Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Life Skill We All Must Recognize

As a guest, I was standing at the back of a gathering recently to celebrate the anniversary of a popular landmark when a state legislator whispered in my ear that it was odd there was no acknowledgement given for those who paid the biggest price to clear the way for the project.

I smiled and whispered back to my friend that as he well knows from his work as a lawmaker, there is typically no reward forthcoming when the feelings or opinions leading up to a decision are mixed or pluralistic.

The “are you fur us or agin us” part of our human nature usually masks how difficult some decisions are, even when they end up being “fur.”  People unwilling to examine self-biases rarely award points to those disposed to critical thinking.

Just ask Mayor Bill Bell, whose nearly 40-year career in public service to this community was punctuated midway through by two years of exile because after much soul-searching, he courageously came down on the side of an imperfect and highly controversial formula for a school merger.

At the event I attended, I tested a theory about how revealing feet are to body language.  It turned out to be a very accurate way to ascertain how genuine, open and accepting people are.  Even on the cusp of the South, where I have lived for nearly 25 years, it is almost impossible to tell otherwise.

I picked up that tip much too late to be of use in my long ago concluded forty-year career in visitor-centric community economic and cultural development.

It comes courtesy of Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, a former behavioral change therapist who is now an author, teacher and speaker.  She coaches executives on a variety of topics including how to read non-verbal communication.

About half way through my career, a specialist reviewing my results on an in-depth Myers-Briggs test, warned me that being an “x” on two of the four spectrums, “introvert-extrovert” and “judging-perceiving (tactical-strategic)” would lead some people to distrust me.

Many, maybe even most, human beings tend to think in “either/or” terms as they do with “fur or agin.”  An “x” meant that on any given day or several times a day I might swing between “strategic” to “tactical” or “quiet/introspective” and “outgoing” and back.

This expert’s warning was that either/or people might view that as duplicitous or deceptive.  He was right.  In fact, during my career one of the people attending the recent event had warmed me,  referring to a couple of people trying to get me fired at the time, that “they just don’t trust you.”

Last summer while spending a week at a Rocky Mountain lake in the Pacific Northwest, I read Dr. Goman’s newest book entitled The Truth About Lies in the Workplace but found it applied just as well to the broader workplace in my former field of community marketing which included stakeholders such as elected officials and strategic partners.

In community marketing, an exec is charged with fueling the local business climate and expanding the local tax base, all the while safeguarding and promoting the community’s sense of place.

All of this must be done while not really being in control of anything and expressing not only your own opinions (hopefully informed by data) but also faithfully advancing the collective policies and opinions of a governing board.

Sound like fun?  It was incredibly challenging and fulfilling!

I highly recommend reading the book, especially for anyone who thinks they don’t lie at some level because it documents using scientific studies that we all do, and not just to children at this time of year.

Unfortunately, most in that category may be equally good at self-deception or don’t give a damn.

As the book details, “extroverts lie at a higher rate than introverts, intelligent people are better able to handle the cognitive load imposed by lying and manipulative people or those overly concerned with impression tell more lies.”

If those shoes don’t fit, the book also notes that some professions are more prone to lying including evangelists (including I presume those sermonizing on behalf of community’s development and revitalization,) sales people and marketers, politicians, company or organization spokespersons and of course, actors and poker players.

My experience tells me that representatives of special interests especially adept at the “push and shove” of lobbying would make the list.

The book deals with lies both at a strategic level called deception and lies at a day-to-day tactical level.  Both are life skills learned in childhood as a means of gaining advantage.  This includes omission, spin, hyperbole, withholding, glossing, misinformation and many other techniques that are used to simply gain advantage.

Manifesting infallibility is itself a form of lying as is backstabbing.  In studies, nearly half of those surveyed admit to lying but it may pay to be especially beware of the half who refused to admit it.

They are likely to be particularly creative and adept at rationalizing “means” by the “ends” they are meant to accomplish.  By noting the universality of lying and deception in everyone at some level, the book doesn’t seek to lower the bar on ethical behavior but sensitize us to be able to spot egregious deception.

It is best read in the spirit of self-reflection and introspection.  Unfortunately, for many unable to admit to being human or with a tendency to self-righteousness, reading it may only serve as an enlightening enabler.

However, I would add it to any must-read list of management books.  It is especially appropriate for anyone in economic development including both supply-side and my former specialty on the demand-side.

I definitely recommend reading the book not just in terms of your workplace but the broader community context in which one may work.

It may even aid in formation of New Year’s resolutions.  No lie!

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