Edited Transcript of Sheryl Sandberg Addresses The Class of 2012 at HBS

If you watch young children, you’ll immediately notice how honest they are. My friend Betsy in my section a few years after business school was pregnant with her second child and her first child, Sam, was about 5 and said he look at her, and said, “Mommy, where is the baby”.

And she said, “Well, the baby is in my tummy”.

And he said, “Really, aren’t the baby’s arms in your arms?”

And she said, “No, the baby’s in my tummy”.

“Really? Are the baby’s legs in your legs?”

“No, the whole baby is in my tummy”.

And he said, “Mommy, then what is growing in your butt?”

As adults, we are never this honest, and that is not a bad thing. I have borne two children, the last thing I needed were those comments, which obviously could have been made. But it’s not always a good thing either. Because all of us, and especially leaders, need to speak and hear the truth. The workplace is an especially difficult place for anyone to tell the truth, because no matter how flat we want our organizations to be, all organizations have some form of hierarchy. And what that means is that one person’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception. This is not a setup for honesty.

Think about how people speak in a typical workforce. Rather than say I disagree with our expansion strategy or better yet, this seems truly stupid. They say, well, I think there are many good reasons why we’re entering this new line of business, and I’m certain the management team has done a thorough ROI analysis, but I’m not sure we fully considered the downstream effects of taking this step forward at this time. As we would say at Facebook around the internet, three letters: WTF.

Truth is better served by using simple language. Last year Mark decided to learn Chinese and as part of studying, he would spend an hour or so each week with some of our employees who were native Chinese speakers. One day, one of them was trying to tell him something about her manager, so she said this long sentence and he said, “Simpler please”. And then she said it again and, he said, “No, no, I still don’t understand; simpler please”…and so on and so on. Finally, in sheer exasperation she burst out, “My manager is bad”. Simple and clear and super important for him to know.

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