The Honesty Dilemma

The Honesty Dilemma

In a business world that is changing at hallucinating speed, one basic managerial dilemma is flat-lining careers, suppressing performance, demotivating people and making it harder to hold onto our best talent – a crippling fear of honesty.

Consultants, trainers and coaches have instilled this fear in our companies’ best leaders and managers, and it manifests itself in losing sight of the crucial difference between being directive and being direct.

For decades, we have been trying to get managers to stop simply telling people what to do based on the valid assumption that overdoing this creates a dysfunctional dependence on the manager. That’s fine. The manager isn’t God, and we’re living in a much more complex time when the problems are not always clear, the answers are not always clear, and we need people at levels to take up the mantle of empowerment.

But we’ve drastically overcompensated by telling managers that they can’t speak their minds, they can’t voice their opinions – that they can only ask questions so that their people can "self-discover." We’ve become WAY too comforting. It’s like, “God forbid I should share with them what I think because they’re such fragile creatures.” People are much stronger than we give them credit for. What about all of your experience and insights as a manager...doesn’t it count for something? We’ve gotten to a point where our very attempt not to upset people is what ends up upsetting them.

I’m not saying that we should say everything we think and feel. That’s fine for a reality show, but not for real life. Most leaders have their hearts in the right place and they have a ton to offer their people. They just need to learn how to tell the truth (or at least their version of it) in ways that people will open up to and appreciate.

But there is a way out of this ’Honesty Dilemma’. For more than twenty years, in coaching sessions and workshops with C-suite executives and tens of thousands of people at some of the largest and most successful companies on both sides of the Atlantic, I have been offering a solution as revolutionary as it is obvious:

In every encounter between people, let the best thinking win.

It’s not easy to get there. BOTH sides have to be open to having their minds changed. BOTH sides have to stop trying to be right, and stop trying not to be wrong, seeking to over-protect themselves and each other. BOTH sides have to commit to discovering what’s true, what isn’t true, and what needs to happen next.

And, it HAS to be collaborative. It can’t be dictated from on high, and it can’t be left to self-discovery. Each side has to present its truths in a collaborative conversation so that the best ideas win, and in a way that the recipient doesn’t feel like they’re being force fed ideas and answers. It has to be an invitation, not a confrontation.

So, as a manager, as a leader, how do I get there? First of all, I have to have an appropriate relationship with my own opinion – my goal here is to open people up, not to close them down. I’ve got to share my point of view, share the data that led me there, and then I’ve got to ask what they think about that point of view in a way that empowers them to decide for themselves what to believe.

Across companies, cultures, and countries, we need to help people reprogram themselves with a way of thinking and acting that is explicit, transparent, effective and consistent with whom they really want to be, and their companies need them to be. We need to develop people AT SPEED – hoping and waiting for self-discovery to manifest itself is just too darn slow, and it may not work anyway.

I mean, have YOU self-discovered all the important insights of YOUR life? Have you never benefited from someone else’s input and wisdom and experience? No one likes being told what to do. But very few of us can figure out what to do on our own – and the light-speed pressure of today’s business world makes self-enlightenment impractical.

The honesty dilemma can be solved – and solved quickly – as soon as we start being honest with ourselves.