More often than not, being straightforward and brutally honest can save a lot of time and pain.
A recent article by Michael Lewis provides a window into how and why the US economy foundered. He tells this story through the lens of a few naysayers who had been convinced it would all come tumbling down.
These folks had put their money behind their words. You could say, these folks were the type to take their drinks straight. They weren't the type to water down their message.
One character that Lewis highlights is a guy named Steve Eisman, an attorney-turned-mortgage-broker-turned-hedge-fund manager.
Eisman is one of those rare creatures who seems to relish the opportunity to tell it like it is, regardless of what everyone wants to hear. In discussing the collateralized debt obligations, for example, Eisman explains “You have to understand this,” he says. “This was the engine of doom.”
I'm not going to re-tell this story. You can read it for yourself here.
For the moment, I would prefer to focus on the theme of brutal honesty. In other words, let’s just spend a minute or two on the ugly truth and the folks who like to speak it.
You see, organizations composed of human beings tend to go out of their way to avoid the brutal truth. Most of us seem to prefer the magical happy destiny, the big smiley-faced future. Eisman is not one of those people. He represents a different take on the world.
Brutal individuals like Eisman are willing to say that “something is broken and we better fix it now.” They don’t flinch when the crack shows itself for what it is. “Hey, there’s a crack,” they explain.
These kinds of brutes tend to find themselves ostracized by the Upbeaters.
What exactly is an Upbeater, you ask? An Upbeater is someone who always sees the positive. They are ruthlessly sanguine about anything and everything. This is especially true in public. Privately, they may point out one or two carefully phrased negatives, but they know that their bosses like upbeat messages. Downbeat messages, after all, represent an inherent criticism of the management and thus they articulate a threat. Upbeaters, on the other hand, know that the way to rise in the organization is to ask no threatening questions. “All is well, captain,” they shout from the observation deck of the Titanic.
Here’s more about Eisman:
[Eisman] put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Vincent Daniel [Eisman's partner] says. “Because he’ll say, ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”
This is certainly an old story. Nude leaders who shoot messengers, etc. etc. But even though it’s old, the recent debacle of our economy looks more and more of a massive case of nude leadership.
There is no doubt that some folks take the negative too far. But my challenge to you is this: look around yourself and ask, who seems to be trying to give me the bad news? Who seems to be bursting with downbeat negativity?
My recommendation is to talk to the Downbeaters. Listen to what they have to say. Think about the message. If you think they are wrong, make your best case and try using information.
This recommendation assumes, of course, that you still have someone left to ask.