Trust, Lying and Apologies – the Brian Williams Case

UPDATE 9:30PM Feb 10: Since this post was first written, NBC News has suspended Brian Williams for 6 months. This will only heighten the buzz around something really not all that important (except to Wiliams, of  course).  He has become the gossip du jour, and I don’t see anyone achieving escape velocity beyond the obsession with “what should be done about him.”

That is SO the wrong question. The real question – and the one this blogpost originally set out to address – is “what are the learnings for all of us who find ourselves in positions of trust: what threatens our perceived trustworthiness? How do we keep trust?  And, can we recover trust lost – and how?”

That question is relevant to nearly everyone reading this blog. The question of whither Brian Williams will occupy magazine covers and water cooler chit chat for 10 days max, before Bruce Jenner knocks him off the hashtag list. But when that happens – what will we have learned from it? What will you have learned from it?


Original post Feb 8: The fate of US newscaster Brian Williams is still unknown at this writing. The facts as they are emerging suggest that truth was stretched, it was stretched by Williams, and it was not a blinding surprise to a lot of news insiders.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about ethics, or to predict Williams’ fate. But it does offer a teachable moment about human frailties, about apologies, and in particular how to recover – and how not to recover – from trust disasters.

Human Memory is Not Binary

Williams went from correctly recalling past events in the far past, to revising them more recently. While some people do consciously lie, it is much more common that we deceive ourselves, through a process of constant repetition of a story.

I can relate to this personally. I used someone else’s case study to round out a trio of cases I had created (I wrote the first two). Over years of using them, I somehow came to believe I had written all three. When confronted dramatically in a class session by none other than the real case author, I was at first righteously indignant. How dare you accuse me of plagiarism?  Yet over the course of the next 12 hours, I began to recall, and realized to my horror that that was exactly what I had done. And I had to completely eat my earlier words, taking full responsibility.

Just this past week, I wrote a sharply worded email to someone who had inappropriately used some intellectual property of mine on Slideshare, without attribution. He wrote back quickly in a tone of annoyance, disingenuously saying it wasn’t important and was aimed at a higher goal.  I wrote back even more sharply.

Less than 24 hours later, I received another email from the person, this time very clearly acknowledging the transgression, accepting full responsibility, and offering not only a correction but a form of restitution. I gratefully accepted, 100% – it was, after all, a totally proper apology. And I know, first hand, how easy it is to fool one’s own memory.

Something like this is almost certainly what’s happing with Brian Williams. His first halting attempt at apology suggested that he was involved in a higher mission, and that his intentions were good.

I strongly suspect Mr Williams is going through agonizing soul-searching right now, wondering how he could have possibly gotten things so wrong over the years. The word ‘hubris’ will be mentioned by others, and eventually I suspect he’ll see it in himself.

Trust and Apologies

There is a very simple rule, which is constantly violated by nearly all tellers-of-untruth. It is this:

Rule 1: Never, ever, under-estimate your responsibility for what happened.

  • If you were Richard Nixon, never refer to Watergate as “a two-bit burglary.”
  • If you were Bill Clinton, never suggest culpability depends on the meaning of the word ‘is.’
  • If you were Brian Williams, never suggest your error was justified by good intentions or a higher cause.

A corollary to the rule: the likelihood of your being condemned in the public’s eye increases with the square of the time you take to acknowledge Rule 1.

To recover trust, you must first acknowledge. It’s hard to over-acknowledge, and in fact we want and expect a bit of exaggeration of  responsibility – that’s how we know you “got it.” But it’s the kiss of death to under-estimate your responsibility.

And of course, you’ve got to do it soon.

Brian Williams may feel he bought himself time by voluntarily stepping down for “several days” as anchor.

My feeling is that he misunderstood the role of time; in this case, time is not on his side. He didn’t buy time – he squandered it.



8 Ways to Make People Believe What You Tell Them

Get Straight to the TruthCredibility is one piece of the bedrock of trust. If people doubt what you say, all else is called into doubt, including competence and good intentions. If others don’t believe what you tell them, they won’t take your advice, they won’t buy from you, they won’t speak well of you, they won’t refer you on to others, and they will generally make it harder for you to deal with them.

Being believed is pretty important stuff. The most obvious way to be believed, most people would say, is to be right about what you’re saying. Unfortunately, being right and a dollar will get you a  cup of coffee.  First, people have to be willing to hear you. And no one likes a wise guy show-off – if all you’ve got is a right answer, you’ve not got much.

