Phony baloney

June 23, 2013 

The first time I heard this term I was 6 years old. My parents took me to visit my great-grandmother on the south side of Chicago. This gray-haired old lady was completely blind but very wise.

A vacuum-cleaner salesman knocked on her door while we were there, and she let him in to do a demonstration. His pretense at concern for her blindness was apparent and sickening. When she turned around to sit down, he took her arm and guided her to the chair, telling her what was in the room as if she didn’t know each piece of furniture by heart.

Then he turned on the vacuum and gave her a running commentary on the magnificent marvels of this machine, mentioning everything he knew she couldn’t see. He shouted at her as he worked, and twice she said: “I’m blind but I’m not deaf, you know.” When he finally packed up and left, she turned to us and said very simply, “phony baloney.”

Sometimes, our bosses are phony baloney. They think we’re blind to what’s going on. They try to sneak around the truth like a slick salesman.

There are two times when my boss needs to be flat-out honest, with absolutely no phony baloney, and here they are:

1. The health of the business

2. When I’m wrong

First, bosses need to involve us in the health of the business. We need to celebrate when business is good, and we need to participate in cost-cutting when business is bad. Hiding this data from the employees only hurts the business. We don’t need to see the financials every month, but we do need to know when we’re making money and when we’re losing it.

Very few executives share any kind of financial data with their employees. They hide behind the phrase “need to know.” If you’re in the lower levels of the company, they say you have no need to know. But every employee in every company has a “need to know” what’s going on. If the company is losing market share, maybe the salesmen can help.

There’s a beautiful little hospital in central Oklahoma with 115 employees totally focused on delivering quality patient care. At first, they couldn’t understand why the administration would cut back on staff that wasn’t absolutely needed. But when the manager showed them why other hospitals were closing, they got the message. Now, they know that you can’t have a quality hospital if it’s not profitable, even when it’s a “nonprofit” hospital. I have heard executives say: “We can’t tell our employees about this stuff. They might run to our competitors”

That’s just phony baloney.

The second time phoniness really hurts is when I’m wrong or when I make mistakes. For example, if I’m giving out incorrect information to our customers, or if I’m turning in numerical analyses that don’t boot or if I’m considered a boor or a pest or a tyrant, don’t wait until I’ve lost my credibility. Just tell me, and show me where I can find the right stuff.

I have seen managers dance around these confrontations like Fred Astaire. Some managers are too tough, we know that, but I’m finding that too many of them are just too soft. They hate to confront. Come on, get over it! This kind of softness at work is phony baloney.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is

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