The Turd on the Table.

Most successful companies and individuals defeat themselves.

This comes from some combination of hubris, incestuous thinking and improperly aligned incentives.

Intel was so deluded by its success around Windows computing and 86 architecture that they missed mobile computing and were late to the needs of Cloud computing. It has been superseded by Nvidia, Taiwan Semiconductor and AMD. And yet another CEO has come and gone.

Wells Fargo was so crazed and incentivized to drive revenue by opening new accounts that they started accounts for dead people and established multiple accounts for customers who did not need them. Billions of dollars of fines and 4 CEO changes in less than 6 years is a result of this besotted behavior.

Soon a trail of emails will show that Boeing for years was aware of the software problems with the 737Max but a zeal to ship, a disconnected or badly informed Board of Directors, and miscommunication deeply damaged this world class firm.

Massive growth leading to a dilution of talent and difficulties in maintaining standards, a lust for lucre combined with deep divides between values of senior partners and a new generation of purpose driven talent as well as wedge between US and European and Asian leadership has badly impacted the reputation of McKinsey as one scandal after another engulfs the firm. Economist magazine rightly identifies the issue as one where the partners may be suffering from collective self-delusion!

All these world class firms with superb talent and brands will most likely recover strongly and remain leaders but many of these problems could have been avoided or lessened if only someone had called out or leaders had paid attention to the turd on the table.

A. What is the turd on the table?

It is something that is brown and moist, and people know it is a piece of poisonous waste, but they pretend it is a brownie. They are aware of the stink but perfume over the aroma. Here are some flavors of turd:

Mismanagement. For instance, management (particular leaders or leadership teams) is disconnected from reality and refusing to acknowledge the facts—or they’re guilty of bullying, discrimination, or harassment.

These are incredibly touchy issues, since the former means confronting powerful people in denial and the latter means addressing an individual’s unethical or immoral behaviors.

Toxic cultures. Organizations are highly defensive about their cultures, even when they become cult-like and inflexible or fear-driven. Telling a leader that the culture has become poisoned requires courage.

Financial improprieties. Here, the problem may be a company over-inflating revenue, such as Enron, or one that takes short-term measures to goose the numbers, such as Wells Fargo. Confronting these improprieties that have major short-term benefits and may involve illegal or unethical actions is a challenge.

Major industry shifts. A leader may refuse to address big changes in customer behavior, or the competitive landscape, or mammoth technology changes requiring tough decisions (such as Kodak and digital emergence). It’s easier to rationalize or deny shifts than articulate the business-altering trend and the need for rethinking everything.

People problems. The boss or some person with influence is acting like a jerk, or is playing favorites, or is blind to internal or external developments. In many ways, this is the biggest turd on the table, in that it requires confronting a powerful individual about his or her issues.

B. Why is it hard to call out the turd on the table?

Being punished. You’ve heard the phrase “Don’t kill the messenger”? In many cultures, people who bring up messy, problematic subjects tend to draw the ire of others in the room. If it can’t be dealt with logically and analytically—if it causes people to feel upset, embarrassed, or confused—then raising these issues creates consternation. And sometimes it creates condemnation.

People are afraid of being punished—verbally reprimanded or worse—for talking about difficult subjects. For instance, they don’t want to address how the CEO intimidates everyone or how the CIO’s tendency to play favorites is lowering morale.

Being wrong. In a data-driven world, people like accuracy and correct decisions. The reasoning goes, if you follow the data, you’ll get it right. Of course, that’s not always true. In these cultures, employees are often plagued by self-doubt:

Am I reading the situation correctly? Is there a subject flaw in my thinking? Have I analyzed the situation incorrectly? Self-doubt is a highly effective censor.

Being asked to do more work. Or, as they warn you in some stores, “If you break it, you buy it.” People fear that if they raise problems or difficult issues, they will be asked to deal with them.

Being Disliked. Truth tellers aren’t popular in companies, especially when they’re telling hard truths. Most employees want to be liked by their colleagues and bosses. Articulating troubling issues will get them branded as troublemakers. This is especially true if they don’t have facts and figures to back up their insights and opinions.

C. Why do talented people miss the turd?

Narrow Obsessive Focus. When you’re viewing the data constantly and thinking about it endlessly, you’re viewing the turd through distorting, rose-colored glasses. We have all worked with managers like this, people who are insulated by all their software and systems and benchmark developments in a formulaic manner—i.e., they always compare their performance with traditional competitors or use other established measures. As a result, they miss untraditional competitors or unmeasured innovations. They see only what their screens show them. Thus, they fail to raise problematic issues because they can’t see them clearly. At first the music industry did not see—and then did not understand—the impact of the iPod and iTunes on wresting away control of the industry; what did a technology company understand about music? GM and Ford focused on each other and VW and Toyota and not Uber and Tesla till these “outsider” companies eclipsed them.

Accepting Data Without Questions. We take refuge in the data, believing it to be holy. We accept whatever the machine spits out and forget to ask how the data was collected and compiled, or what biases were in the algorithm.