While each of these may sound simple, there are eight distinct things you can do to improve the odds that people believe what you say.  Are you firing on all eight cylinders?

1. Tell the truth. This is the obvious first point, of course – but it’s amazing how the concept gets watered down. For starters, telling the truth is not the same as just not lying. It requires saying something; you can’t tell the truth if you don’t speak it.

2. Tell the whole truth. Don’t be cutesie and technical. Don’t allow people to draw erroneous conclusions based on what you left out. By telling the whole truth, you show people that you have nothing to hide. (Most politicians continually flunk this point).

3. Don’t over-context the truth. The most believable way to say something is to be direct about it. Don’t muddy the issue with adjectives, excuses, mitigating circumstances, your preferred spin, and the like. We believe people who state the facts, and let us uncover the context for ourselves.

4. Freely confess ignorance. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say, “I don’t know.” It’s one of the most credible things you can say. After all, technical knowledge can always be looked up; personal courage and integrity are in far shorter supply.

5. First, listen. Nothing makes people pay attention to you more than your having paid attention to them first. They will also be more generous in their interpretation of what you say, because you have shown them the grace and respect of carefully listening to them first. Reciprocity is big with human beings.

6. It’s not the words, it’s the intent. You could say, in a monotone voice, “I really care about the work you folks are doing here.” And you would be doubted. Or, you could listen, animatedly, leaning in, raising your eyebrows and bestowing the gift of your attention, saying nothing more than, “wow.” And people would believe that you care.

7. Use commonsense anchors. Most of us in business rely on cognitive tools: data, deductive logic, and references. They are not nearly as persuasive as we think. Focus instead more on metaphors, analogies, shared experiences, stories, song lyrics, movies, famous quotations. People are more inclined to believe something if it’s familiar, if it fits, or makes sense, within their world view.

8. Use the language of the other person. If they say “customer,” don’t you say “client.” And vice versa. If they don’t swear, don’t you dare. If they speak quietly one on one, adopt their style. That way, when you say something, they will not be distracted by your out-of-ordinary approach, and they will intuitively respect that you hear and understand them.

What’s not on this list?  Several things, actually. Deductive logic. Powerpoint. Cool graphics. Spreadsheet backup. Testimonials and references. Qualifications and credentials.

It’s not that these factors aren’t important; they are. But they are frequently used as blunt instruments to qualify or reject. We’d all prefer to be rejected or disbelieved “for cause,” rather than for some feeling. And so we come up with rational reasons for saying no, and justifying yes.  But the decision itself to believe you is far more likely driven by the more emotive factors listed above.



Brutal Honesty Isn’t

I have to be brutally honest

Oh it’s brutal, all right. But it’s not honest. Real honesty is empathetic.  Here’s how.

I suppose you could be honest in a vacuum – but who cares?  Was Robinson Crusoe honest?  Until Friday came along, that was just a silly question. You can’t be usefully honest, except in relation to or with someone.

Honesty Implies a Relationship

If you’re honest with someone, then suddenly it’s about a relationship. You might be honest with them, or you could lie to them; both are a form of relationship.  The quality of your honesty affects the relationship, just as do the quality of your appearance, your manners, or your powers of observation.

If you’re in relationship, you may intend to honor and promote that relationship – or, you may choose to work against the relationship,  to take advantage of it for your own purposes, or disavow it, or destroy it. If your intentions are to further the relationship, then honesty – and any other theme – must serve that goal.

Positive Honesty

This is what we usually mean by honesty; telling someone something they will find helpful, sharing information with them in the hope that knowing it will give them a broader view, being open so as to be of service to them. And when we behave honestly with these motives, a collateral benefit is that the relationship itself improves.

If these are your motives in being honest, then you will strive to make the information useful, and able to be heard and understood by the recipient. After all, if the information you present is rejected, or causes resentment, then it cannot help the other person. Additionally, the relationship will be damaged. In being honest, you intend your message to be accepted. If the medicine needs a spoonful of sugar to go down, keep the sugar bowl handy.

Brutal Honesty

But what if your motives are other than to help the other person?  Suppose that, for reasons perhaps obscure even to yourself, your motives are to be right; or to prove that you had been right all along; or to provoke a violent reaction; or to cause pain. What is the effect in those cases?

The effect is almost always negative. The person rejects the advice, and the relationship is damaged, with each party going off muttering imprecations under their breath about the other.

