Someone somewhere once said, “Honesty is always the best policy.” Really? Have you ever thought through the implications of that statement?
Ever had a person say something to you that was hurtful, unkind, or offensive? You ask them why they would say something like that, and they answer, “I’m just being honest!” You probably want to respond, “Well, lie a little!”
People often confuse honesty with strong opinion–with something that they believe but that is not really true. As hard as it is for many to believe, opinions are not necessarily truth. Your opinions may be the truth as you see it, but they aren’t universal in their accuracy. So if you are serious about being courageous and influencing others in significant ways, then it will help you to take a second look at how you employ honesty.
Honesty is the best policy only when it meets these three criteria:1. Factual accuracy2. Usefulness for the listener3. Constructive deliveryWe’ll look at these one at a time.
In order for something to be true, it must be based on facts. Leaders must take seriously what they say and how they say it. While comments casually spoken when you are not a leader might have little effect, the same comments made from a position of power can have a massive impact. Consider carefully the extent to which what you are about to say is factually accurate and can be supported with objective data.
It may be factually accurate to say, “Our first quarter sales numbers are off by 10 percent, and that has to change immediately.” The trouble starts when you add, “And you were lazy this quarter.” I am not suggesting that opinions have no place, but presenting opinions and subjective judgments as facts is not honest and will likely set up defensiveness in listeners.
It takes courage to speak the facts and own your opinions. If you want to voice an opinion, then go ahead, but make sure you communicate it as just that–your opinion. If you want to really stretch yourself, then state a fact and ask a question by saying something like, “Sales were off by 10 percent. I would like to know why.” This strategy will create more honest space for discussion.
Usefulness for the Listener
Even if your facts are accurate, there is no need to share them if your followers can’t use them. More trivial information is shared in meetings and reviews than can ever be assimilated and applied to improve performance. If you share tons of data that doesn’t have a direct use in helping your followers increase efficiency or drive results, then I beg you to stop sharing it. Stop forcing them to sit in dark rooms with irrelevant, font-too-small PowerPoint presentations. Stop droning on about information that you find immensely interesting but doesn’t help them do their jobs better. When you give a performance review, be certain that your conversation is fact-based and packed with useful information. You want the people you influence to leave with immediately applicable, completely usable data that will help them do more of what is necessary and less of what is not.
A message may be factually accurate and useful to the listener, but delivered in such a way that it becomes destructive in its impact. The courageous communicator can effectively deliver a message that’s constructive, direct, firm, and respectful all at the same time, helping to improve performance and promoting further development and advancement.
I know, I know, some of you are thinking, “I’m not into all that warm and fuzzy stuff. I call it as I see it, and they just need to take it and get back to work.” Take it easy there, Captain Kindness. This is not about warm and fuzzy. It’s about delivering a message in the most effective way possible so that you achieve results quicker and with better long-term effects on your followers. Phrase things constructively, and you will earn constructive results.
So, is honesty the best policy? That depends on your commitment to making your communication factual, useful and constructive.
Much destruction has been brought about by the careless, even reckless ways some leaders communicate the “truth.” Accepting things as they actually are does not necessarily mean slamming the truth down everyone else’s throats. Nor does it mean pretending the truth is not the truth. Courage in this context involves delivering authentic messages in ways that those around you can use. You still get to communicate your opinions and ideas; just make sure you qualify them as what they are, keeping in mind that what you say has a tremendous impact on the people who follow you.
Are you honest? Answering that question is the point of this chapter. The answer lies in how well you deliver on the three criteria we have discussed.
Here’s how to make honesty the best policy in your leadership:
1. On a scale of 0 to 10 (0 if you’re terrible at it, 10 if you’re perfect at it), score yourself on how well you manage each of the three traits of effective honesty: factual, useful and constructive. If you gave yourself 10s on each of them, you aren’t being honest. Want proof? Ask your direct reports.
2. Choose one of the three to focus on improving over the next 90 days.Be courageous, tell the truth, and commit to authenticity, but modify your delivery for your audience based on the three traits [described].
Mike Staver, CEO of The Staver Group, is a coach, consultant and author.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Leadership Isn’t for Cowards: How to Drive Performance by Challenging People and Confronting Problems by Mike Staver.Ê Copyright (c) 2012 by Mike Staver. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.