The Beauty of Brutal Honesty


Cathy Colella

I lost another mentor last week; on my birthday in fact.  I turned 56 in Cancun with the help of some Don Julio Reposado tequila only to learn within hours that our dear friend from the CEO Clubs, Cathy B. Colella (pictured above as a young model) had died.  What I knew of Cathy’s life came from seeing her three or four times a year over a 15 year period in a Club where we gave each other advice while we travelled to different areas of the world.  I knew she had been a Ford Agency model when she was young and had spent time studying at Harvard but by the time I met her she was the owner and CEO of an environmental remediation company in New York City where she competed with guys who might remind you of Tony Soprano.  Cathy had a particular strength and no one was better at it. Cathy was a BS detector and knew how to fearlessly uncover and confront issues and situations with brutal honesty.  I am absolutely confident that organizations and people that are honest, brutally honest, with themselves succeed. Organizations and people who live in denial are only successful out of luck.  We should all aspire to be more like Cathy and to make sure we try to recruit gems like her to our organizations and lives.  The lesson for me from Cathy was that brutal honesty can be beautiful.  I will miss her but her voice and face will be with me forever.

My favorite fable as a child was Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Emperor has New Clothes.  If you haven’t read it lately, you owe it to yourself to do so.  It is a fable written about the work place.  Two swindlers come to town where there is a vain emperor who loves clothes.  They convince the emperor to let them sew him a set of clothes and order expensive materials and gold thread to make the clothes, which they simply pocket. These clothes are special.  They are invisible  to anyone who is unfit for their job. While the clothes are being woven, the emperor sends some of his most trusted counselors to see them.  None can, but each reports back to the emperor that the clothes are amazing as they don’t want to be unfit for their jobs.  Based upon the reports of his counselors, the emperor decides to parade his new clothes through town.  The emperor and his minions praise the non-existent clothes.  Finally, a young boy watching the parade speaks up and says, “hey, the emperor has no clothes.”  Lest you think this is an isolated Danish story, I found versions of this same fable in Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, England and Spain. It is a common fable – with slight variations – that spans many cultures.  In many cultures, the “clothes test” was supposedly to test birth legitimacy.

From a work place perspective, what is the moral of the story?  While there are several, I like to think of it as about bad decisions arising from “group think.”  How does a group collectively make a bad decision no one of them would make individually.  Everyone in the fable knows there are no clothes but they are afraid to say anything because of how they will be perceived-unfit for their job.  As a result, the leader makes a horrible decision.  If you want to be a great contributor to a great organization, you need to be listening for self-deception and denial in the work place, email chatter and meetings.  And when you hear it, you have to be the child (the Cathy) in the room and fearlessly and honestly say, “but wait, the emperor has no clothes.”

How can you identify these situations.  What phrases, tones and behaviors should you listen for to spot self-deception, denial and bad decision making in the works.  What does it sound like in meetings or company emails or dialogue?  Here are some phrases associated with self denial that I have heard over the years in projects I have led or participated in that did not go well.  They would have gone better with engaged brutal honesty and dialogue.

1. “It’s Strategic.”  This often can mean the numbers themselves don’t make sense and using the word, “strategic” is designed to hide it behind concept rather than sound financial decision making.

2. “They don’t get it.”  This is a dismissive phrase to act as if you either speak the language or you don’t.  It is designed to cut off dialogue and debate.

3. “Don’t worry about it.”  “That isn’t your concern.” Generally this means you should worry about it. If you uncover something the organization needs to know about and you are deeply concerned about it and someone says this to you – you have to find a way to raise it with those that matter.

4. Any Ad Hominem attacks.  These are attacks on individuals, like, “Joe is an idiot and doesn’t have a clue.”  If you hear this, you should consider it a red flag that a topic needs further debate and discussion.

5. Changing the subject.  Some people are masterful at this.  In work place discussions and meetings, sometimes you will reach a difficult point in the debate or analysis and then all of the sudden, someone changes the subject.  Bring the discussion back to the main area if you can.

6. Making insignificant distinctions.  Sometimes you will be in a meeting and find a problem or issue with a proposed course of action or plan.  Listen carefully and consider whether distinctions made really matter.  I was working on an acquisition when I was young and the growth rate for the target company seemed too high.  When we questioned it, the deal champion said that this was a slightly different segment and would grow faster.  It didn’t.

7. Twisting the facts to make them fit the decision.  If everyone agrees on the facts and you reach an impasse – pay attention carefully if someone tries to rewrite the facts to get past the impasse.

8. One Sided – Over-selling.  If a proposed decision or course of action is overly presented or only the positives are presented, this should cause you to dig deeper.  A good presentation of a proposed decision should have a balanced view.  What are the positives and the negatives?

9. Use of brute force or politics.  Listening for language, especially tones, that imply desperation are cues that should make your antenna quiver.  Politics is the use of indirect means to get approvals that wouldn’t be gotten if the proper issues were considered.

10. “It’s Synergistic” “1+1=3”.  This comes up in the context of acquisitions, mergers and combinations.  It is not that they aren’t conceptually possible, it is just that it generally takes longer and more work for them to materialize, if they do.

You may think you don’t have the power or there is risk to you in raising a red flag when you encounter these behaviors that are designed to prevent good discussion and debate leading to better decision making.  And there is.  Take it.  Cathy wasn’t afraid. And how you react to these behaviors and phrases really matters.  What was special about Cathy is that when she told me or anyone else the brutal truth, she didn’t beat you with it.  She just said it like it was the most natural thing in the world.  Similar to the young boy in the fable, she just gave you what you needed to hear in a matter of fact way.  In one particular situation she said to me, “You have fire in your belly but you need to have blood in your mouth.”  I know that sounds strange, but what she was telling me was that I needed to have stronger execution in the conflict I was in, not just a tough and bold attitude. At one meeting, we may have been in Iceland, she said, “I am going to come to your daughter’s graduation.”  We were all having a good time so I didn’t think much of it.  On graduation day, she flew from New York to St. Louis and attended my daughter’s graduation.  She just showed up.  I acted surprised and she simply said – “I said I would do it.”  That whole experience was in some way designed to get me to a higher “say/do” ratio.

Approach your input with child like innocence, not “know it all” aggression.  If your organization doesn’t want to hear your innocent questions when you encounter behaviors that are not good for sound decision making in the organization, you may need a new organization.  Great companies and great leaders welcome robust and honest debate and the input of all.  Listen, listen and listen for behaviors, tones and words that are designed to derail good decision making processes. Having said that, if after they take in all the input they decide to go left and you think they should go right, you need to support left and support corporate functionality and discipline.

I, along with many, will miss the beautiful, brutally honest Cathy Colella.  I suspect she is somewhere now, watching a parade, shaking her head and preparing to lovingly and yet firmly tell the emperor he needs to put some clothes on.


If you are following along in my listening series, you should have already read, The Only Resolution You Need for 2015, To Listen Well is To Be Like Water, Love Song Lyrics and Listening Skills, Frosty, The Taz and Listening to Introverts, How to Listen to Your Angry Boss, I am Sorry to Interrupt You, But, What Did You Just Say and Say This Not That.  All posts are under my profile on LinkedIn. This essay is the ninth in a planned series of 20 essays on listening.

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By | 2015-04-27T06:58:05+00:00 April 27th, 2015|Blog, career advice, Getting to Next, listening, personnel management|