When Honest Leadership Goes Too Far

When Honest Leadership Goes Too Far image DATE: February 11, 2020

Honest Leader? Yes! Brutally Honest? Not So Much.

If you conducted a poll of average employees and asked them the essential traits they want in their leaders, what would the response be? Never mind their demographic data, the industry they work in or their level of experience. What would they say? I predict, overwhelmingly, employees would tell you they want their leaders to be honest. But there is also a warning note that leaders should hear. Brutally honest leadership goes too far. Here are some problems brutal honesty creates and tools to repair the damage.

How can I be so sure? Well, for several years now, I’ve conducted my own unofficial poll in my onsite training sessions. With thousands of individuals from hundreds of organizations, in all kinds of industries. And honest leadership is ALWAYS a top response. (Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s study of 300,000 leaders concur.)

But leaders must be careful. It would be unwise to simply underscore honesty as the most important characteristic of leadership and leave it at that.  Now, I certainly believe honesty in leadership is of utmost importance.  If you don’t have honest leadership at the heart of it, it’s hard to imagine how engaged employee relations could ever flourish. And let’s be honest (no pun intended), engaged employees are the secret weapon of high-performing organizations. 

Brutally Honest Leadership Goes Too Far

While honesty in leadership is clearly important, the brutally honest approach can be extremely hurtful. It can result in lasting, even permanent damage to the leader employee relationship.  On far too many occasions, I’ve seen men and women in significant leadership positions opt to use honesty like a chain saw instead of a scalpel. 

They rightfully (and too often, proudly) argue that they were just delivering the unassailable truth — a truth that others appeared unable or unwilling to deliver.  In the process, they casually, callously — and perhaps intentionally — ignore the subtleties of appropriate, follower-focused truth telling.  With the long term results meaning hurt feelings, fractured relationships, distrust and possibly even vindictive responses.  These undesirable outcomes of brutally honest leadership often begin like this.

How Brutally Honest Leadership Shows Up

A group of managers or supervisors sit around a conference room table discussing some organizational obstacle that must be overcome.  Often that obstacle involves a human element.  As the conversation continues to build, and the managers discuss the best way to deal with this particular individual, one in the group gets a 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.  But, unfortunately, no one raises a hand to stop him.  Off the person goes on a fool’s journey without a word of direction or caution. 

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

Maybe you’ve seen this happen in your organization? And if so, how did it work long-term?

Our leadership training can help you communicate better so you can gain respect, build trust and engage confidently with your employees — ask us how to get started!

Brutally Honest Messages Create Added Problems

Well, the message may have been delivered; but are we absolutely sure the problem has been fixed?  Or is it possible — and actually, more realistic — that even more problems have been created?

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.

Please understand that I’m not suggesting for even a moment, that leaders should avoid difficult conversations when necessary.  Leaders must communicate the truth, even during difficult circumstances. 

But how we communicate difficult truths can mean the long term difference between a positive, trusting leader employee relationship and a continuing struggle with follower interaction, engagement and motivation.  And valued employee engagement and motivation turn the wheels of our leadership performance and our organizational progress.

So, let’s pause and make our poll a little more personal. If your employees were polled and asked about your approach to honest leadership, what would they say? A little too soft? Afraid to honestly address difficult issues when necessary? A little too hard? Too free-wheeling with the brutally honest method? Or just right?

If you need to repair some employee relationships because you’ve been too brutally honest, an apology is a good place to start. It takes a big person — a selfless leader — to swallow their pride and make amends. Here are some practical steps to get you started with apologizing the right way.

If you’re just not currently comfortable handling hard conversations or unsure how to build employee trust when delivering a difficult message, my book, We Need to Talk, is a step by step guide to help you through the process.

Do yourself a favor — spend some time evaluating your approach to honesty in leadership. Then commit to make the improvements needed. In the long run, it will make your life as a leader much, much easier.

#brutallyhonest #honestyinleadership #communicatingdifficultmessages #buildingtrustwithemployees #dontgotoofar


About The Author:

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 engaged leadership and communication. His most recent book is “We Need to Talk: Building Trust When Communicating Gets Critical." Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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