Years ago in a company I worked for at the time, I needed to interact with a manager from another department on seemingly every initiative I was involved with or leading. He and his team managed the systems we needed to interface with to make our initiatives successful. He was really smart, really detail oriented, knew his stuff really well. And I hated talking to him. Every time I walked into his office, I had to mentally invoke the Stuart Smalley character from Saturday Night Live and tell myself, “I’m good enough. Smart enough. And people like me!” because every time I left his office, I questioned if I had more than one working brain cell, if I was too dumb to live, and whether I should just hire someone to help me get dressed in the morning let alone do my job somewhat well. I knew I wasn’t an idiot, and I knew that I knew my stuff just as well as he knew his. But why was meeting with this guy less fun than having a root canal?
The answer was unfortunately pretty simple. This guy – whereas really good at what he did – had the bedside manner of Nurse Ratched. For those of you who haven’t seen the classic movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you may have no idea who Nurse Ratched is. Trust me, though, when I tell you that she’s not the nurse you want. What I realized after further reflection was that it wasn’t that he was being blunt and direct that was the problem. I actually appreciated him not beating around the bush. It was the fact that he couldn’t be blunt, respectful and nice at the same time. Was it that hard to do? This wasn’t Cirque du Solei acrobatics I was asking for here. Just be blunt and be nice. Those experiences made me begin to wonder if these things were truly mutually exclusive as seems to be the case with many people or whether it’s just easier for us to not have to work hard at being nice while being direct and blunt. I didn’t like talking to this guy simply because he was a jerk not because what he was telling me wasn’t helpful or correct.
In response to this, some might say, “…well who cares if he’s nice. We’re not here to be nice. We’re here to get business results.” And to that, I would agree in part – the part about we’re here to get business results. Unfortunately, there were legitimate negative business impacts resulting from his demeanor. I found myself waiting until I absolutely had to go talk to this guy before I went in there – mental flak jacket and all. I found myself becoming reactive and trying to solve problems without talking to him. I thought of anything I could do to not have to go in there even though I knew deep down that I needed his eyes on this data, or his perspective on what we were missing in our analysis – things he nailed perfectly every time. I wasn’t the only one. No one wanted to go into that office. It was like the corporate equivalent of a medieval torture chamber. The irony is that had he maintained every bit of his bluntness and directness and just added a little bit of respectfulness and dare I say “niceness”, I would have been in there five times a frequently as I was and our project outcomes would have been even better than they were. Some might say that this is really my problem and not his. But in the corporate world today, relationships are just as critical to getting work done well as content knowledge. Some might say that the higher you go in a company, the more important it is.
I have a current business client who has the acronym “DBAD” up on posters around the office, which stands bluntly for “Don’t be a D#$!” I like those guys. Blunt and self-aware enough to know that being nice goes just as far as being blunt does in getting us good business outcomes. Blunt and nice. A great combination.