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A couple of weeks ago I was invited to one of my friends’ son’s Bar Mitzvah. These are usually exciting affairs: lots of symbolism, proud parents and a good party afterwards. However, I was, as usual, dreading two things: an overlong service (typically twice as long as the equivalent Christian confirmation), and a tedious sermon…

Well, the service was long, but the sermon was fascinating and delivered by an exceptionally insightful and charismatic Rabbi.  He did rock (hence the picture)! His message went as follows:

  • Words are powerful. We often under-estimate their capacity to inspire and to hurt.
  • Beware the misplaced pride of ‘he who only speaks the truth’. What is more helpful: a small white lie that will encourage somebody to do better or destroying somebody’s self-worth?
  • The only excuse for lying about important things is compassion – and it can require much courage to go against the current trend of ‘truth at all costs’.

He went on to illustrate his argument with examples from family relationships to doctors’ training in delivering bad news. And I started to wonder about the implications for business leaders:

  • Different personalities have different ‘skin thickness’: clear extroverts, for example, don’t get offended easily but can be careless in their use of words. Personalities with a high Steadiness profile (those who keep working quietly day-in day-out) can accumulate resentment and explode unexpectedly. The leader’s job is therefore to monitor continuously the potential (de)motivational impact of their words and calibrate their interventions.
  • ‘Telling it like it is’ is often seen as a badge of honour in organisations. It provides a beacon of clarity among all the mixed signals. It is also highly destructive when the perception of the problem is delivered in a definite, personalised and irreversible statement. The Rabbi’s message here is that the speaker bears a part of responsibility and that simply dumping a ‘truth’ on somebody without an exit door is –in his words – a sin of pride. In a business context there are two weapons against this:
    • depersonalising the problem: from ‘you are stupid’ to ‘this needs rework’; and
    • switching from problem to desired outcome: from ‘this report is useless’ to ‘there are two goods bits in here, what else can we do to make it really powerful?’
  • The last point may be the most controversial in a business context: we keep banging on about courageous leadership, when does compassion come in – if at all? Fortunately, there are few equivalents to terminal diseases in business, that is situations where the ‘victim’ has absolutely no recourse. My advice is to always choose the words that will allow the person to take action and regain control of their situation. If a department gets closed down through none of the employees’ fault for example, then it is the leader’s responsibility to tell the truth while showing empathy and coaching them to imagine solutions to their personal situation. Their role at that stage is to help manage the emotional turmoil while preserving people’s self-confidence and preparing them for what will be difficult next steps. In other words choosing the right words with bothcourage and compassion.

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