But what about the times when we simply have to confront someone to get them to see the error of their ways? When there’s just no substitute for rubbing their face in it, for conducting an intervention, for shocking them into seeing the truth, which shall then of course set them free? This is what goes by the name of Brutal Honesty.

My experience is that for every 10 of those cases, maybe one works out. The others fizzle out and create havoc. The brutalized party rarely comes to full consciousness and thanks us for saving their soul. Instead, they just stop talking to us. At best.

Brutal honesty, then, is an oxymoron. If you are to be brutal, you will not long stay in relationship. If your view of improving relationships involves brutalizing them, you will not find many willing to travel that road with you.

If someone says to you, “I have to be brutally honest with you, ” say, “No, actually, you don’t. And I don’t have to hear it, either. Now, what was it you wanted to say?” And don’t overly weight what they tell you.

If you are ever tempted to tell someone, “I have to be brutally honest with you,” go hit yourself upside the head with a closed fist, to remind yourself how it feels to be brutalized.

Then ask yourself, “Do I care about this person and this relationship?  Then what do I have to share with them that is constructive, useful, and builds the relationship based on positive honesty?”

Lance Armstrong: Resigning to Spend More Time With His Family?

“I am resigning in order to spend more time with my family.”

That is what we hear from politicians when they depart under a cloud. Lance Armstrong was scarcely more original, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Armstrong said in a statement. “For me, that time is now.”

Armstrong protests that he has never been found guilty of doping, which is true. He has also insisted that he would never dope because to do so would jeopardize his career.

Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton “did not have sex with that woman.” Ronald Reagan, speaking of Iran Contra, said, “Mistakes were made.”

The one line we always wait to hear is the line we never hear: “I didn’t do it.”

Instead, we’re left with: “I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours,” Armstrong said, adding: “The toughest event in the world, where the strongest man wins. Nobody can ever change that.”

True. And yet not enough.

A Separation: a Cinematic Tale of Truth and Lies

This past weekend I saw A Separation, an Iranian movie with more awards to its credit than a dictator’s military jacket. It deserves every one of them.

You’ll never find better screenwriting. Rolling Stone rightly calls it “a landmark film.” Filmcritic calls it a brilliant political metaphor. Roger Ebert praises it as a critique of religion. The Irish Times calls it “a thoughtful film that also works as a crackling melodrama.”

It is all those, and something else. It’s a poster child for the corrosive influence of lying and the power of truth-telling.

Relationships in Disarray

I’ve often quoted (and will again here) Phil McGee’s brilliant insight that “all business problems flow from a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront.”

In A Separation, we see a couple struggling with their relationship. The wife wants to leave Iran; the husband refuses to leave his ailing father. The wife goes to stay with her parents. Their daughter is caught in between.

A woman, hired as a caregiver to the ailing father, brings her volatile husband into the mix. A small set of events trigger a progressive breakdown of relationships among these five key characters.

It is the breakdown that is portrayed so brilliantly. All five are shown as partly sympathetic, and the incidents are so trivial that it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina. And so the plot feels inevitable – the situation falls into disarray like water forming a funnel down the sink.  How could it be otherwise?

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Until, that is, you realize that every one of these people is fundamentally, deeply, living a lie. One’s lie is about honor; another’s about God; a third about loyalty to family. All the lies seem trivial, and understandable. But they all collide; irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.

And I realized, walking out of the theater, that every single one of those characters held the power within them to change everything – simply by being willing to tell the truth. And the power they held was not just to change themselves, but to change everyone else as well – the entire situation.

A Tendency to Blame, and an Inability to Confront

Back to McGee’s thesis. Dysfunction in groups is rarely about one stubborn person gumming up the works. That is the blame game. The one bad apple spoiling the barrel.

More often, it’s a group conspiracy that’s at fault; the entire organization opting to point fingers, rather than engaging in confronting the true issue at hand. And as the movie reminded me, a conspiracy doesn’t need to be undone by everyone – a single defector can do the job.

All it takes is one person to Speak the Truth, to point out the emperor’s new non-clothes. If that can be done, everyone else immediately recognizes that truth has been spoken. Then, whether from shame or from gratitude at someone else having taken the first step, the healing can begin.

Is this too abstract? What about you? What tangled webs are you a part of? What truth might be spoken by others caught up in the web that would set everyone free?

What truth might be spoken by you?

