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Chapter 6 Seek and Speak Your Truth
MY FRIEND Betsy Cohen was pregnant with her second child when her toddler, Sam, became curiousabout where the baby was in her body. “Mommy,” he asked, “are the baby’s arms in your arms?” “No,the baby is in my tummy,” she replied. “Are the baby’s legs in your legs?” “No, the whole baby is inmy tummy.” “Really, the whole baby is in your tummy? Are you sure?” “Yes, the whole baby is in mytummy.” “Then, Mommy, what’s growing in your butt?”

This kind of honesty is common from children and virtually unheard of from adults. As kids growup, we teach them to be polite, watch what they say, not hurt others’ feelings. This is not a bad thing.

As a former pregnant “whale,” I’m glad that most people keep some observations to themselves. Butas we learn to speak appropriately, we lose something in authenticity.

Authentic communication is not always easy, but it is the basis for successful relationships at homeand real effectiveness at work. Yet people constantly back away from honesty to protect themselvesand others. This reticence causes and perpetuates all kinds of problems: uncomfortable issues thatnever get addressed, resentment that builds, unfit managers who get promoted rather than fired, and onand on. Often these situations don’t improve because no one tells anyone what is really happening. Weare so rarely brave enough to tell the truth.

Being honest in the workplace is especially difficult. All organizations have some form ofhierarchy, which means that someone’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception. Thismakes people even less likely to tell the truth. Every organization faces this challenge, no matter howflat it tries to be. At Facebook, we work hard to be nonhierarchical. Everyone sits at open desks in bigopen spaces—no offices, cubes, or partitions for any of us. We hold a company-wide Q&A everyFriday where anyone can ask a question or make a comment. When people disagree with decisions,they post to the company-wide Facebook group. Still, I would be an idiot, or not telling myself thetruth, if I thought that my coworkers always felt free to criticize me, Mark, or even their peers.

When psychologists study power dynamics, they find that people in low-power positions are morehesitant to share their views and often hedge their statements when they do.

This helps explain whyfor many women, speaking honestly in a professional environment carries an additional set of fears:

Fear of not being considered a team player. Fear of seeming negative or nagging. Fear thatconstructive criticism will come across as just plain old criticism. Fear that by speaking up, we willcall attention to ourselves, which might open us up to attack (a fear brought to us by that same voice inthe back of our heads that urges us not to sit at the table).

Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweetspot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest. Speaking truthfully without hurtingfeelings comes naturally to some and is an acquired skill for others. I definitely needed help in thisarea. Fortunately, I found it.

When Dave was at Yahoo, he attended a management training program taught by Fred Kofman, aformer MIT professor and author of Conscious Business. Dave hates training of any kind, and thehuman resources team at Yahoo had to force him to attend the two-day session. When he came homeafter the first day, he surprised me by describing the training as “not too bad.” By the end of thesecond day, he started quoting Fred and making observations about our communication. I was inshock; this guy must be good. So I called Fred, introduced myself, and said, “I don’t know what youdo, but I want you to do it for my team at Google.”

Fred showed up at Google, and his teachings changed my career and my life. He is one of the mostextraordinary thinkers on leadership and management I have ever encountered. Many of the conceptsdiscussed in this chapter originated with him and reflect his belief that great leadership is “conscious”


I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is mypoint of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolutetruth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others. When we recognizethat we can see things only from our own perspective, we can share our views in a nonthreateningway. Statements of opinion are always more constructive in the first person “I” form. Compare thesetwo statements: “You never take my suggestions seriously” and “I feel frustrated that you have notresponded to my last four e-mails, which leads me to believe that my suggestions are not thatimportant to you. Is that so?” The former can elicit a quick and defensive “That’s not true!” The latteris much harder to deny. One triggers a disagreement; the other sparks a discussion. I wish I couldalways maintain this perspective in all my communications. I don’t—but I continue to try.

