Brace Yourself: Why Being Blunt at Work Is a Virtue

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To put it bluntly, Val DiFebochief executive of advertising agency Deutsch NY, likes to be direct.

When you’ve got something on your mind, tell it to me straight,” she explained to Adam Bryant of the New York Times. “Don’t sugarcoat it. Tell me what you’ve got to say, and we’ll get there faster.”

DiFebo credits advertising executive Donny Deutsch with reinforcing that preference. “Donny Deutsch taught me a lot about giving direct, sometimes negative, feedback,” DiFebo said. “He might say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all,’ but it was never a judgment on your skills or your intellect. It’s just a reaction to work you put in front of him. Then he would come by two minutes later and ask about something else: ‘Can I ask your advice? What do you think I should do about this?’ So he’d give you a big reinforcement that he didn’t think any less of you than he did five minutes ago.”

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Peter Drucker believed strongly in giving people feedback, and, while he stressed the importance of good manners, he could at times be very direct himself. For instance, when Drucker was a professor of management at New York University in the 1950s and ’60s, he often received visits from jobless 45-year-olds who had been deemed unfit for further promotion in the U.S. Army. To assist these men, Drucker would pick up the phone on the spot, with the job seeker sitting right in front of him, and offer the potential employer a cool assessment of the candidate’s capabilities.

The hardest thing of all, I found, was to be scrupulously honest about the applicant’s qualifications and disqualifications,” Drucker recalled in his memoir, Adventures of a Bystander. “Yet it was absolutely crucial. It is not easy to say in a man’s presence: ‘All he can do is set up a computer. Don’t use him for anything else’; or: ‘He works very well if you tell him exactly what to do. But don’t expect him to think or to use his imagination; he doesn’t have any.’ Yet one has to say it, or one immediately loses all faith and credit.”

Sometimes, Drucker had to be even blunter than that. As he wrote, “I also learned that once in a while I had to say to a man: ‘Yes, you should probably spend three years sitting on your backside to get an advanced degree; at least I cannot recommend you to a prospective employer.’”