Truth In Talking: Calling Things By the Right Name

I’m going to quote Confucius, something I’d never have done were it not for TAA friend Shaula Evans:

“A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”  [Via Wikipedia]

                         Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

When “language is not in accordance with the truth of things,” music does not flourish. (Neither do presidential campaigns). It seems rather clear and direct; and hard to argue with. Shouldn’t we all strive to speak the truth?

Exaggeration is nothing new. But Confucius is talking about a good deal more than hyperbole here.  He’s talking about a moral perspective on the way we conduct our social lives.

What would Confucius say about a few aspects of modern life?

The Cops and the TSA

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) writes in Forbes that the TSA people who screen you in airports have gotten an upgrade in terms of uniform, badges, and title.  They look a lot more like Federal Law Enforcement officials.

However, says Rep. Blackburn, they’re still being recruited from pizza boxes, and are not being given federal law enforcement training. What you see is not what you get.

Rep. Blackburn didn’t cite Confucius, but she might well have: this is a case where “language is not in accordance with the truth of things.”

Does it matter? It does, Blackburn says, because the “language” of a Federal Law Enforcement uniform commands respect. But if a loosely-recruited TSA employee uses that uniform to get a woman to halt, and then sexually assaults her – well, there’s your harm. It matters greatly.

Confucius and Facebook Friends

At least twelve billion people have pointed out that Facebook “friends” are not quite the same as “real” friends. It’s obvious, right?

Well, when something becomes so “obvious” that we no longer comment on it, you might say it’s entered our subconscious. We still talk about real “friends,” and we still have Facebook friends.

The fact that it’s in-your-face obvious and mind-numbingly common doesn’t alter the Confucian fact that “the language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” It’s not. We are using one word to describe two very different realities.

In Confucian terms, when we speak in this double-speak manner, we are not behaving as “superior men.” If the shoe fits…

Confucius Meets Business Best Practices

Expectations.  One of the more common mundanities of management is the exhortation to “always exceed expectations.” This is – let’s be clear – considered a good thing according to the canons of management.

In other words, we should lead people to expect one thing – and then surprise ‘em by giving them something else. Again, this is considered a good thing.

Except by Confucius, who reminds us that this is a rather clear-cut case of “the language not being in accordance with the truth of things.” Indeed, the whole point of this ‘best practice’ is to intentionally do the opposite of what Confucius suggests.

Public Relations.  What would Confucius make of the public relations industry? According to the Encyclopedia of Business Dictionary:

“The point of public relations is to make the public think favorably about the company and its offerings.”

Perhaps the PRSA (the industry association) doesn’t care for language that so easily suggests manipulation.

The Arthur Page Society, “a select membership organization for senior public relations and corporate communications executives who seek to enrich and strengthen their profession” almost certainly doesn’t like it. Their first of seven principles of public relations is, “tell the truth.”

Well, which is it? Is the purpose of public relations to “tell the truth?” Or to “make the public think favorably about the company?”

Confucianism, like the Arthur Page Society, likes to emphasize the normative aspect of things. The truth of things, they both might say, should accord with the ideal meaning of “Public Relations.” And presumably the Page society strives mightily to bring that goal about.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the one in which the Encyclopedia of Business tries to make sense of common-language usage for the ordinary businessman, the ‘truth’ is “we want you to think of us this way.”

Let’s be honest about that: because that is the fact on the ground, and it’s known and understood by any man on the street. To deny that is to speak language not in accordance with the truth of things.

Confucius and Trust

I am no Confucian scholar. To be more in accord with the truth of things, I am ignorant of Confucian teachings. He may have written on trust, and I don’t know of it.

But any of us can plainly see the eloquence and truth of his words to us, written 2500 years ago. There is a place in life for exaggeration and hyperbole. That place encompasses art and literature, inspiration and motivation. In that context, it is good.

But if we fail to keep our social and commercial interactions grounded in fundamental notions of honesty and candor – if we let our language stray from the truth of things – the music does not flourish. Nor do we, along with it.

Trust Tip Video: Truth is More Than Not Lying

We all think lying is bad. Pretty much, mostly, usually. We think of lying as saying something that is not true. But not saying something that is true can get us in even more trouble.

We underestimate the power of truth-telling.

That’s what this week’s Trust Tip video is about.

For more on the subject of truth-telling, lies and untold truths, you might enjoy reading Truth, Lies and Unicorns.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to


Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ [email protected].

Don’t Manage My Expectations

It’s received wisdom by now that you should manage expectations. How could you argue with that? Nobody likes to be surprised on the downside. But as with many platitudes, the devil is in the details. And there are a few devils lurking out there in expectations-management land.

