Are you talking to me? How an honesty policy can improve workplace relationships

The truth can hurt, but it’s vital for good business communication, efficient office workflow and achieving success. So how do you create office openness and honesty – especially across cultural divides – without ruffling feathers?

You can’t handle the truth!” the curmudgeonly colonel played by Jack Nicholson famously yelled at Tom Cruise in the 1992 Hollywood military courtroom drama “A Few Good Men.” Such belligerence, of course, wouldn’t fly in a real-life, modern workplace. Even if they don’t always genuinely respect one another, bosses and employees in most companies are expected to communicate in a reasonably civil manner.

But in one sense, the colonel was right. Sometimes a perfectly understandable and commendable desire not to offend can inhibit honest and productive communication. And, ironically, in the long term it can lead to more damage than speaking your mind.

In business, the flow of information is often not as transparent as it should be – for example, managers get sugar-coated reports, project owners are so heavily invested in a project that they don’t want to admit there are problems or failures, or a manager avoids telling the full truth to an underperforming employee to avoid upsetting or demotivating them.

In many cases, this can mean that organizations, teams or individuals do not improve or, worse, projects carry on but are headed for failure.

So how can leaders promote clear, honest communication in their company without it tipping over into aggression or hostility?

21 Percent

The share of employees who reported receiving well-pitched, accessible feedback

25 Percent

The share of employees who feel they can give their leader honest feedback

American writer Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” is convinced that honesty is the best policy in the workplace. Scott’s impressive management career includes stints at Apple and Google, and she has been an adviser to Silicon Valley companies including Dropbox, Kurbo, Shyp and Twitter. Her approach is gaining ground – “Radical Candor” is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Scott defines radical candor as: “Caring personally while challenging directly. It’s guidance that’s kind and clear, specific and sincere.”

Caring personally, she says, means taking a genuine interest in those you lead: “We’re all told we need to be professional, but you need to be more than just professional. You need to build real, human relationships. You’re not necessarily going to like everyone you work with, but you have to care about their success and care about them on a fundamental human-decency level.”

Challenging directly is not “brutal honesty.” It means you share your genuine opinion and invite the other person to do the same. “If you really care personally about somebody, you’ll tell them if you think they’re making a mistake – and when they’re doing something great.”

And the honesty should work both ways. As a leader, you must be able to take, as well as give, criticism. And you should invite it from your team.

“As the boss, you’re far more likely to hear only the positives because it’s usually seen as risky to share the bad stuff with the boss,” says Scott.

She’s right. In a Harvard Business Review study, only 25% of employees surveyed felt they could give their leader honest feedback. Scott suggests asking team members, one-to-one, specific questions such as: “What could be better on this team?” and “What do you think I can do better as the manager here?” And, she says, it’s important to listen to, and act on, the replies.

Marie Ronan, HR Director for Europe and Africa with cybersecurity giant Symantec, has found the radical candor approach useful.

“If someone takes the time to sit down with you and share some direct feedback, it’s generally because they want you to succeed or they genuinely want a project, task or relationship to be even better,” says Ronan. “That’s what we’re working toward as an organization, focusing on the power of feedback and recognition.” Scott is keen to stress that radical candor is not the same thing as bullying, or what she terms “obnoxious aggression.” She advises, for example, that while praising a worker should usually be done publicly, criticism should generally be offered in private – and should be constructive.

Or, as she puts it, “saying ‘in the spirit of radical candor’ while acting like a garden-variety jerk still means you’re acting like a jerk.”

There is a real danger of confusing honesty with antagonism. In the Harvard Business Review survey, only 21% of respondents reported receiving feedback in a way they could hear.

“There’s this misconception that, in order to be direct or authentic, you have to be very blunt,” she says. “This is why it’s so important to think about challenging directly and caring personally. If you’re truly invested in the relationship, you’ll want to deliver the message in the right way to ensure it’s preserved.”

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Striking the right tone

But “telling it like it is” is not always a simple matter. Some cultures value direct, honest communication more than others. What is seen as simple straight talking in one country can be experienced as hostile in another.

“Radical candor is measured not as how the speaker sounds but as how the listener hears,” Scott says. “It sounds very different in Tokyo than it does in Tel Aviv, for example. With the team in Japan it was more like polite persistence, because that was how they felt comfortable thinking about it. Whereas the team in Tel Aviv, not that they were rude, but for them the idea of being polite was almost patronizing.”

But stereotypes can be deceptive, too. The Irish, for example, are often accused of “beating about the bush” and avoiding confrontation. Scott, however, who is of Irish heritage and has managed a team in Ireland, had a different experience.

“Actually, some of the most painful but also the most useful feedback came from my team in Dublin,” she says. “Shortly after I had my twins, I was trying to adjust a meeting time so that I could give them breakfast. I wasn’t quite aware that my adjustments meant the team there was going to miss dinner with their kids. Ouch! I realized I’d often pushed meetings too late, long before I had kids and was sensitive to family mealtime, but I was glad they pointed it out.

“But I had to show them that I was willing to take criticism before they were willing to give it out – and before I earned the right to dish it out. And I think that’s true in most places.”

Ronan agrees. “I think there are nuances with every culture, but as a whole I haven’t come across a scenario where people didn’t appreciate honest feedback and transparency,” she says.

And it’s not just between management and employees – honesty can filter down into relationships with customers and clients too.

“I’ve worked with sales teams who have found that, by being empowered to be more honest with their customers, they have built a kind of virtuous circle,” says Scott. “Think about times when a sales person has told you ‘I understand your needs and this is not the right product for you.’ You then trust that person.” And you’re more likely to want to deal with them again. While she realizes that radical candor is not always the easiest option, Scott is adamant it’s worth the effort.

“I know this stuff can be really hard, in the moment,” she says. But, done correctly and with good intentions, “it’s really the way forward.” Who knows, maybe we can handle the truth after all.  — Cathy Dillon

Published: November 2019

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