Telling it like it is

Telling it like it is

One night, Emperor Akbar dreamt that he had lost all his teeth, except one. He was greatly disturbed with the strange dream. The next morning he summoned all the astrologers of his kingdom and asked them to interpret his dream.

The astrologers held a meeting and after a long discussion, prophesized that his dream was an indication that all his relatives would die before him.

Akbar was greatly distressed by this interpretation and sent away all the astrologers without any reward….

We often come across people who claim to “like” people who are forthright or candid in their speech and yet when it comes to hearing the truth concerning them, they cringe. Why is candor so disliked? Why are people who speak frankly alienated? And why do people fear speaking the truth? To tell it like it is?

In his book “Winning” with Suzy Welch, Jack Welch says, ‘Candor just unnerves people’. And he ought to know because his bosses cautioned him about his candor. He goes on to quote Nancy Bauer, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University that ‘people don’t speak their minds because it’s simply easier not to. When you tell it like it is, you can so easily create a mess—anger, pain, confusion, sadness, resentment. To make matters worse, you then feel compelled to clean up that mess, which can be awful and awkward and time-consuming. So you justify your lack of candor on the grounds that it prevents sadness or pain in another person, that not saying anything or telling a little white lie is the kind, decent thing to do’.She adds that classic philosophers like Immanuel Kant give powerful arguments for the view that not being candid is actually about self-interest—making your own life easier.’

Another place marked by the absence of candor is the workplace. In their article “A Culture of Candor” in the Harvard Business Review, James O’Toole and Warren Bennis say, ‘It’s never easy for employees to be honest with their bosses’ and narrate a funny anecdote. After a string of box office flops, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was said to have told a meeting of his top staff, “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.”

Welch says people ‘keep their mouths shut in order to make people feel better or to avoid conflict and they sugarcoat bad news in order to maintain appearances. They keep things to themselves, hoarding information.’ He rues the lack of candor in performance appraisals and adds that ‘this type of environment slows you down, and it doesn’t improve the workplace’

When I look back at my career, I can list only a few of my bosses and colleagues, who appreciated candor, spoke with candor and lived by it.

It takes guts to speak out frankly. And it takes guts to listen to the truth. One of the six essential leadership traits for hard times is honesty and credibility, says Ram Charan in ‘Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty’. ‘Level with people: tell the how you see the world, acknowledge the limits of your understanding and ask them for their own views,’ he advises.

O’Toole and Bennis narrate another story about Motorola during its heyday in the 1980s that exemplifies a leader’s courage to listen to the truth. A young middle manager who approached then-CEO Robert Galvin and said: “Bob, I heard that point you made this morning, and I think you’re dead wrong. I’m going to prove it: I’m going to shoot you down.” When the young man stormed off, Galvin, beaming proudly, turned to a companion and said, “That’s how we’ve overcome Texas Instruments’ lead in semiconductors!”


My father was a man who called a spade a spade and did not mince words when it came to expressing an opinion. Needless to say, this made him unpopular and alienated and I daresay hampered his career progression to a large extent. Many a time, I thought he could be more tactful, especially in social situations. But as years wore on, I realized the merits of upholding one’s stand, for as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.

To finish the story of Emperor Akbar, later that day, the Emperor happened to meet Birbal, his wise Minister and narrated his dream and asked him to interpret it. He also told him what the astrologers had said.

Birbal thought for a while and said, “It means, O Emperor, you will live a longer and more fulfilled life than any of your relatives.” The Emperor was pleased when he heard Birbal’s version and rewarded him handsomely.

Did Birbal say that because he did not want to cause pain and anxiety for the Emperoror did he fear the Emperor’s wrath if he said it plainly as the astrologers had done and wanted to make his own life easy? Or both?

The question is, should we speak with candor and retain our integrity and therefore be alienated or should we resort to smooth talking and claim rewards?




Image from Google – Grahame Robb Associates – UK.COM