I long for the days of leprosy.
Wait – that sounds strange. Let me explain. In the Torah portion from Leviticus we read this week, the Bible talks about people being afflicted with leprosy. Leprosy in ancient times was believed to be a punishment for bad behavior. In the Bible, people with leprosy needed to be separated from the national camp until they were cleansed from the disease. The most famous story of leprosy in Biblical times is that of Miriam, the sister of Moses, who, after speaking badly about Moses’ wife, contracts leprosy and keeps the camp from moving forward until she can rejoin them when her affliction passed. Leprosy is a disease affecting your skin, nerves and eyes. We have all but eliminated the disease and it is now treatable with medication when it arises.
So why do I miss it?
We could use some symbolic leprosy – the idea that you are marked for all to see when you have gone off the path.
We find ourselves in a time when honesty is not the highest value.
We hide behind “carrot motivation” and “different strokes for different folks” when what we really need is the truth. What are we afraid of? Why aren’t we being honest?
Many times supervisors fail to confront someone who is underperforming, has an annoying habit or lousy work ethic. They engage in the work-around. Everyone begins to pick up the pieces and quietly shoulder the frustration while the supervisor tries to nudge the worker into better productivity.
We think we are doing right by the worker. We are not.
And we aren’t being honest with ourselves. We aren’t as forgiving as we are making ourselves out to be. We aren’t really okay with the behavior. We are building frustration and resentment, and the worker might be clueless as to why.
Tell it like it is. It might be painful in the moment, but it pays off in trust, productivity and attitude.
In the scenario of simply not addressing problems, your team becomes distrustful, frustrated, sluggish, disempowered and unmotivated. You’re not hiding anything. Everyone is keenly aware of even the slightest foibles in their co-workers. And you’re not being fair to the floundering worker. No one can change unless the issue is named. People do not intuit their own deficiencies.
Don’t think that hiding the truth is the sole domain of the corporate world. In our not-for-profit sphere, lay leadership is fraught with hiding the truth. Many times people are not upfront about lacking leadership qualities in volunteers. We pass people from organization to organization without disclosing the warning labels that should accompany them.
Which brings me back to the benefits of leprosy. This was a disease you could not hide. It served as a neon sign. This person is not yet ready to be in the fold. It was painful. But it gave the person the opportunity to change and come back healed.
Please don’t misunderstand – I am not advocating being mean.
Honesty is not cruel and it is not disrespectful. It is just speaking the truth in a way the other person can hear it.
When you come from a place of respect and optimism, genuinely hoping the person chooses to improve, your conversation is forthright, not demeaning.
So maybe we don’t need a neon sign. But we need transparency.
Margaret Thatcher died this week, and it seems to me that she represents a more honest approach to leadership. British Members of Parliament don’t seem to hold much back. As Americans we can laugh at the name calling and interrupting and “uncivil” behavior, but maybe they are on to something we have lost. Honesty.