Truth at Work

"The consequences of not having Truth Talks are calamitous. Businesses fail, employees fear for their jobs, managers worry about getting sued, teachers are afraid of getting shot, divorce rates remain high, and parents still can’t find a way to communicate with their kids. Even our political disagreements have, in some cases, literally descended into violence."

- The Truth at Work, page 7

How often have you seen your co-worker, boss, or significant other muck up a situation because they said or did the wrong thing? And how often have you chosen not to say anything because you don’t want the conversation to turn ugly? Well, Mark Murphy’s Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages introduces a straightforward, easy to implement method that addresses a problem most of us share: how to share “The Truth”—more conventionally known as feedback—with someone who needs to hear it. Murphy describes a “Truth Talk” as a “conversational process in which hard truths are shared, accepted, and embraced by your truth partner.” The book is loaded with tips to plan and execute a productive conversation while steering clear of a confrontation. The method schools you in preparing for the talk by considering the resistance you may face, deciding on the desired outcome before proceeding, sharpening your listening skills, and considering the other’s perspective. It also warns you against trying to get unhelpful results like eliciting an apology, making the other person seem wrong or feel bad. Murphy is clear that the objective is to bring about a change in behavior—as any manager knows, that is among the most difficult of all goals. Murphy boils it down to manageable chunks, each thoroughly explained and backed with research. After reading the book I was not only more confident about bringing up thoughts I had long kept to myself about others’ behavior, I was actually eager to give it a try!

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Untapped upside

"Each of us faces a ready supply of situations appropriate for Truth Talks. I recently surveyed more than 1100 employees, and collectively they identified more than a dozen situations per day where having a Truth Talk would be beneficial."
- Truth at Work, page 7

Think of the times you or someone you know has been blindsided by a poor performance rating because a manager didn’t clearly articulate concerns ahead of time. Or consider the example of hospital nurses who observed a colleague using unsterile procedures but were too cowed to speak up! Murphy’s firm surveyed 10,000 employees and managers and discovered that 9 out of 10 employees avoided confronting their coworkers about inappropriate behavior, even when harm was being done to the organization or the customers. Imagine that! People would rather see business go down the tubes than attempt explaining to a co-worker that their behavior was harmful—to the business, the clients, workers, or themselves.

Now imagine if you could coolly and confidently share feedback with your co-workers, staff, boss, and family? What “truths” do you see, but stop short of sharing, because you are afraid the conversation will turn into a confrontation, making for more discomfort than before? Armed with a few simple skills shared below, you can face each opportunity to share your feedback. The benefits to you, the person receiving the information, and the organization will be immediate.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Just the facts, ma’am

"The human brain is a kind of interpretation machine. It doesn’t show us the world as it is, but rather as it’s useful for us. … Sometimes interpretation works in our favor, but other times, not so much."
- Truth at Work, page 41

It makes perfect intellectual sense that if we “stick to the facts” our feedback will be better received.  What Murphy does is give us a method to separate facts from non-facts. Called the FIRE Model, you can plan what to say by separating your own knowledge of the Facts (try imagining only what a video camera would capture) from Interpretations, Reactions, and Ends (actions one might jump to). So, for example, if you have an employee who committed to getting you information by midday and didn’t deliver until later, and you are feeling like they are irresponsible and need to be replaced, as you plan your Truth Talk you would break out and diagram your thoughts this way:

In your Truth Talk, by starting with and sticking unemotionally with the facts, you would probably uncover that your definition of “midday” is noon (common among Brits) while your employee’s is “something before late afternoon” (common among Americans). Both of you would come away with new respect and be more careful to check your communications in the future. And rather than seek and train a replacement, you have a strengthened relationship with a responsible employee who knows you care about improving his performance.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Create a picture of the behavior you want to see

"Concrete words, phrases, and sentences have consistently been found to be more comprehensible, memorable, and interesting than abstract language. And when you’re trying to deliver a tough message or resolve a disagreement, you want your truth partner to comprehend and remember your message."
- Truth at Work, page 125

Murphy hands us a brilliantly easy and non-threatening tool to create behavioral change. Dubbed “Word Pictures”, he recommends co-creating descriptions of the desired behavior by creating a continuum with three data points: undesirable behavior, acceptable behavior, and very desirable behavior—or, a “super example.” This helps the person you are speaking with to have a concrete image—a “word picture” to aim for. Imagine getting the gumption to tell your boss “I need you to be more helpful.” That’s open to broad interpretation and is likely to invoke frustration. If you instead worked together to create descriptions and examples of helpfulness that resulted in a “picture” of what unhelpful, helpful, and above-and-beyond helpful looked like (thus uncovering the bonus of understanding different perspectives) the likelihood of your boss being “more helpful” is greatly enhanced. In fact, Murphy claims that just getting this far in the “Truth Talk” may be all you need to achieve the desired shift in behavior. And changed behavior is always the aim of the Truth Talk.

Most of us need only spend a minute or two to come up with a handful of things we wish we could communicate to our boss, co-worker, employee, or family member. Armed with the simple tools described here we can calmly and efficiently engage other people in meaningful conversations about the behavior we see—and the behaviors we’d like to see instead. In the end we can have not only better results in business or in relationships, but an unburdening for all.

What conversation have you been putting off? What could be improved when you successfully share the “truth” that you see?

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Paula McLeod

ABOUT Paula McLeod

After years in business, I became a certified executive coach. My passion is assisting people in the workplace to overcome obstacles and achieve the most fulfilling success possible, however they may define it...
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