I’ll never forget being the victim of a reckless truth-teller. I’d like to say it only happened once, but the truth is, it happened frequently for over two years. I was in my twenties, working in an organization that I highly respected. The manager, Claire*, and I really hit it off in my interview, and I was very excited to get to work with her. I’d left a previous job where I’d struggled to find enjoyment in my work. I was feeling vulnerable and maybe like most twenty something’s, questioning myself. Was this all there was? What if I wasn’t really meant for the career I’d chosen? Surely there had to be more to life than this? Somehow Claire picked up on this (probably because it was exuding from my very pores). She didn’t probe me, but she shared her own experiences with me. I felt a huge flicker of hope. Here she sat, very successfully I might add, in her fifties, with a whole career behind her and more to come in front of her. If she’d felt the same way I felt when she was in her twenties, maybe there was hope for me yet.
I signed the contract the minute I was offered the job and started a few weeks later. At first, I was Claire’s right hand woman. She took me everywhere, even to meetings that I wasn’t really supposed to attend. She introduced me to everyone, including some very senior partners. She found me a mentor and got me an office (with a window, I might add). I was glowing. Work was exciting. I felt like I was on the right track. This, I decided, I could do, could make a career of.
About three months into my tenure with Claire she called me into her office. She had some feedback for me, she said. I sat down, excited to hear what she was going to tell me. I respected her and therefore, I reasoned, even if her feedback was negative, it would be good for me to hear. What I didn’t know at the time was that what came out of her mouth next would change the trajectory of my career forever.
“You don’t have what it takes to do my job,” she said.
Mostly unphased, I pointed out that I was aware that she was correct, being as early in my career as I was, I did not have the experience to do her job.
“No,” she said. “You’ll never have what it takes to do my job.”
I sat there stunned. I remember stammering a bit. I could feel heat rising through my body. I didn’t know it then, but I was feeling a huge amount of shame course through me. I had no idea what to say. And she went in for the kill.
“See, this is why. This is exactly why. I tell you something like that and instead of fight or arguing with me, or pushing back, you sit there and look stunned. You have to be way tougher to do this job. Don’t get me wrong. I like you, and your colleagues like you. You’re developing a reputation for being kind, sincere, and hard-working. But what I don’t see is any fight. You’re not tough enough. You should think about what else you might be satisfied doing.”
Here’s the worst part of all. As I stood up, I remember thanking her. I actually said the words: Thanks for telling me the truth. And I viewed it as the truth. Being tough, stepping into conflict, being ballsy, had never been my skill set. I’d dinged myself often enough for that. So naturally, I reasoned, what she said must be true. I left her office and barely made it to my own office before I closed the door and burst into tears. I left work early that day and had to absolutely force myself into the office the next morning. I was too ashamed to even tell my husband what had happened. For the next several weeks, Claire acted like nothing had ever happened. So did I. We went back to our usual routine of meetings, presentations and small talk. I never brought up the conversation, but it shook my confidence greatly.
Over the course of the next two years, Claire and I would have similar feedback sessions. I came to dread them more than anything, including going to the dentist which is a pretty high level of dread for me. Her feedback almost always centered around my lack of toughness. To be honest, I never recovered from our first feedback session, but I also never told her that the feedback was too harsh, never told her that I disagreed with her, never told her that I thought she might be wrong. I was complicit in these bloodletting sessions. The damage to my confidence was done though. I no longer looked at myself as a career-driven women. No longer saw a path for me up the ladder. In fact, most days I just longed to get out; I fantasized about quitting on a daily basis.
In hindsight, I think Claire believed she was trying to save me some heartache. Truthfully though, she only created it. The gift of time has allowed me to see that she was right about me not being cut out to lead an organization in the SAME way she did. She was right about me not being as TOUGH as her. Nowadays though, I know that no two leaders are the same; everyone has their own way of doing things. And I can see that Claire’s way was absolutely not my way. It worked for her, because it was a part of her. If I had tried to lead the same way it would have reeked of in-authenticity.
Claire was a reckless truth-teller. In a world where we claim we desire more transparency, more honesty, more authenticity, we need to be careful what we wish for. Being honest is a practice in kindness. Being honest means looking at whether what we believe is “true” is actually true for everyone, and not just us. Being honest doesn’t mean sharing every little thing that pops into your head. It’s true that working in a community requires honesty. But it also requires kindness, compassion, and the allowance for change. I sometimes wonder how things might have looked if Claire had only told me part of her perceived “truth”. I wonder if she’d shared with me what it meant to her to be “tough” and how she’d cultivated that persona. Or even better, WHY she’d cultivate it. How would things have looked different if she’d tried to mentor me, or develop the skill set that she believed I needed.
Unfortunately reckless truth-tellers are often a one line show. They perform surgery without anesthesia, and leave you lying on the table to bleed to death. As I reach a point in my career where I have the luxury of experience, I hold the truth like a precious gem. Before I give feedback to anyone, I ask myself: It is kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? And finally, can I offer support and help to this person so that they can work on themselves? Am I willing to be part of the solution?
My experience with Claire was extremely painful and it took years for me to recover from it. Most twenty-somethings have some sort of similar experience(s). If I could go back in time, I’d very gently tell myself that Claire’s feedback was not the only truth. It was just HER truth. And she dished out the truth as she saw it. Which turned out to be about as reliable as a fortune cookie.
Susan McCusker is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Beth Killough, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reclaim natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds.