How to tell people what they don't want to hear

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Everyone knows how hard it is to achieve any kind of objectivity when you're too close to an important situation. Why we dig ourselves in deeper instead of stepping back to gain some perspective is a mystery. It's also human nature.

Just when we need a clear head, we do our very best to bury it in denial and drama. It's probably happened to each and every one of you at some point. But you know what? You're in good company. Top executives from big companies do it all the time.

For years, former Sony CEO Howard Stringer tried to convince everyone who would listen there was synergy between the company's consumer electronics products and its movie business. There isn't. Not even a little. He should have known better. Now the company's falling apart at the seams.

10 big mistakes successful leaders make10 signs you're in denial

Even as Apple and Google took the smartphone and tablet worlds by storm, Blackberry maker RIM's founders spent years thinking their little Crackberry kingdom was safe and sound. Nokia's leaders made the same fatal mistake. Now both of these once great companies are fighting for survival.

Ever wonder how you could possibly know when executives at your company or one you invested in are doing something remarkably dumb when you're on the outside with no information? Now you know. Sometimes you can see what they can't.
I've made a career out of giving executives, management teams, and individuals advice they could easily have figured out on their own. It's not that I see things others don't. When I'm knee-deep in a sticky situation, I'm just as myopic as the next guy. Ironic, isn't it?

In any case, there's a distinct, five-step method for getting people to see what's right in front of their face. Whether it's a CEO, an executive management team, or someone stuck in her career, the process is more or less the same:

Get the straight story from everyone involved. It's amazing what you can find out just by sitting down one-on-one with people and asking a few leading questions. Eventually, they'll spill their guts. Just make sure you hit all the key stakeholders so you get a complete picture of what's really going on.

Guarantee anonymity to "sensitive" sources. The best sources of information usually have very good reasons to remain anonymous. That's fine. It's powerful enough to tell a CEO what customers, employees, or managers have to say without identifying them. Just make sure you never give anyone a reason to doubt your confidentiality or it'll blow up in your face.

Make sure you get it right. Take your time, and make sure that the conclusions you reach are the right ones before you even think about how you're going to share that information. Also make sure it hits home. The reason is simple. If there's a reasonable chance you're wrong, your conviction and confidence will waiver and it won't ring true -- which is exactly as it should be.

Hit hard and all at once. After you get all your ducks in a row and it's time to present whatever it is you've figured out, put your pitch together and hit all the key stakeholders straight between the eyes with both barrels. If you don't have compelling data and anecdotes to present, it won't be enough to get everyone over their denial or whatever is keeping them from seeing the truth on their own. Also, if everyone's there, any doubt, finger-pointing, blame games, whatever can be dealt with in real time.

Always be straight, never BS. Never say you're sure when you're not or your credibility will be shot. People have to know you mean what you say and say what you mean. Remember, you're not there to sell anybody on anything, just to get them to see the truth. Keep it genuine and simple and there's a good chance you'll see heads nodding up and down instead of left to right.

One more very important thing. I've done this enough times to know it doesn't always work. When that happens, don't be defensive; just walk away and move on knowing you've done your best. One time many years ago, in the face of undeniable evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, the CEO of one $500 million company remained in denial and refused to see what was right in front of his face. That guy's now out of a job because the company no longer exists. Go figure.

Image courtesy of Flickr user NEXT Berlin

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