My dad grew up on a farm and would use this term whenever I was less than forthcoming with all of the facts about a situation. I haven’t thought of it in years, but yesterday those very words came from my mouth when a trusted colleague and I were discussing an event and the subsequent, less than candid, messages and announcements surrounding the event.
Growing up, this communication tactic was especially useful to me when I was seeking permission to go to a questionable function or stay out past curfew. I’d share with my dad only the facts that I knew were not objectionable to him. I’d attempt this strategy because I knew he would not be agreeable to my perspective, if he knew all of the facts.
In the HR world, we experience it frequently. It’s when a manager wants you to take a specific action, so shares only the facts to support that action. It’s when an applicant doesn’t want you to know they were fired from their last job, so they deflect those interview questions that might reveal that information. It’s when organizational leadership wants to send a specific message to the employees, so they wordsmith the communication to highlight only the desired message. You know. You’ve been on the receiving end of a cow patty before. You’ve probably even served up a few.
Maybe because I learned this communication maneuver at an early age and was personally adept at it as a teenager that now I can immediately smell the patty aroma whenever someone begins this ploy with me. I know they’re hiding something. There are facts they’d rather I not know.
It’s impertinent. The server must believe that I’m blindly trusting of them or gullible enough to swallow their “cookie” without question. The opposite is true. The serving of a cow patty makes me suspicious and causes me to launch into full investigator mode. I’m tenacious. I keep asking questions and seeking details until I believe I have the whole story and can make a fully-informed decision. I’m not a cow patty pushover.
What really bothers me is when the cow patty server acts as though I’m disloyal or somehow creating a disturbance by asking clarifying questions and seeking additional information. I am not the enemy. I just need your honesty. I need full disclosure before I can follow your lead. Eventually, I might agree with your position and help you champion your cause, but, I won’t know until you stop the simplistic drivel and get real with me.
There’s always a reason for the cloaked communication. I most often used it with my dad because I was trying to get away with doing something that I knew I wouldn’t be able to do if I shared the real purpose. Here’s the cow patty: “Dad, Sharon’s youth group from her church is going to the beach on Saturday. I’ve been invited to go. Is it okay?” I knew he’d say yes. There’s nothing objectionable about the request. It involved church, Sharon (someone my parents really admired) and could be verified. But here’s the absolute truth: I’m not close friends with Sharon. In fact, I really don’t like her very much, but I know my parents do. I am, however hugely attracted to her brother, Doug. I am a high school sophomore and just turned 15. Doug is a senior and about to be 18. Doug, not Sharon, told me about the beach trip and asked me to go. I want to hang out at the beach all day with Doug. I’ll barely know that Sharon is even there.
Did I lie? Nope. Did I serve up a cow patty? Yep. It served my purpose to only tell part of the story. I needed to get his permission to go. My protective dad would never have let me go if I’d shared the absolute truth, so I didn’t disclose the objectionable details.
And that is why I’m suspicious of anyone that begins communications by serving up a cow patty? We should all be. Let’s insist of full disclosure. Keep asking questions until you’re comfortable that you know all of the facts before you take action or support and advance a cause.
That is all.
With many years of senior-level human resources experience in the private sector environment, Joyce Chastain, SPHR brings practical know-how to each engagement. Her human resources consulting practice specializes in talent development, employee relations, internal investigations, employment law compliance, and affirmative action plans. She is the owner of Chastain Consulting and currently serves as the 2013-2014 President of the HR Florida State Council.