Always Exceeding Expectations

Exhibit 1 is the mantra to always under-promise and over-deliver, perhaps as a way to achieve customer delight. The problem is, if you consistently under-promise and over-deliver, you are – in an important sense – lying. You are deliberately telling your customer (or whomever) one thing, and then doing another. How else to describe that form of managing expectations?

The downside is that, over time, it destroys your credibility. Whether it’s stock analysts looking at your quarterly guidance, or employees expecting you to top last year’s ‘surprise’ holiday bonus, once you say one thing and do another, the only expectation you’ve ‘managed’ is the expectation that your future behavior will resemble what it was – an under-promise – not what you said it would be.

And so the party you’re trying to influence makes their own mental adjustment to counter-balance your expected over-delivery– negating your attempt at ‘management.’ Except that another degree of uncertainty is added on each end.

Managing Attitudes

There’s no question that a good attitude helps with life. Measured optimism, a propensity to trust, a positive outlook – all these increase the odds of positive interactions with others. Whether you expect ill or good of another person, that’s probably what you’ll get.

But what if an entire generation is raised the Lake Wobegon way, believing they’re all above average? What if self-help affirmations are of dubious benefit because on some level we don’t believe what we’re trying to tell ourselves? What if corporate and political spin get so bad that they destroy our trust in the very institutions and people who are seeking to manage our expectations?

Attempts at managing attitude are utlmately seen as patronizing. Whether it’s “don’t get your hopes up,” or “you should feel really good about this,” we resent others doing our feeling for us. We want the right to determine our own reactions, therefore our own attitudes.

Managing Expectations the Right Way

It is true that bad surprises are not a good thing. It’s also true that expectations aligned with reality (or slightly more optimistic) are preferable to living in a fantasy world. The problem is not with the noun ‘expectations.’ It comes with the verb – it matters who does the ‘managing.’

I want to manage my own expectations. You can help me by telling me the truth. That means six things:

  1. Be transparent. Get way past just not lying to me. Tell me all the truth you have access to. Make it a policy to give me access to data-without-interpretation.
  2. Prove to me – over and over– that I can depend on you. Promise me lots of little deadlines and meet every one of them – precisely, on the money, not ‘over-performing.’ Do exactly what you said you would do.
  3. Trust me. Share things about yourself with me that I could misuse against you, take risks on me that allow me to over-perform. Because then I have a chance to prove to you how competent and trustworthy I am.
  4. Respect me. Give me the data and let me make up my own mind how I feel about it. Don’t spin me, don’t tell me how I should feel.
  5. Be straight with me. If you do see my expectations careening out of control, and you think I’m about to make a serious error, then pull me aside and tell me straight; don’t sugar-coat it.
  6. Hold me accountable. Call me on my bullshit; confront me when I fail to deliver on time; be forthright with me when I let you down. And let me know that you expect me to do the same.

The best way to manage my expectations is to treat me like an adult. That’s my truth anyway; what about you?

When Journalistic Trust is a Matter of Life and Death

We in the US are frequently critical of the media.  And when we talk about trust, it is often in at a luxury level.

But tonight I attended the 20th Press Freedom Awards, presented by the Committee to Project Journalists –and got rudely reminded of how trust and journalism and life and death play intricate dances with each other in this world.

Yes, it was a swish event: black-tie, about a thousand guests, celebrity hosts—Tom Brokaw (who pinch-hit for Brian Williams—something to do with his day job and Korea), Christiane Amanpour, Gwen Ifill, Sir Howard Stringer. But it was a very serious event too.

Journalism is Hazardous to Your Health

39 journalists have been killed in 2010. Since 1992, 840 journalists have been murdered with impunity. Murder may be the leading cause of death for journalists–and the killers are rarely prosecuted, or even sought.  At this moment, 140 journalists are imprisoned around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists fights on their behalf; in Iran, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Russia, Mexico. They provide legal assistance, personal help—and aggressively intercede with national governments. 

Interestingly, virtually every government at least admits the principle that they shouldn’t be harming journalists. And thus the power of the press to “name and shame,” as one awardee put it, is far-reaching.

The Power of Truth and Trust

One of the most basic parts of the Trust Equation is credibility—can we believe what we are told. At a social level, this is a critical question: are we being told the truth? 