Truth is also better served by using simple language. Office-speak often contains nuances andparentheticals that can bury not just the lead but the entire point. Comedies like Office Space ring truefor a reason. People fear insulting others, especially the boss, so they hedge. Rather than stating, “Idisagree with our expansion strategy,” they say, “While I think there are many good reasons why weare opening this new line of business and I feel confident that the management team has done athorough ROI analysis, I am not sure we have completely thought through all of the downstreameffects of taking this step forward at this time.” Huh? With all of these caveats, it’s hard to decipherwhat the speaker actually thinks.

When communicating hard truths, less is often more. A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg decided tolearn Chinese. To practice, he spent time with a group of Facebook employees who were nativespeakers. One might think that Mark’s limited language skills would have kept these conversationsfrom being substantively useful. Instead, they gave him greater insight into what was going on in thecompany. For example, one of the women was trying to tell Mark something about her manager. Markdidn’t understand so he said, “Simpler, please.” Then she spoke again, but he still didn’t understand,so he had to ask her to simplify further. This happened a few more times. Eventually, she gotfrustrated and just blurted out, “My manager is bad!” She was still speaking Chinese, but simplyenough that Mark understood. If more people were this clear, the performance of many organizationswould improve dramatically.

The ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak. From the time my siblings and I werevery young, whenever we had arguments, our mother taught us—or more like forced us—to mirroreach other, which means restating the other person’s point before responding to it. For example, oneday my sister and I were fighting over a lollipop. “Sheryl ate the last lollipop!” Michelle screamed.

“But she had a lollipop yesterday and I didn’t!” I screamed back, making an excellent point. Mymother sat us down facing each other. I was not allowed to explain how gravely inequitable thelollipop allocation was until I acknowledged my sister’s feelings. “Michelle, I understand that you areupset because I ate the last lollipop and you wanted it.” As painful as this was at the time, reflectingsomeone’s viewpoint clarifies the disagreement and becomes a starting point for resolution. We allwant to be heard, and when we focus on showing others that we are listening, we actually becomebetter listeners. I now do this with my children. And while they probably dislike the process as muchas I did when I was their age, I love hearing my son explain to my daughter, “I’m sorry you’re upsetbecause you lost at Monopoly, but I’m older than you so I should win.” Not bad for a seven-year-old.

(Although Fred would caution my son to take out the “but” and everything after, since it tends to denythe preceding statement. Imagine someone saying, “I really like you, but …”)Being aware of a problem is the first step to correcting it. It is nearly impossible to know how ouractions are perceived by others. We can try to guess what they’re thinking, but asking directly is farmore effective. With real knowledge, we can adjust our actions and avoid getting tripped up. Still,people rarely seek enough input. A few years ago, Tom Brokaw interviewed me for a piece onFacebook. Tom is a magnificent interviewer, and I felt that I stumbled through some of my answers.

After we wrapped, I asked him how I could have done better. He seemed surprised by my question, soI asked him again. He then told me that in his entire career, I was only the second person to ask himfor feedback.

The strategy of soliciting input broadly was first demonstrated for me by Robert Rubin, secretary ofthe Treasury when I joined the department in 1996. During my first week there, I was invited to ameeting on restructuring the IRS. About ten senior staffers were sitting at the table when we entered.

Since I knew nothing about the topic, I took a seat in the back corner of the room (yup, not even closeto the table). Toward the end of the meeting, Secretary Rubin suddenly turned and asked, “Sheryl,what do you think?” I was stunned silent—my mouth opened but nothing came out. When he saw howshocked I was, Secretary Rubin explained why he had put me on the spot: “Because you’re new andnot fully up to speed on how we do things, I thought you might see something we were missing.”

Apparently not in my case. But Secretary Rubin sent a powerful message to all of us about the valueof soliciting ideas from every corner (literally).

