I have a cracked tooth and it has to come out. Apparently my subconscious brain, in all its wisdom, likes to take out its aggressions on my body while I’m asleep. I don’t know why it does that, but it does explain why I sometimes wake up feeling like I’ve just gone three rounds with Mike Tyson.
Anyway, I happened to mention to my dental surgeon that I’m a columnist. He looked up with interest and asked, “Really? Who do you write for?”
Then it hit me. Everyone’s so opinionated, so divided, so quick to judge, these days. And next week, this guy is going to have both hands and a set of pliers inside my big mouth. No two ways about it, there was a fifty-fifty chance I’d made an enormous mistake.
Visions of Dustin Hoffman’s screams as evil dentist Lawrence Olivia took a drill to him in Marathon Man swirling around my brain, I broke into a cold sweat as I desperately and clumsily tried to dodge a direct question. Then, realizing that a simple Google search would spill all the beans, I decided to quit playing the rope-a-dope and come right out and tell him.
Lo and behold, I lucked out – we had far more in common than not. And while my fears turned out to be unfounded in this particular situation, it highlights an issue we’re all just beginning to wrestle with: the transparency of a super-opinionated populous in a world where the separation between our personal and business lives has all but disappeared.
In other words, not only is it hard to keep a secret these days, most of us don’t even try.
Whether it’s politics, religion, gay rights, Roe v. Wade, or Apple v. Google, most of us have distinct points of view that we reveal – purposefully or not – in an online world that’s increasingly open and connected. That’s fine at a dinner party, but when it comes to business, there can certainly be unpleasant consequences.
I despise political correctness as much as dental surgery – probably more so – but you’ve got to admit, this may be the one case where it makes sense to keep our opinions to ourselves. Not for fear of offending anyone, mind you, but to keep from shooting our careers in the foot and damaging our business relationships.
Now, before you declare that nobody’s that petty and write this off as the delusions of a guy who’s had one too many things cracked in his head, let me welcome you back to the real world and fill you in on the nature of people – that would be all people, including your boss, your employees, your peers, your vendors, and even your customers.
People are, above all else, human. That is to say we’re flawed. We’re all flawed, meaning we have all sorts of biases that affect our decision-making. They may not be logical or well reasoned, but you’d be amazed at just how many of your decisions are made without the benefit of your higher-level brain functions.
That’s right: we’re not typically aware of all the factors that impact our decisions, including the products we buy, the companies we choose to do business with, those we hire and promote, and how we treat individuals we work with. And oftentimes, especially when everything else is more or less equal, it’s our feelings that make the difference, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not.
Long before the development of our neocortex, humans learned to trust their gut. Neurotransmitters in our brain’s limbic system reinforce certain behavior that’s responsible for our survival. And while we can override those instincts with rational thought, when push comes to shove – as it so often does in the business world – people will usually opt for what makes them feel safe, not what makes them uncomfortable.
Intellectually speaking, we may know that it’s good to surround ourselves with those who have diverse backgrounds and opinions, those who challenge the status quo with new ideas, those who aren’t afraid to tell us what they really think. But inside every one of us is a survival instinct that compels us to flock together with birds of the same feather. Like it or not, that’s the way it is.
That said, when it comes to deciding how much to reveal about your personal views – both online and to those we work and do business with – the smart, savvy, and successful among you will likely be of two minds. On the one hand, you’ll say to hell with it. Put it out there and let the chips fall as they may. On the other hand, you’ll ask yourself, what’s the benefit, the reward that makes the risk worthwhile?
Which side do I come down on? I’ve long counseled folks to keep controversial topics such as politics and religion out of the workplace and out of their business. Likewise, I’ve warned of the pitfalls of being too open in a world increasingly dominated by social networks and digital communications, a world where whatever you say, do, or type can come back to haunt you.
And while my strong opinions and big mouth sometimes gets the better of me, I use those occasions to remind me that discretion is the better part of valor.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.