If a social group believes it is being told the truth, then we can trust what we hear, and trust the teller. If we do not believe we are being told the truth, then we don’t trust the teller—and it all goes downhill from there.

In society, the enemy of truth-telling is typically a government, a would-be government, or a quasi-government: some group of people who want to control others, and who fear that the truth will get in their way of doing so. 

And in society, it is the job of journalists to tell the truth. By that definition, it is journalists who are in charge of the level of trust in society. If they are allowed to operate, they oxygenate our dialogue. If they are repressed (or, as one awardee pointed out, simply denigrated over and over), then our oxygen flow is reduced.  We don’t believe.  And then we don’t trust–government, business, the other political party, our neighbors. 

Is Truth Relative? Come On

Some critics will say that ‘truth’ and a ‘free press’ are bourgeois affectations of a society that is itself corrupt. Sara Palin talks about the ‘lamestream’ press, and both right- and left-wing critics say there can be no such thing as ‘truth.’

And then there are the facts staring you in the face in that room tonight.

Journalists are convicted of terrorism for reporting the facts of arrest in Russia. A journalist ‘disappeared’ in Sri Lanka 300 days ago, but the government hasn’t initiated efforts to ‘find’ him. 30 journalists were massacred in the Philippines, but attorneys are not being granted access to the evidence.

You have to be Taliban-far out of the mainstream to argue that this kind of suppression isn’t a bad thing. We can all agree.

And if so, there you go. Social trust thrives on truth. Truth is sought by journalists. The attempt to suppress or neutralize them is anti-truth, and anti-trust.

As Tom Brokaw pointed out in his closing, we have luxury debates in the US. Our freedom of speech is enshrined in a constitutional amendment–the first one, in fact. Watching five people from foreign lands who put their freedom and even their lives at risk in search of those rights is a humbling experience.

A Tendency to Blame and an Inability to Confront

I am on vacation this week, and will be going back to the vault for some ‘oldies but goodies’ posts. I hope you enjoy them: I’ll be back in a week or so with new material.

Over a delightful lunch last week, a client said to me, “I don’t remember where I got this, but I have a saying I keep nearby in my office:

"All management problems boil down to two things: a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront."

“I know where you got it from,” I said; “you got it from me, and I got it from Phil McGee.” Credit where credit’s due, Phil.

And here’s why credit is due.

A tendency to blame. To “blame” someone means to falsely suggest that they are responsible for some negative thing. The problem starts with ‘falsely,’ and gets worse.

To lie about someone makes you a liar. It means we cannot believe what you say. It means your motives are suspect, and therefore all actions that follow from them.

And lying about someone’s responsibility isn’t just lying–it’s lying about someone. It is an indirect form of character assassination. “Blamethrowing” is an apt pun, for blaming is ferociously destructive.

Finally, it’s evasive. “It-was-him” means “it-was-not-me.” Blaming means manipulating the listener—for the blamer’s own hidden purposes.

Inability to confront. Blame goes hand in hand with an inability to confront others directly with the truth. “The truth” is very simple—it’s what happened, what someone felt, what is. It’s reality.

I mean “confront” here not in a negative sense, but in a sense of being able to speak, to another human being, that which is true. Inability to confront means inability to have an honest conversation with another about the truth.

Evasion. Insinuation. Insincerity. Implication. Avoidance. Dodging, fudging, skirting, deception, fabrication, distortion. These are accusations we level against those who cannot confront.

Yet the accused doesn’t hear them—because their inability to confront extends to themselves. “I didn’t mean to hurt,” they say—often sincerely. But partially "good" motives do not excuse wrongful actions—or inactions.

Is Phil overstating the case when he says “all management problems can be reduced” to these two? Let’s see. What about:

• Giving and receiving feedback
• Interviewing
• Delegation
• Teamwork
• Engagement
• Leadership
• Morale
• Collaboration
• Crisis management
• Persuasion
• Trustworthiness
• Problem definition
• Project management
• Relationship management

Blame and inability to confront affect each item on that list, and that list covers a multitude of management issues.

What is the opposite of a tendency to blame and an inability to confront?

Someone who speaks the truth. Who speaks it in a way that can be heard by all. Someone who accepts his own responsibility—no more, no less. Someone who simply sees things as they are. And who is willing to assign responsibility exactly where it belongs, equally whether it’s his or someone else’s.

When we can see things as they are, and confront them as such, “blame” disappears. There is simply truth, and our various roles in dealing with it. Once seen, it is easily spoken.

The trick is to see things as they are.