Secretary Rubin was also aware of the dangers of blindly following leaders, or in his case, beingblindly followed. Before becoming Treasury secretary, Rubin served as co-chairman of the board ofGoldman Sachs. At the end of his first week as co-chairman, he noticed that Goldman was heavilyinvested in gold. He asked someone why the firm had taken such a big position. The startled employeeanswered, “That was you, sir.” “Me?” Rubin replied. Apparently, the day before he had been takinghis initial tour of the trading floor and commented, “Gold looks interesting.” This got repeated as“Rubin likes gold,” and someone spent millions of dollars to please the new boss.

More than a decade later, I experienced my own “Rubin likes gold” moment. When I joinedFacebook, I faced a dilemma: I needed to bolster the business side of the company while respecting itsunconventional culture. Most corporations love PowerPoint presentations, so I encouraged people notto prepare them for meetings with me, but instead to come with a simple list of topics. I repeated thisfrequently, but every meeting seemed to include a detailed PowerPoint presentation anyway. Aftermore than two years of frustration, I announced that although I hated making rules, I was making one:

no more PowerPoint in my meetings.

A few weeks later, as I was getting ready to speak to our global sales team, Kirsten Nevill-Manning,a skilled human resources leader at Facebook, came to find me. Kirsten thought I should know thateveryone in Europe was upset with me. Really? I angered an entire continent? She explained thatclient meetings were very difficult without PowerPoint and asked why I would make such a stupidrule. I explained that I had intended the rule to apply only to presentations to me. But just as theGoldman team heard “Gold = good,” the Facebook team heard “PowerPoint = bad.” I got onstage infront of our entire sales team and apologized for the misunderstanding. I also let them know that ifthey hear a bad idea, even one they believe is coming from me or Mark, they should either fight it orignore it.

As hard as it is to have an honest dialogue about business decisions, it is even harder to giveindividuals honest feedback. This is true for entry-level employees, senior leaders, and everyone inbetween. One thing that helps is to remember that feedback, like truth, is not absolute. Feedback is anopinion, grounded in observations and experiences, which allows us to know what impression wemake on others. The information is revealing and potentially uncomfortable, which is why all of uswould rather offer feedback to those who welcome it. If I make an observation or recommendationand someone reacts badly—or even just visibly tenses up—I quickly learn to save my comments forthings that really matter. This is why I so admire Molly Graham’s approach. Molly joined Facebook in2008 and held a number of jobs throughout the company in communications, human resources, andmobile products. She performed extraordinarily well in all of these very different roles, not justbecause she is uniquely talented but because she is always learning. One day, she and I hosted a trickyclient meeting. She navigated the discussion effectively, and after the clients left, I praised her effort.

She paused and said, “Thanks, but you must have ideas for me on what more I could have done.”

“How can I do better?” “What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’tsee?” These questions can lead to many benefits. And believe me, the truth hurts. Even when I havesolicited feedback, any judgment can feel harsh. But the upside of painful knowledge is so muchgreater than the downside of blissful ignorance.

Requesting advice can also help build relationships. At Facebook, I knew that the most importantdeterminant of my success would be my relationship with Mark. When I joined, I asked Mark for acommitment that he would give me feedback every week so that anything that bothered him would beaired and discussed quickly. Mark not only said yes but immediately added that he wanted it to bereciprocal. For the first few years, we stuck to this routine and voiced concerns big and small everyFriday afternoon. As the years went by, sharing honest reactions became part of our ongoingrelationship. Now we do so in real time rather than waiting for the end of the week. I wouldn’t suggestthat all relationships need this much feedback—there is such a thing as asking for too much—but forus, it has been critically important.

I have also learned the hard way that being open to hearing the truth means taking responsibility formistakes. In my first week as chief of staff at Treasury, I had the chance to work directly with theheads of the department bureaus. There is a right and a wrong way to start a working relationship. Ichose the wrong way. My first call was to Ray Kelly, who was then commissioner of the U.S.

