Do Frank Conversations Hurt Your Career?

When I was a young man my Director introduced me the COO of our company (Let’s call him Jerry).  My Director was Jerry’s “escort” on a goodwill tour of our office. (It seems that he didn’t always agree with our perspective on things).  Jerry was regarded by many to be a crotchety old engineer, and I later learned that he had a reputation as a “my way or the highway” kind of guy.  But that didn’t matter much to me when Jerry asked me about a controversial position our department had taken.  I stood there in amidst the cubicles and “argued” with the COO.  I don’t think anyone but the two of us thought this was a good thing to do.

In short order, two colleagues appeared in my line of sight discreetly gesturing for me to terminate my conversation with him.  I distinctly remember one dragging his finger across his throat and mouthing “that’s Jerry, the COO.”  A few others peeped their heads over their cube walls then promptly hid, fearing they might suffer from collateral damage.  One brave person tried to distract me by approaching me with bogus issue that required immediate attention. But I wasn’t having any of it. Instead, I took my cues from my own values, and from Jerry’s signals. We disagreed, and we expressed our positions frankly. But I saw no sign that he took any offense. On my part, I was enjoying the debate and was learning quite a bit. So I engaged him, and the conversation ran its course.  Afterwards, my peers were not shy about telling me how foolish I had been. I wasn’t sure if I had been – I just didn’t know.

Two years later I learned exactly what Jerry thought of me, and it was all good. I had returned to my career in leadership development, and Jerry had an appointment with a colleague to discuss one of our training programs. I saw Jerry in the reception area and approached him to (re) introduce myself.  Before I could finish my sentence, he blurted, “I remember you! You’re Mike Boyes; I like you.”  With that encouragement in hand, I inquired about our previous encounter and he explained why he liked me.  “You took a clear position and gave a sound rationale for it. I didn’t agree with you, but it was a good discussion. We need more people like you.”  Jerry and I later became friends; he attended my wedding, and we had a few more disagreements along the way.  But few people in the company saw Jerry the way I did.  They feared disagreement with him, anticipated his wrath, and avoided crossing him.  I dare say those people missed the opportunity to learn from a smart – and nice guy.

Perhaps he mellowed by the time I got to know him. Perhaps we just shared the same perspective … that people can disagree and even argue without harming each other, that conversation is most interesting when views conflict. Whatever the reason, I am glad that I read Jerry right on that day.   

In a recent HBR article, researchers Batia M. Wiesenfled and colleagues conclude that far too often managers abuse their position of power, using it to advance their own agendas and trod on people. Too many managers view “respect and power to be mutually exclusive avenues to influence.”  (This is the reality my nervous colleagues knew well).  Meanwhile, managers who demonstrate leadership based on trust and respect can be regarded as too weak to handle top positions.  These two styles have a trickle-down effect in the organization and affect the company bottom line. Research tells us that corporate results trend upwards in organizations with a respectful, trusting, and empowering management style. In contrast, corporate results trickle down when managers tend to “power-up.”  Jerry could have powered up on me and hurt me in so many ways, but he didn’t.  I could have acted like shrinking violet, but I didn’t.  As result, I gained access to the COO of a Fortune 500 company and partnered with him on several projects.

It seems to me that entering frank conversations with peers, employees, and superiors can hurt your career.  That’s too bad because honest frank conversations are more than important for success; they are required. The gate to success is marked “Courage to Deal with Reality Required; No Ostriches Allowed.”   

So muster the courage to be honest with yourself and others – then speak frankly and tactfully.



5 thoughts on “Do Frank Conversations Hurt Your Career?

  1. Michael Boyes Post author


    I do think I picked the right COO, and perhaps even at the right moment and in the right context. The reality is that there are many people who would have buried me – some right then and there. Others would have been a bit more backhanded about it. I’ve seen people like that in action as well. They are alive and all too in well in corporate America; they drag their company’s performance down.

    The conundrum is that candor is risky and it is essential. Many people don’t handle frank conversation well, especially if their partner is junior to them. When people don’t take that risk, leaders never hear the truth about what is happening in time to fix problems or capitalize on opportunities; decisions are made based on partial and biased information; employees don’t learn what it takes to succeed, and people fail to trust because they cleary understand that you simply can’t trust “the party line.” Kerry Patterson’s research revealed that the best of the best, the leaders among leaders, are often distinguished by their capacity to engage people in difficult conversations. This tells me that people can and should be looking to distinguish themselves by the “crucial conversation” skills.

  2. Eric Stull

    How is it that we live in a democratic society whose institutions are routinely so despotic that a person has to play roulette with his livelihood in order to speak? Why do we so often check our First Amendment rights at the door when we go to work? Why is so much of the American workplace so profoundly unAmerican?

  3. Toni Steigerwald

    Hey Mike,
    Enjoyed reading this article. I’m not one of the ostriches, but don’t always discern with “whom” I can be honest but still SAFE, but am learning. With a recent change to a position with a larger supervision/leadership role, reading this post was helpful reading!

    1. Michael Boyes Post author


      I don’t think you are one of the ostriches. There is another question that I think you, and everybody, has to ask themselves. That question is:

      What is the value of truth versus safety?

      And this question leads to others….
      Safe from what?
      Is it safer to deal with reality, or is it safer to deal in the shadows?
      Who is leading who when one person fails to bring up the hard topics?

      The answer to my first question maybe more situational than I presented it. There is Truth with a capital “T” and truth with a little “t.” Maybe there are middle size T’s out there as well.

      The choices we make around truthfullness in conversation both reveal our and create our character. So how can we know that we are prepared to handle big “T” conversations if we don’t handle little and medium “t” conversations?

Comments are closed.