Speaking the truth with "Duncan's Rule" | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer 

Developing influence in the workplace is, to some degree, a function of doing good work. And that’s where many people stop, thinking that their good work will carry the day.

It takes a lot more than doing good work to make a real difference in any organization, and what it takes is often harder than people imagine or care to take on.

Over the past several years, I have set about making a list of what I think are fundamental guidelines for: a) operating effectively in an organizational environment; and b) doing your best to stay engaged. One thing is for certain: If you work inside an organization for any length of time, you are going to get injured, not necessarily physically, but very likely emotionally and/or psychologically.

Sometimes these injuries are personal, most times they are not—just the normal workings of an environment that was designed with machines in mind, not human beings. Whatever the cause, the damage gets done and often leaves a mark that people do not get over.

This is costly, to the individual and the organization in ways that defy measurement.

I say the injuries are inevitable, so preparing to recover is a necessary skill set. Call them survival skills if you will. I prefer “guidelines”— guidelines to staying engaged.

I have published my list of Engagement Guidelines on more than one occasion, and I have found over the years that the list continues to grow. Recently I experienced one of those occasions that reminded me why my list remains an open ended project.

Last Tuesday, I had an exchange with one of the students in my evening organizational behavior class during a small group exercise. We’ll call the student “Duncan.”

Duncan has recently been assigned to a high-profile project in his organization where he is by far the newest and the youngest member of the team. He expressed dismay over what he considers his observed lack of concern for quality and solid technical practice.

When I asked whether he had voiced his concerns, he stated that it was also his observation that no one was asking for his opinion on the issues he was referring to, nor did he think it would necessarily be welcome if he offered without being asked.

So here we have it. This is, without a doubt, a classic situation many of us can relate to.

We’ve either been there or had a friend tell us about being there, and in most cases what we were left with was frustration and some justification for not speaking up because of perceived negative consequences. It doesn’t get any more basic than this.

I asked Duncan whether he had yet developed the relationships that would allow him to speak his piece and be appreciated if not agreed with. He gave me a somewhat helpless look as though to say, “You mean I have to do that too?”

Herein lies the difference between staying engaged and putting in your time. This is also why Dilbert remains a regular read for people in more than 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries now 23 years after it came on the scene (If there is one guy who is not rooting for change, it is Scott Adams.).

Shortly after class that evening, I realized that through the brief exchange with Duncan I had stumbled upon another of the Guidelines for Staying Engaged.

Put in as simple terms as I can possibly think of—#14) Duncan’s Rule: “If you plan on being able to speak the truth make sure you set up an audience to listen.”

In time and with further thought, I’ll probably reformulate this guideline and hopefully make it a bit more elegant.

What this newly recognized guideline reveals is that most working environments are set up to be willing to listen to whatever reinforces past success or prevailing wisdom. But while stating that there is regard for the truth, there is a particular type of truth that is preferred and rewarded. Anything other than this will likely be held in contempt or worse.

However, it is possible with time and patience to build a platform of mutual respect from which it becomes possible to speak a truth that contradicts the past. This platform is built one relationship at a time and it does require energy and focus.

Duncan of course wanted to know why he couldn’t just speak up and be heard. Duncan is still new!

I love the new guys. I know they are going to experience pain.

I just hope it doesn’t make them cynical.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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