Customs Service and now serves as New York City’s police commissioner. Instead of reaching out tooffer assistance, I called Commissioner Kelly with a request from the secretary. The impression Imade was that my job was to demand and his job was to listen. It was a mistake. Ray’s response wasquick and clear. “[Expletive], Sheryl,” he explained. “Just because I’m not in Larry Summers’s[expletive] thirty-year-old brain trust doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing! If SecretarySummers wants something from me, tell him to [expletive] call me himself!” Then he hung up thephone. I thought, This is not going well. My first week on the job and I’d angered a man who knows athing or two about firearms.

After I stopped shaking, I realized that Commissioner Kelly had done me a huge favor. His“feedback” was extremely helpful and delivered in a way that I would never forget. I reassessed myoutreach strategy. With the other bureau chiefs, I initiated conversation by asking what I could do tohelp them achieve their goals. It’s no surprise that they reacted more positively and with far fewerexpletives. And after I employed my “What have I done for you lately?” approach, they were far moreeager to return the favor.

As often as I try to persuade people to share their honest views, it is still a challenge to elicit them.

When I started building my team at Google, I interviewed every candidate before we made an offer.

Even when the team had grown to about one hundred people, I still spoke with each finalist. One dayat a meeting of my direct reports, I offered to stop interviewing, fully expecting everyone to insist thatmy input was an essential part of the process. Instead, they applauded. They all jumped in to explain—in unison—that my insistence on speaking personally to every candidate had become a hugebottleneck. I had no idea that I had been holding the team back and was upset that no one had told me.

I spent a few hours quietly fuming, which, given that I have no poker face, was probably obvious toeveryone. Then I realized that if my colleagues had kept this to themselves, I was clearly notcommunicating that I was open to their input. Miscommunication is always a two-way street. If Iwanted more suggestions, I would have to take responsibility for making that clear. So I went back tomy team and agreed that I would not interview anymore. And more important, I told them that Iwanted their input early and often.

Another way I try to foster authentic communication is to speak openly about my own weaknesses.

To highlight just one, I have a tendency to get impatient about unresolved situations. My reaction is topush for people to resolve them quickly, in some cases before they realistically can. David Fischer andI have worked closely together for fifteen years at Treasury, Google, and Facebook. He jokes that hecan tell from my tone of voice whether he should bother to complete a task or if I’m about to just do itmyself. I acknowledge my impatience openly and ask my colleagues to let me know when I need tochill out. By mentioning this myself, I give others permission to bring up my impatience—and jokeabout it too. My colleagues will say to me, “Sheryl, you asked us to tell you when you get nervous andpush the teams too hard. I think you’re doing that now.” But if I never said anything, would anyone atFacebook walk up to me and announce, “Hey, Sheryl, calm down! You’re driving everyone nuts!”

Somehow I doubt it. They would think it. They might even say it to one another. But they wouldn’tsay it to me.

When people are open and honest, thanking them publicly encourages them to continue whilesending a powerful signal to others. At a meeting with about sixty Facebook engineers, I mentionedthat I was interested in opening more Facebook offices around the world, especially in one particularregion. Since the group included members of the security team, I asked what they were most worriedabout. Without being called on, Chad Greene blurted out, “Opening a Facebook office in that region.”

He explained why it wouldn’t work and why I was dead wrong in front of the entire group. I loved it.

We had never met before, and I will never forget that strong introduction. I ended the meeting bythanking Chad for his candor and then posted the story on Facebook to encourage the rest of thecompany to follow his example. Mark feels the same way. At a summer barbecue four years ago, anintern told Mark that he should work on his public speaking skills. Mark thanked him in front ofeveryone and then encouraged us to extend him a full-time job offer.

Humor can be an amazing tool for delivering an honest message in a good-natured way. A recentstudy even found that “sense of humor” was the phrase most frequently used to describe the mosteffective leaders.

