Brutal Honesty, Does It Hurt or Help?

I must be careful.  If you don’t have honesty at the heart of the leader-follower relationship, it’s hard to imagine how it could ever flourish.  But there is also a warning note that I must sound for leaders when it comes to brutal honesty.

Though honesty is clearly important, brutal honesty can also be extremely hurtful. It can result in lasting, even permanent damage to the leader-follower relationship.  On far too many occasions over the years, I’ve seen men and women in significant leadership positions opt to use honesty like a chain saw instead of a scalpel.  They rightfully (too often, even proudly) argue that they were just delivering some sort of unassailable truth — a truth that others appeared unable or unwilling to deliver.  In the process, they casually — and perhaps intentionally — ignore the subtleties of appropriate, follower-focused truth telling.  The long-term results are often hurt feelings, fractured relationships and possibly even vindictive responses.

Brutal Honesty from a Fool

Such desirable outcomes may begin like this.  A group of managers or supervisors sit around a conference room table discussing some organizational obstacle that must be overcome.  Often that obstacle involves some sort of human element.  As the conversation builds and continues and the managers discuss how best to deal with this particular individual, one in the group gets his belly full of the whole affair.

“I don’t understand why we’re wasting all this time!” he exclaims.  “We all know that Bonnie’s the problem.  But apparently, you’re afraid to tell her the truth.  Well, someone needs to tell her and I’m not afraid!  I’ll go tell her right now.”

With that, the individual rises to leave.  Unfortunately no one raises a hand to stop him.  We let the person go on a fool’s journey without a word of direction or caution.

A few minutes later, the same individual reappears in the doorway.  Obviously proud of himself, he puffs out his chest, hikes up his pants, and announces defiantly, “That message has now been delivered.  That problem has been fixed.  Now let’s move on to more important issues, like managing this business!”

Well, the message may have been delivered, but are we absolutely sure the problem has been fixed?  Or is it possible — actually, more realistically — that even more problems have been created? [Even seasoned leaders still experience challenges.  Don’t fall into these 3 Traps That Trip Up Seasoned Leaders!]

A manager or supervisor who manages things — physical, financial, or technical resources — might be able to make the bull-in-the-china-shop approach work.  But when leading people, discretion is the better part of valor.

Motivate with Honesty

Please understand that I am not suggesting, not even for a moment, that leaders should avoid difficult conversations when necessary.  We must communicate the truth, even during difficult circumstances.  But how we communicate difficult truths can make the long-term difference between a positive, trusting leader-follower relationship and a continuing struggle with follower interaction, engagement and motivation.  And follower motivation is a worthy goal.

Next time you have an opportunity to share feedback with your employees, use it as an opportunity to intentionally motivate them with honesty–carefully.

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Phil Van Hooser, Keynote Speaker on Leadership and Communication

Phillip Van Hooser
Author: Phillip Van Hooser
Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on leadership, service and communication. His popular book, “Willie's Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty” recently hit #1 in Customer Relations on the Kindle store. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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