The emperor’s new clothes

A new process (or tool, or role) gets introduced and it has been getting nothing but positive feedback. Almost everyone is sending in their feedback citing how helpful it is, that it is quite good, and how it could be the key to them becoming absolutely more productive.  That’s all nice and dandy. But then again, the feedback is being coursed through one of the most intimidating managers in the company’s known history. Could this be a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes?

In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, a hedonistic emperor got duped by a couple of con men pretending to be tailors.  They made him a suit out of a material they claimed to be invisible to anyone who’s stupid or unfit for office. Out of fear of being misjudged, the emperor and his ministers pretended to see the fabric and they all raved about the emperor’s new “clothes”. Proud of his new outfit, the emperor went on a procession across town. The townspeople were gobsmacked at the sight of the naked emperor yet no one had the guts to speak out until a young boy cried out, “But he’s got nothing on!” A murmur spread across the crowd and they came to admit that the child was indeed saying the truth. The stubborn emperor, on the other hand, refused to admit his shame and continued with his procession.

At work, safety often takes precedence over candor. We refrain from raising questions that would contest (or even sound like it would contest) our superiors. We refrain from speaking our mind when we have ideas that don’t exactly conform to the ideas of others. We refrain from confrontation even though we think what the other person is saying is pure BS. At worse, we become mindless yes-men. All for the sake of safety. Ironically, this affinity towards this kind of safety is somewhat dangerous. At worst, we risk propagating a bad idea and letting it wreak havoc into our projects. And at the very least, we fail at what we were expected to do i.e., give honest feedback.

Veracity in egonomics

Veracity was described in the book as the habitual pursuit of, and adherence to truth… even when it hurts; actually, more so when it hurts. The book points out two specific abilities necessary to get into that habit: hearing down and speaking up (where down and up just refers to work hierarchy, not to our value as people).

To appreciate both, we must learn to shift our perspective of hard truths or negative comments. No matter how negative, oftentimes, there’s an underlying positive intent. For instance, in our office we have this co-worker who has this reputation of being such a whiner. But behind that, if only he’d learn to express himself better, what he is actually after is a positive change. To those who need to speak up, hard truths must be raised in a way that doesn’t incite the other person to jump the gun and feel like his identity is being attacked. To those who need to hear down, hard truths are not always attacks to our identity. We deter potential improvements if we immediately close our minds to what others have to say, and if we strike a feeling of pointlessness or fear in the hearts of others instead of encouraging them to exchange ideas or feedback.

Between hearing down and speaking up, I personally have great difficulty with the latter. I’m not sure if it’s the culture or the upbringing, as much as I try to break out of the habit, keeping mum is one of my more natural inclinations. The book shares three steps to keep minds open when speaking up (you’d need at least one depending on your relationship with the other person):

  1. Establish permission Just as you knock before entering, you establish permission before you speak up. You don’t want to come in uninvited.
  2. Make your intent clear Instead of having others think the worst, just be outright with your intentions. You don’t want to be misinterpreted.
  3. Be candid Just be straight to the point. But of course, exercise tact. You don’t want to bore people with details nor be rude.