Honesty at Work: Tell the Truth and Be More Productive

Business leaders around the globe are begging their teams to tell the truth -- to challenge ideas in meetings, to answer difficult questions with candor and to rock the status quo.
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Business leaders around the globe are begging their teams to tell the truth -- to challenge ideas in meetings, to answer difficult questions with candor and to rock the status quo.

The challenge is that telling the truth isn't easy. Psychologically, it demands certain conditions: feeling safe, feeling supported, and being encouraged (then rewarded) to spill the beans. If you're a leader reading this post, take a moment to assess whether your culture promotes honesty. If yes, anticipate great participation and innovation in 2011. If not, expect nothing productive or new to land on your desk anytime soon.

Mark Twain's autobiography, written in 1899, was recently published 100 years after his death. He forbade it from being made public any sooner because, according to Twain:

A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons.

Waiting 100 years to tell the truth is unrealistic and downright counterproductive for those of us competing in today's business environment. As leaders, we need the truth now. We need it so that we can be effective in the choices we make and the actions we take. Telling and receiving the truth, however, is one huge mountain to climb.

Here are four tips for telling the truth, so you can positively influence others:

  1. Accept that there is no singular definition of "the truth"

The "truth" is how every individual sees something through the lens of his or her personal experience. Be mindful that others may see "the truth" through a different, and equally plausible, filter than yours. When you accept this, it will help you get off your high horse and lead your approach to truth-telling in a more thoughtful manner.

When sharing your truth, it is advisable to use qualifiers (e.g., "For me..."; "In my opinion..."; "The way I see things..."; "Based on my experience...")

Declarative statements, particularly the ones that start with "you" (e.g., "You missed the point completely..."; "You are way off base..."), either make people retreat from their own truth or armor up for a fight. Neither response will help you efficiently face a challenge and find a provocative solution. Other declarative statements to watch out for: "It is unambiguous that..."; "Without a doubt..."; "There are no if's, and's, or buts!")

  • Know your hardwiring about telling the truth
  • The great psychologist Carl Jung (and subsequently a mother/daughter team, Myers-Briggs) identified two styles of being honest. "Truthful" people tell the truth in a very direct, blunt and unemotional way. "Tactful" people, however, go to great lengths to share information or give feedback in a style that will not ruffle any feathers.

    There is no right or wrong approach. However, without understanding the above, if you're hardwired to be "truthful," a business relationship with a more "tactful" person will often times leave the latter harboring hurt feelings. If you lean towards "tactful," the less emotional people people in your life may feel frustrated, wanting you to just "spit it out, already." Begin by learning which style you possess and understanding the inclinations of the people you work with before you embark on telling the truth.

  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes
  • In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin described eloquently how he worked hard never to directly contradict anyone else:

    When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but that in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference.

    To pull this off requires patience. It also takes time. It's a whole lot faster to make yourself right and the other person wrong. The rub: You will miss out on opportunities to deepen your team relationships, test your thinking and find creative strategies that push past the initial disagreement into new and exciting territory.

  • Follow Mark Twain's advice -- just cool it!
  • Mark Twain believed that the truth should be told, and told in a certain way. When it comes to communicating our "whole frank mind," it behooves us to be thoughtful in our approach.

    The next time you get "hot under the collar" and want to blast out that e-mail response, leave that highly charged phone message or emit expletives as you're walking down the hallway... don't! Give yourself a "cooling off" period so you can neutralize your feelings and communicate your truth in a way that respects others, even if you passionately disagree with them.


    Debbie Robins has been named one of the top executive coaches in the country. Frank Wagner, co-author of this post, is a proud member of The Marshall Goldsmith Group.

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