I have seen humor get results so many times. After working in the Obama WhiteHouse, Marne Levine joined Facebook to run global public policy. Marne is polished, professional,and highly competent. During her first week at her job, she needed a colleague from another team tofinish drafting a few paragraphs for an upcoming congressional testimony. The colleague wasdragging his heels. He kept coming to Marne to ask questions, which she would duly answer, then shewould wait, but still no paragraphs. When he came to her again with yet another question, she turnedto him with a huge smile and said, “I am going to answer all of your questions. I really am. But rightnow, the only thing that is going to keep me from falling down on the floor and having a heart attackright in front of you is for you to get out of your chair, go back to your desk, and write the paragraphswe need for Congress.” It worked beautifully.

A colleague at Google, Adam Freed, and I were frustrated by someone at work who was makingour jobs very difficult. I met with her several times and earnestly explained that I felt that she wassecond-guessing our every move and preventing progress. During each heartfelt discussion, she wouldlisten and nod and thank me for raising the matter. I would leave feeling better. Then the situationwould get worse. Adam took a totally different approach. He invited her to lunch. They met at theGoogle café, chatted a bit, and then he looked at her and jokingly asked, “Why do you hate me?”

Where I had failed repeatedly, Adam broke through. She asked why he would make that joke, whichgave him a chance to explain in a way she was able to hear.

Unfortunately, our sense of humor sometimes fails us when we need it most. When I get emotional,it’s very hard for me to treat a problem lightly. I had been at Google about three months when anuncomfortable situation erupted. I had started at the company reporting to Eric Schmidt but wastransitioning to work for Omid Kordestani. During that process, Omid and I had a majormisunderstanding. I went to discuss it with him, intending to explain calmly why I was upset, but assoon as I started talking, I burst into tears. I was horrified to be crying in front of my new boss whom Ibarely knew—which just made more tears flow. But I got lucky. Omid was patient and reassuring,insisting, “Everyone gets upset at work. It’s okay.”

Most women believe—and research suggests—that it is not a good idea to cry at work.

It is neversomething that I plan to do and is hardly recommended in The Seven Habits of Highly EffectivePeople, but on those rare occasions when I have felt really frustrated, or worse, betrayed, tears havefilled my eyes. Even as I have gotten older and more experienced, it still happens every so often.

I had been working at Facebook for almost a year when I learned that someone had said somethingabout me that was not just false, but cruel. I started telling Mark about it and, despite my best efforts,started to cry. He assured me that the accusation was so untrue that no one could possibly believe it.

And then he asked, “Do you want a hug?” I did. It was a breakthrough moment for us. I felt closer tohim than ever before. I then recounted this story publicly, figuring that it might make it easier forothers who have faced unwanted tears. The press reported the incident as “Sheryl Sandberg cried onMark Zuckerberg’s shoulder,” which is not exactly what happened. What happened was that Iexpressed my feelings and Mark responded with compassion.

Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships. Motivation comes from working on things we careabout. It also comes from working with people we care about. To really care about others, we have tounderstand them—what they like and dislike, what they feel as well as think. Emotion drives both menand women and influences every decision we make. Recognizing the role emotions play and beingwilling to discuss them makes us better managers, partners, and peers.

I did not always understand this. I used to think that being professional meant being organized andfocused and keeping my personal life separate. Early on at Google, Omid and I would have a one-on-one meeting each week. I would enter his office with a typed agenda and get right to it. I thought I wasbeing so efficient, but my colleague Tim Armstrong (who later became CEO of AOL) kindly pulledme aside one day to give me some advice. He told me that I should take a moment to connect withOmid before diving in. Since Omid and I were the only people in those meetings, it was clear who hadmentioned this to Tim. I made the adjustment and started asking Omid how he was before leaping intomy to-do list. It was a good lesson. An all-business approach is not always good business.

