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Straight-Talk Cultures – Welcome to Nutter-land

“Are you lazy or just incompetent?” Jeff Bezos

When a firm lauds its ‘straight talk’ or ‘absolute honesty’ culture, it is an almost certain indication that the ideals of respectful dialogue, mutual respect, support and social cohesiveness rank down in its hierarchy of values. It is also a not-so-subtle hint that a fair bit of screaming likely goes on in this company.

In entrepreneur-led firms, the rules of engagement invariably mirror the values and personality of the entrepreneur. Prototypically, these individuals are in the business of challenging convention in their search to uncover value. They are contrarians, disrupters who occasionally annoy and rub market incumbents and people alike. In the technology sector these individuals are often high intellect analytics who are far more adept with matters of reason than emotion. For such individuals, building a business is a problem-solving exercise, an intellectual thrust and parry with the status quo, markets and competitors. Meanwhile, matters such as corporate culture, morale and employee ‘feelings’ border on irrationality, sapping as they do one of the entrepreneur’s most precious resources, time. Considered logically, it is most efficient for all concerned to apply simple, straight-forward, ‘bull-shit free’ approaches to communication, problem-solving and co-existing.

Straight talk can be a constructive and positive approach to interaction and firms as large as Intel have at times embedded it as a core cultural value. However, when it is not tempered by emotional intelligence, maturity and control, straight talk runs the risk of being personal, harsh and even abusive. And in organizations where terms such as ‘emotional intelligence’ are considered either oxymoronic or simply moronic, that is exactly what one can get. The non-confrontational and sensitive types should take note. In the book The Everything Store, one former Amazon employee recalled an encounter with founder Jeff Bezos as follows, “He called me a complete f*#% ing idiot and said that he had no idea why he hired idiots like me at the company. Then he said, ‘I need you to clean up your organization’. It was brutal and I almost quit. I was a resource of his that had failed.”  The biographies of many entrepreneurs devote pages to listing their more colorful and quotable straight talk.

Straight talkers usually argue that episodes of vitriolic incontinence are never meant to be personal.  As another Amazon employee explained, “Jeff Bezos is not someone who takes pleasure in tearing someone a new a- – hole…he is not that kind of person. Jeff just doesn’t tolerate stupidity, even accidental stupidity’.  In other words, straight-talk eruptions are rationalized as reactions to employee malfunction and thus, it is not the ‘nut’ (derived from ‘nutter’, the term used by Amazon employees to describe a Jeff Bezos eruption) who must bear responsibility for his or her emotional control, it is the employees.

About The Author

Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based StoneWood Group Inc, a leading executive search firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Dr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the University of Toronto.