Even if our instincts are prompting us to call a turd a turd, we don’t because the data says it’s actually a brownie. Today many marketers celebrate how well their online campaigns are doing and how they wish to allocate more money to these programs, despite limited overall gain and often a decline in their total business. It is like a patient who is getting sicker and sicker but believes the vital signs on the monitor, which seem to be glowing healthily. Could it be that they are not measuring the right thing, or the measurement is wrong?

Myth Making and Hero Cultures. Magical thinking prevents people from stating unpleasant truths because many companies cultures’ have religious fervor, and one does not want to be ex-communicated!

In many companies, cultural success myths are powerful, and they often relate to formulas or other numerical concepts that helped the company achieve success. Obviously, there’s validity in these cultural stories, but at times the stories become sacrosanct and that’s when they become a problem (e.g., it’s heresy to speak against the company ethos or its leaders and founders). Data-centric or founder worshipping companies that have been highly successful are especially vulnerable to drinking the Kool-Aid, since people who work in these companies often have fierce beliefs in their technology or their heritage, and they have trouble violating these sacred beliefs.

D. How to encourage the calling out of the turd if you are part of leadership.

1. Anonymous tip lines or suggestion boxes. This is like training wheels for turd table talk. Yes, it’s old-fashioned, and employees may be skeptical at first about whether their suggestions will be read or acted upon, but it provides a starting point for people to voice their truths. Some companies use up and down voting of questions to address key issues at All Hands Meetings.

2. Leadership modeling of truth talking. This is a simple but effective way to integrate truth-telling into the culture. At the end of every important meeting, meeting leaders should ask the following two questions:

(a) Is there something that has not been said that should have been said?

(b) Can someone please say why what we discussed or agreed on today might be wrong?

The Navy SEALs have a practice that after every operation, they have a debrief where everybody leaves their titles at the door. It does not matter if you are a newbie or a commander; everyone is asked to talk about what they and everybody else in the team could have done better.

3. Truth-telling incentives. Nothing aligns values and behaviors like incentives. Rewarding rather than punishing people who challenge the status quo with financial benefits, promotions, and verbal approval sends a powerful message. If you want people to take risks and challenge the status quo, you need to reward such people and such behavior.

4. Admitting wrong. Bosses hate to say, “I made a mistake,” or “That was a dumb decision.” When bosses admit they were wrong, especially when they do so with humor and vulnerability, they convey it’s okay to admit mistakes and point out what didn’t work. Sometimes the turd on the table is a bad leadership choice, and when the leader points it out, it signals to others that it’s okay not only to admit mistakes but to note when bosses do something wrong. Every CEO has overcome significant boo-boos.

They survived and thrived because they realized they were wrong and rectified their mistakes.

5. Storytelling. Dramatize the positives of identifying the turd on the table. Bring in outside speakers who can lay out scenarios in which organizations benefited when people started telling the truth.

6. External middle and senior level hires. One way to ensure new mindsets and thinking is to ensure that a certain percentage of talent is hired externally including from outside the industry or the country the company is strong in. These new folks can bring not only new skills but often question the status quo.

E. Becoming a Turd Slayer!

Do not fear the turd.

Call it out. Shine a bright light on it. Place it on a pedestal. Address the damn thing!

Here are some suggestions for you to become a “turd slayer”

a) Say what you think. In business we care what is between your ears. If you cannot say what you think (hey if it is wrong you will be told so, in fact even if you are right you will be told you are wrong…). Truth eventually has a habit of breaking in. Why not open the door and save time and damage?

b) Assume the person you are trying to be diplomatic to about an issue knows what the issue is. If you bring it up, you will be more respected by them. If they did not know, you will earn an ally.

c) Do not go with the crowd if your instinct says no. Often group and crowd dynamics take over in much decision making. People think about what their boss wants to hear rather than what they should say. People worry about the impact of their career rather than what is right. Sooner or later too many people are dodging their own shadow and playing mind games that lead to slow and bad decisions.

d) Do not work for a boss who cannot bear the truth or whom you fear.We are living in a time of change and most of the time senior folks need to be told that their core beliefs may no longer be true. I have seen too many companies from newspaper to magazines to many other companies hasten their decline because their leadership did not face reality, in part because their staff was scared of them.

e) Tell all the truth but tell it slant:Once you have decided to address the turd on the table, you might want to do so in a way, so the message gets through. Ideally it is in a way that does not make the person receiving the news “lose face” so much of this is best done person to person. In other times some humility, self-awareness, metaphors or humor will be called for. Emily Dickinson says it best in her poem, too much of shock and you will have blinded someone to the turd!

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight 

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind

So, let’s address the “turd on the table” wherever it might be.

For instance, this post might be a turd in itself.

We would then call it a “meta-turd”

Illustrations by Iker Ayestaran

Rishad Tobaccowala (@rishad) is the author of the bestselling “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by HarperCollins globally in January 2020. It has been described as an “operating manual” for managing people, teams and careers in the age we live in and The Economist Magazine called it perhaps the best recent book on Stakeholder Capitalism. Business and Strategy named it among the best business books of the year and the best book on Marketing in 2020. Rishad is also a speaker, teacher and advisor who helps people think, feel and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves. More at https://rishadtobaccowala.com/

Rishad Tobaccowala