22 May | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

Navigating ‘thin line’ between being sincere, being self-damaging

‘You may be absolutely right in your convictions, but first work at enrolling at least some people in your cause. Otherwise, your standing up will likely go unnoticed and un-valued’

By Jaime Martínez Bowness

As a business professor, I often teach the power of authenticity and vulnerability, particularly when leading others. Both factors can heighten our charisma and make us appear warmer, more credible, and more accessible. But then there’s a term a colleague once mentioned: sincericide. She jokingly said it in passing, alluding to occasions when honesty is harmful. When we tell a superior something that isn’t welcome, or maybe share things with team members that instead of elevating our leadership, weaken it. Where do we draw the line? A group of directives at an organization, myself included, had been attending bi-monthly work sessions with a coach.

We’d been randomly assembled in groups and assigned a coach to work through issues related to work-life balance. During our fifth session together, at the tenth-month mark of the coaching process, we were sitting around a round table, cups of coffee, water, and juice in hand. It was an informal session; some of us wore jeans and sneakers. “I’d like to ask each of you to share an example of how you’re taking better care of yourselves,” the coach said. One of the directors offered an example of how he’d made a point of enjoying his niece’s recent wedding and consciously connecting with family members around the occasion.

‘Don’t be lone ‘martyr’ for a cause people don’t yet understand’

Another director, a recent acquisition from abroad whose family had been struggling to adapt to the new country, shared that he’d committed himself to leaving the office daily at 7 pm to spend more time with his family. And so on. At the end of each intervention, the coach would add the usual encouraging remark, and everyone would briefly clap. My time came, and I was moved by the sincerity of everyone’s contributions; I reminded people that despite the extrovert functions of my job as a dean, I was an introvert who often felt drained after a long day of social interaction.

Therefore, on the previous day of training sessions and networking, when the formal part of the convention had ended, and the tequila tasting in small groups was to begin at 6pm, I chose to call it a day, forgo the networking and dinner later, and leave for my hotel to rest. (I’d been the only person sneaking out at that point. Everyone else — we must’ve been 100 people — seemed happy to begin ‘another’ part of the program.) There was a long silence. The coach blinked twice, staring at me, not saying anything. His expression was blank. He was probably trying to think of an adequate reply.

Everyone else at the table was looking down or astray, ostensibly uncomfortable. Finally, it came. “You know, Jaime, while it’s good that you were self-caring, I, too, might have been tired at that point of the day but chose to stay and make the most of the opportunity to connect with people,” the coach reflected. From what I remember, my peers seemed to nod in subtle agreement. In which split second did I pass from a self-aware, emotionally self-managing professional to an anti-social person? In all truth, the coach was right. It annoyed me to admit it, but the previous night had been a good moment to connect with people across the organization, strike up conversations, and perhaps even further my professional opportunities.

‘In any healthy office, there’s room for honesty, just like there’s room for diversity, informality, and power naps to a limit’

A less fed-up or perhaps more mature version of myself would have made the effort to be sociable for a few more hours. Or maybe I could have done exactly the same thing — leave before dinner — but kept my escape to myself, offering a more innocuous example of self-care in the next day’s group session. In any healthy organization, there’s room for honesty, just like there’s room for diversity, informality, and power naps — or for using those colorful workspace swings—to a limit. In the case of diversity, that line is core company values. Prof Edgar Schein from MIT elaborates on this in his 2010 classic book Organizational Culture and Leadership.

In a nutshell, you can have, in a company, as wide a range of opinions, ages, tattooed body parts, and lifestyles as you like as long as there’s a minimal consensus not just on basic convivial values such as honesty, integrity, respect for others, and team success but also on how’s of work: punctuality, veracity, and respect for company hierarchy. It’s similar when publicly voicing your opinions: not only do the basic values of respect for others and veracity apply, but you also have to gauge how countercultural your message will seem. My vanishing act, vocalized within a highly disciplined and membership-oriented institution and in front of an apprehensive, self-abnegating coach, came across like a kick in the shin.

And kicks in the shin can be okay and healthily disruptive when they’re needed, but “sincericidal” when their timing and substance are off. If you’re a coach, try not to make any of your coaches feel like idiots for over-sharing when you’ve asked for personal stuff. Just like the benefits of diversity in a company rely on a prior commitment to core values, exercises in public honesty should be both minimally aligned with the organization’s values and well-timed. The disruptive voicing of opinions that run counter to the status quo can work — those I’m-telling-ya’-the-emperor-has-no-clothes moments — when they’re representative of the feelings of at least a sizeable minority, and not just you.

Don’t be the lone ‘martyr’ for a cause people don’t yet understand. You may be absolutely right in your convictions, but first — ideally — work at enrolling at least some people in your cause. Otherwise, your standing up will likely go unnoticed and un-valued. Finally, the good ol’ Triple Filter Test continues to apply. Should something be said, should it be said by me, and should it be said now?

Jaime Martínez Bowness, Dean of Business College at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, contributed this write up to medium and we are republishing this article for our audience