, I am a born and bred, concrete-in-my-veins, New Yorker but this appreciation of openness comes from more than (and yes accented by) my city – it comes from personally experiencing the toxicity of secret keeping.
I was raised by a single, traditional Chinese mother, and I knew as early as five that the topic of the divorce and ‘where’s daddy?’ were taboo, utterly off limits. To this day, 35, 40 years later, I still have no idea when the divorce exactly happened nevermind what drove it. And I can tell you, the consequences of this avoidance, this silence-keeping runs deep: self blame, imaginations run wild, demonization, ignoring and pretending as a way of life (boy that sounds like a successful recipe for adulthood), missed opportunities for real talk with siblings and my mom, weak relationship building skills, weak muscle building around tough topics — all the healthy lessons a child should pick up. Secrets keep you stuck! Secrets don’t grow anything.
And in the workplace, let me tell you how secret keeping delays the inevitable and diminishes employee engagement, innovation, business results.
“Problems don’t get better with age.” Colin Powell
I work a ton with Silicon Valley and there is a designer languaging culture there that is fascinatingly not New York. Wordy, sugarcoaty, indirect, evasive, avoidant, soft-footed, coo-ing, and over-the-top toxic in its optimism that reality, problems are denied, or worse, handled in passive-aggressive, backdoor manners. “I disagree” can practically send people to the hospital and ‘ware’ is a suffix everyware – thoughtware, skillware, talentware, ware is plain English? One of my favorite coaches describes the coddling communication culture as “putting pillows around everything”. It’s not quite fake news but close. Why? Social scientists, maybe you can explain to me why this is but let’s focus on the impact. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. Problems persist, fatigue sets in as keeping up the pretend (perception management it is called) takes a lot of energy, engagement flounders, results, possibilities, innovation, advancing work, growth takes longer than it needs to. Like Mulally said, “You can’t manage secrets!” And when millions or billions of dollars are at stake, is it worth it?
Caveat caveat, of course compassion and care needs to be taken when things are really tough. I am Chinese. I use symbols, euphemisms, indirect communication all the time. I am not talking about lack of care. And I am not talking about caustic, abrasive directness. I am talking about just talking!
I believe we are whole, creative and resourceful, and can handle the tough stuff. Humans are tough. I believe in our resilience. I believe bringing things out in the open, in the sunlight is good, healthy, elevating. And of you need a tool, check out the Ford 24 hour rule.
Talk it out. Bring it out. Talking solves.