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Lately I’ve been writing a lot about communication, clarity, feedback and so on. Topics we all give lip service to but when the rubber meets the road we often clam up, cool down and chill out.
We’ve talked recently about some of the structural and cultural reasons straight feedback is not the norm in many workplaces, and I suppose we could add a few more. But today is Friday and it’s time for a different slant, time to dig a little deeper. Why won’t we share with people where they really stand?
We’re scared of the power of honesty because after around the age of five honesty becomes much more fungible. As we make our way through childhood, adolescence and the terrible teens pushing against the flow much like salmon spawning upstream, we begin to learn honesty is a fearsome thing. A little bit of honesty can take the air out of any room, and like the Holy Grail, we think we seek it, but the reality of finding it is unnerving.
Post school we fall into lines filling the offices of commerce round the world searching for the clues we need to read to be successful in business, NGOs and public service. And in many organizations the subtle insistent tone permeates the air like the sizzle of high-voltage power lines streaming high across the desert floor: be quiet.
We learn soon enough that unbridled honesty is too much candor in a world filled with camouflage. We hear things like, you’re too direct, lack tact, are abrasive, demanding, et al. Not so fast… Just because everyone is saying it doesn’t make it true. At one time we all “knew” the earth was flat: how’d that work out in the face of truth?
Of course tact is important. Of course we shouldn’t be so brutally honest we hurt people’s feelings. But the tendency of the last two generations to mealy mouth the truth and water it down so it’s completely inoffensive has led us to a place where the workplace is often filled with noise but devoid of meaning. A cacophony of silence bereft of value.
How to make a difference? Be strong. Be clear. Be ready for feedback. When you are candid (thanks Ed Catmull) with others they will likely return the favor, and there is a big difference – a yawning chasm of difference – between honestly sharing feedback and insight for collaborative improvement and saying things just to hurt people. We don’t do hurt.
Honesty is the currency of life experience good and bad. Honesty gets us up in the morning and let’s us sleep soundly at night. And honesty requires facing facts, fears and foibles all at once.
Want to be a better leader today? Give people their due and be honest with them from a caring, clean, compassionate perspective. Economize your speech and give them time to respond, indeed, react. And little by little, your concentration on being honest and clear from an empathic starting place will win you respect even if not enjoyment. And confidence if not conviviality.
People deserve the truth: are you strong enough to be honest with them?