It has been an evolution, but I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work. I nolonger think people have a professional self for Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest ofthe time. That type of separation probably never existed, and in today’s era of individual expression,where people constantly update their Facebook status and tweet their every move, it makes even lesssense. Instead of putting on some kind of fake “all-work persona,” I think we benefit from expressingour truth, talking about personal situations, and acknowledging that professional decisions are oftenemotionally driven. I should have learned this lesson years earlier. When I was graduating frombusiness school in 1995, Larry Summers offered me a job at Treasury. I wanted the job desperately,but there was an issue: I did not want to move back to D.C., where my soon-to-be ex-husband lived.

One of the hardest calls I’ve ever had to make was to tell Larry that I could not accept the job. Larrypressed me on why, and I thought about telling him that I really wanted to try consulting in LosAngeles. Instead, I opened up. I explained that I was getting divorced and wanted to move far awayfrom D.C., which held too many painful memories. Larry argued that it was a big city, but it didn’tseem big enough for me. A year later, when enough time had passed and I felt ready to return to D.C.,I called Larry and asked if the opportunity was still available. It was one of the easiest calls I haveever made, in part because I had been honest the year before. If I had told Larry that I was passing onthe job for professional reasons, I would have appeared impulsive when I reversed that decision. Sincethe real reason was personal, sharing it honestly was the best thing to do.

People often pretend that professional decisions are not affected by their personal lives. They areafraid to talk about their home situations at work as if one should never interfere with the other, whenof course they can and do. I know many women who won’t discuss their children at work out of fearthat their priorities will be questioned. I hope this won’t always be the case.

My sister-in-law, Amy Schefler, had a college roommate, Abby Hemani, who is a partner in one ofBoston’s most prestigious law firms. The line between personal and professional was erased for Abbywhen her seven-month-old daughter was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a rare and severe form ofepilepsy. Abby explained that her mostly male partners got used to seeing her cry at the office andtheir response was heartwarming. “It was as if they envisioned me as one of their own daughters andwanted to comfort me,” she said. Abby insists that her public emotion improved her work situationboth by turning her colleagues into a source of support and by leading to more flexible hours. “I knowseveral men at my firm who have had similar experiences with sick children, but they didn’t feel theycould be as forthcoming as I was,” she said. “So, in the end, I think my female manner of relatingserved me well.”

Not every workplace and every colleague will be as generous and caring. But I do think we aremoving toward at least blurring the line between personal and professional. Increasingly, prominentthinkers in the field of leadership studies like Marcus Buckingham are challenging traditional notionsof leadership. Their research suggests that presenting leadership as a list of carefully defined qualities(like strategic, analytical, and performance-oriented) no longer holds. Instead, true leadership stemsfrom individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed.

They believe leaders shouldstrive for authenticity over perfection. This shift is good news for women, who often feel obliged tosuppress their emotions in the workplace in an attempt to come across as more stereotypically male.

And it’s also good news for men, who may be doing the exact same thing.

I had the opportunity to see the power of authentic communication in a leader firsthand when Iserved on the board of Starbucks. Howard Schultz was CEO of Starbucks from 1987 through 2000,and during his tenure, the company grew from just a few stores into a global retail powerhouse.

Howard stepped down as CEO in 2000, and over the next eight years Starbucks’ performance faltered.

When Howard returned as CEO in 2008, he held a meeting with all of the company’s global managersin New Orleans. He openly admitted that the company was in serious trouble. Then he allowed hisemotions to show, tearing up as he confessed that he felt that he had let down his employees and theirfamilies. The entire company rose to the challenge. Starbucks turned around and delivered its highestrevenue and earnings a few years later.

Maybe someday shedding tears in the workplace will no longer be viewed as embarrassing or weak,but as a simple display of authentic emotion. And maybe the compassion and sensitivity that havehistorically held some women back will make them more natural leaders in the future. In themeantime, we can all hasten this change by committing ourselves to both seek—and speak—our truth.


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