When it comes to successful change in business, Forbes recently advised that leaders should ask the question: “What is the outcome I want?”.
We struggle in our consulting business with the quandary of “sounding smart to win the client contract” versus “being truly consultative at the risk of losing the work”. Business clients often ask for one thing, yet really need something else to truly achieve the outcome desired. But telling a client that what they are asking for will not actually work to get them the outcomes they seek can be tricky.
Our Obsession with Sounding Smart
Business executives, organizational leaders, consultants, and professionals in every discipline are obsessed with sounding smart. It’s a strong driver in our culture. And what could be bad about sounding smart anyway? In fact, it turns out that sounding smart is more highly connected to acceptance than actually being right.
Wired Magazine, in its section on Innovation Insights, wrote that “experts” like those that speak at innovation conferences across the country “don’t have to be right, and audiences don’t reward them for being right. In fact, they don’t even have to sound right… you have to sound smart.”
It turns out that audiences are willing to forgive a person who turns out to be incorrect as long as that person is wrong in a way that’s intelligent. “Sounding intelligent, original, and useful is light years more important than actually being right.”
Some people are great at sounding smart. We all know that person who is amazing at sounding brilliant no matter what he or she is saying. They drop clever buzz words and sound bites, quote respected authors and experts, spin stories and offer examples that give the impression of deep knowledge, even if they don’t have anything more than a shallow understanding of a situation.
The problem is that implementing “sounds smart” plans in place of “smart” plans will not drive business results. But with so many professionals out there consumed with the desire to sound smart, we rarely hear what we really need to know. What we need is for more people to start saying what really matters – even if it’s not what we like to hear.
Keep it Simple, Stupid.
Business leader Patrick Meier captures the reality of most organizational communication: “Rare is the manager who stands before his or her peers to present a new strategy with a single slide and an idea that can be summarized in a sentence or two. Instead, managers congratulate themselves and one another when they come up with ideas that are so elaborate and convoluted they require two hours of multipart, multicolored slides and a liberal sprinkling of the latest buzzwords.”
I was just part of an effort to partner with a few other talented folks in the wide world of consulting to respond to an RFP. The response ended up being just over 60 pages. It should have been about 12 pages. In 12 pages the team could tell the client what they really need to do to achieve their desired outcome. But, under the pressure to respond not to the “need” but instead to the “request” the team threw in everything and kitchen sink. Also, it sounded smart.
The Courage to Say What Matters…
The courage to say what matters, even if it means taking back something we already said, adjusting our course or approach, admitting we are on the wrong track or made a mistake, or offering a line of consulting advice that we know the client is not ready or open to hearing, can be hard to find.
Most people think the opposite of courage is fear. But that’s not really true. The opposite of courage is indifference. We are able to be courageous not because we are unafraid, but because we care about something enough to act in spite of our fears. When we are in the pursuit of “doing right” – following the right path, doing the right thing, committing to a cause larger than the task in front of us, it’s easier to find the courage to say what we need to say (cue John Mayer…).
Evolutionaries Say What Needs to be Said.
Evolutionary leaders are masters at saying what needs to be said (even at great personal risk). They can do this because what drives them is a higher mission than pleasing people or making money (although those are nice too!). Evolutionaries are working to foster positive transformational change in their teams, organizations and beyond. And this means communication designed to lead people toward doing right. Authentic communication rises above the need to sound smart.
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, we say that “authenticity” is a term that has been overused in the past few years when talking about everything from leadership to branding to sales. What we mean by authenticity is that Evolutionary Communicators place their motive at the center of their communication efforts. The presence of human motive is the root of action – it’s what motivates ourselves and those around us to commit to a course and achieve results. When Evolutionary Communicators place motive at the center of their communication efforts, they achieve clarity. Others are better able to understand the Evolutionary Communicator’s driving values and purpose for acting. This communication behavior is exactly what people are referring to when they talk about someone’s “integrity.” Whether you call it authenticity, honesty, being straight-forward, or just a “straight-shooter” – motive-led communication is at the heart of transformative change.
So if you are working on a change effort, think about how you can avoid the trap of “sounding smart” when what is needed most is to speak from a place of integrity and pure motive. When you prepare for your next “high stakes” communication endeavor, try following these Evolutionary tips and see how they work for you:
- Lay your motive on the table – tell people where you are coming from, why you care about this line of work, what you have at stake, and why you want to achieve these results. We never stop being surprised at how powerful these words can be for a client to hear – no matter how “bumbling” or “exposed” you may feel when you are saying them!
- Give yourself permission to say you don’t know – be direct, say you don’t know but you will find out. Explain that you have resources or people you can bring in and will get back with that answer or solution soon. Don’t just “wing it” in an effort to sound smart and end up proposing solutions that aren’t right and can be very hard to back out of later!
- Ask lots of questions – this is the only way you will really learn what you need to know to offer sound advice or solutions later. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that you worry you should know the answer to – say something like, “I know we want to keep this project high level, but could you quickly walk me through how your organization would handle “X” situation?” You will learn a lot about a culture from questions like this one.
- Actually be smart – do your homework. Being courageous enough to say what really needs to be said is fundamentally about being prepared. Be sure you really understand the situation before you move into offering “prescriptive” advice.
When you duck the intense pressure in business to “sound smart” and instead place your focus on “doing right” you free yourself to meet your highest potential in your life’s work. Sure, audiences may not always applaud you, but more often than not you will get the results that really matter and the truly transformational change that so many organizations are looking for today.