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Honest Mistakes: What to Say and Why Not to Say It
By: Jerry Northup
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Each and every organization I’ve spent time with has encouraged me and others to speak their mind about issues important to personal growth or company direction. I’ve never found an example where an “open-door policy” wasn’t in place. So it has always amused me when groups of 40, 50, or more freeze in suspended animation when a senior leader asks for questions at the end of staff meetings.
“Tell me how you feel” is code for “tell me what I want to hear.” This is a moment when silence is truly golden — about anything controversial said in regards to a personnel decision, a change in strategy, or even the new color of the office walls. You should respect that. Most do. They remain quiet, avoid eye contact, and wait until the awkward pause passes and they are given the okay to return to their jobs. Here’s why:
  • The truth is open to interpretation (and often, misinterpretation). If you hear crickets chirping at the end of staff meetings, something is wrong. Not every move needs to be justified. Nor are employees generally entitled to complete transparency. But when a senior leader fails to engender desired reactions, rhetoric can quickly degenerate into contempt —an artificial exercise in enforcing consensus.
  • I’m not saying you’ll get fired, but you’ll get fired. Senior managers are the ultimate survivors. They know when the trade winds start to move at the very first puff. They exist on cunning, guile, and political maneuvering. On the other hand, creative people are typically passionate, straightforward, and outspoken people who aren’t afraid to stand on their convictions. It always earns us some measure of respect, but it rarely earns us job security.
  • Don’t answer a question they don’t want an answer to. It’s easy to accept the consequences of being a winner when you are one of them. Nor is it difficult to accept the results if you side only with the boss. But at some point, most exceptionally talented creative people find themselves directly between this rock and a hard place by raising logical objections. Once you say something, you can’t take it back. You can only take it with you…to your next job.
On occasion, you’ll encounter circumstances in which every good thing you do only amplifies how poorly it was done before. That, unfortunately, is generally embarrassing for the senior leaders who made those decisions in the first place. They may acknowledge the short-term improvement and make an honest correction, but don’t expect them to continue the pattern.
No mistake about it.


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About the Author
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Gerald Northup has written professionally in the fields of advertising, marketing, social media, and corporate communications since the early ’90s. For a look at his blog posts and social media articles, as well as TV, radio, print, and website samples from his online portfolio, visit gnorthup1979.wix.com/44words.

Jerry is also a talented guitarist, an avid tennis player, and a lifelong student of linguistics.

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