“I just say things as they are” is a phrase you might hear quite often. Maybe even without paying attention to it. If you – as we do in Gugin work with leadership development, conflict reconciliation and cultural identities you DO pay attention to phrases like that. That is because they tell a lot about the person using it. And the things this phrase tells about the person using it is not good news.

What does “I just say things as they are” tell about the person saying it?

In december we worked with a large private health clinic in Germany. They wanted our help to integrate 2 smaller healthcare clinics they had recently acquired. We were invited into the process quite late because things started to go wrong. Despite they were 3 healthcare clinics in the same field but with different areas of specialisation they had 3 very distinct cultures. Usually that is a great foundation for a new company, but not in this case.

The acquirer believed that they could dictate everything and they expected the 2 acquired companies to do what they were told. That approach doesn’t even work with a 2-year old so how can an adult, well-educated, successful CEO assume it will work with other adult, well-educated, successful people?

In a situation like this we always start listening. I think there is a reason why we have 2 ears and only one mouth. The first meeting we attended was a steering group meeting for the integration team encompassing representatives from the 3 companies. The CEO was obviously annoyed with the discussion about how things should be organised. That was the first time we heard the phrase “I just say things as they are”. Over the next days we heard it many times when we were together with the CEO. We sensed she got more and more frustrated and so did the people around her.

Why do some people use that phrase?

The short answer to that question is that they have a low level of cultural intelligence. When you have a low level of cultural intelligence you have difficulty in seeing things from different perspectives and you might have a difficulty in seeing remote connections. If you grew up in a monocultural environment and was educated in a monocultural environment you are disposed. In a group where everybody agrees on how the world looks like, share the same values and norms you are likely to see other perspectives as wrong or even dangerous.

When we interviewed the CEO about how she looked at the transformation process she expressed a lot of fear. Fear that things would go wrong if they were not done her way. She had a strong belief in systems and rules and much less belief in people

How do other people receive that phrase?

Imagine you know you are competent, experienced and entitled to have an opinion. An opinion most other people agree with – except your boss. Constantly your boss knocks your argument and opinion down with “I just say things as they are”. You don’t agree with that it is how things are and you know you are not alone.

If you verbally are getting knocked down again and again – not by good arguments – but with “I just say things as they are”; how would you feel?

Yes. You get frustrated, angry and you will eventually look for another job. And that is what a number of the key people in the 2 acquired companies were doing. Some had already left and most of the remaining people were thinking about leaving.

Arrogance is a costly habit

When you buy a company in the healthcare industry your most important asset you are buying is intellectual capital. Up to 98% of the acquisition price is intangible assets.  That intellectual capital sits in the heads of all the people. These people go home every afternoon. If they don’t come back you have lost a huge amount of money.

The accident had already happened when we were asked to help, so our first mission was to stop the accident from getting any worse. It didn’t take us long to find the root of the problem, the CEO.

She acted the way she did because she was afraid of the new situation. She didn’t know how to deal with uncertainty and as we got to know her better it was obvious that she had been punished for failures in the past. And the best way to avoid failures is (wrong assumption anyway) doing things they way you have always done them.

We interviewed other people from the organisation at all levels and their verdict was clear. Their CEO was arrogant with no compassion. That misinterpretation is very common and if we don’t intervene is just grows bigger.

The CEO’s fear of uncertainty was perceived as arrogance. It is usually like that actually and fortunately we know what to do in such a situation.

The solution

Here is what we did:

  • We took the senior management team through our cultural intelligence training so that they learned that there is more than one equally valid truth to almost everything and they learned how to decode other people’s behaviour so that they could reconcile on a value level instead of starting a conflict.
  • We made an interview with the CEO where she explained why she wanted people to do everything her way. The interview was videorecorded and shown to the other groups we did workshops for.
  • We made interviews with representatives with the middle managers and employees where they told about how they perceived the CEO’s behaviour and that they really just wanted to make this integration process successful.
  • Now that everybody had a higher level of cultural intelligence they better understood the importance of decoding other people’s behaviour correctly. They also learned that in a potential conflict they should start looking at the commonalities. When they did that it was much easier for them to overcome the differences. Often we human being have a tendency to look for the differences. When we do that it can be very difficult to find a common ground.

What can you do?

The first thing you should do is to check if you use the phrase too. Most people are not aware of that they use it. So ask for colleagues, friends, family etc. If you do use the phrase you should work on not using it. You can either just stop using it or acquire a higher level of cultural intelligence so you would not even consider using it.

If you find yourself in a similar situation as the one described above – call for help. It is unlikely you can resolve it on your own for that simple reason that you are involved in it. So please get in touch if you need our help. We work globally – also in United States.

Get in touch here or send an email to gugin@gugin.com

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