Being loyal to those who are absent and assuming good faith of others are keys to building trust in a culture. The ultimate test of principle-centered leadership is to be loyal to people who are absent when their names come up in conversations and meetings. When other people are not with you, they're in the dark they don't know what's happening, what you're saying about them, and whether you are loyal to them. And that's when you show your true character.
That doesn't mean you're not critical. You could be critical. But you're constructively critical and loyal to the point that you would not be ashamed if they happened to overhear the conversation, or if word got back to them, as it often does. You don't just sit on the sideline cutting, labeling, and stereotyping people and then look for evidence to support it.
So What's the Big Deal?
Now, you might say, "Every organization has its competitors and its enemies. Why is it such a big deal to talk about them in a cavalier or casual way?"
It's a big deal because if you allow people around you to stereotype, castigate, and label others, you basically tell them that you would make snide remarks about them behind their backs. You tell them that you're not centered on principles; you're seeking gain, pleasure, or popularity at someone else's expense. If you talk loosely about a customer, you will likely talk loosely about employees. I think the key to the 99 is the one. If people know that if you treat one person with respect, then under a different circumstance you would likely treat them the same way, even if there was some strain or pressure added. In meetings, we often talk about people who are not in attendance in demeaning ways to undermine their position or cut their credibility in the eyes of others.
Many times I have defended people who are absent from meetings. I won't allow people around me to label and castigate those who are absent. When a glib remark is made, I'll say, "Wait a minute. That's not the way we want to talk about people." I may also point out what good that person has done. I may also be critical of the person, but I would not be ashamed to have the person there. When you defend the integrity of a person who is absent, what does that say to those who are present? It says that you would do the same thing for them. Sure, it takes courage to speak up at the time. It's much easier to just say nothing. But I believe that if we have a chance to defend others or to speak up for our cherished beliefs and values, we need to do it. For example, I was talking to my son, Sean, about the debates at Harvard University regarding traditional family values. I counseled him not to take people on with a combative spirit and not to be the judge of others, but to speak up for the family and to do everything he can to preserve the traditional family.
Other Ways to Be Loyal
- Defend the defenseless the outcast, the underdog, the low person on the totem pole, the minority, the scapegoat. I like what Dag Hammerskold said: "It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses." When we attend to the one, it shows our character, and affects the many. Just look what we do in a democracy to preserve the rights of the one, even though we don't do it perfect justice. We aspire to the ideal of justice.
- Anticipate discussion and get clearance. Suppose you know in advance of a meeting where some controversial person and position will be discussed. It would be wise to call that person and say, "I know you can't be present, but would it be all right if I talk about you or represent your position in this way?"
- Call the person after the discussion and report what was said. You could call the person and say, "This is what happened, and this is what was said, and here is what we did." This is very important when you think what was said might get misrepresented. You might say, "I want to be clear on my intentions and what I said."
- Think of the customers who are not present. The whole quality movement focuses on the customer. Business has gradually come to realize that customers and suppliers - all stakeholders -must be treated with respect.
- Bring up the background of the person or the context of the event. With more geographic distance and cultural diversity, there's more potential for divisiveness and differences. When a person is being demeaned or talked about in a negative way, you may need to remind others: "This person is from a different culture or background, so rather than be such harsh critics, let's try to understand and give them the benefit of the doubt."
- Give people a chance to explain or defend their position or the circumstance in the next meeting. Every person wants his or her day in court a chance to explain what happened and why.
- Bring up the bright side, the positive side of the person. Once when I was meeting with members of a project team, team members started bashing a person whom they perceived to be a competitor. I said, "I don't think he would be comfortable with that judgment. I think he deserves better. He's one of the great presenters of our time." People often have an unconscious energy about negative gossip. They may sense that their name is being used in vain, that their enemies are conspiring against them. I think that's more common than we know. I think people have a sixth sense for when they're being slighted. Also, I see that many "idle words" spoken in "secret" or written without consideration are later published or broadcast. So, one of the best reasons for defending people who are absent is that those idle words - those character assassinations, hasty judgments, and poor decisions - won't come back to haunt you.
Perhaps a few stories will help make this point.
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