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6 min read

No one really sets out at work to be dishonest, at least no one that we’re interested in anyway. But that doesn’t mean that honesty doesn’t sometimes take a holiday.

When it does it’s important to remember that lack of honesty is rarely a deliberate intention, it’s just that pure honesty can be fragile and it can easily be compromised.

To kick us off, let’s look at the 5 enemies of honesty. Because if you understand these you can start to foster an honesty culture.


1. Pride

Top of my list is Pride. No-one trying to do a good job likes to admit that they got it wrong, even when they know. That doesn’t mean the world is full of people refusing to admit that they got it wrong - that would be awful. But it does mean that many of us ignore the writing on the wall and keep flogging an idea or project after the point we honestly know its not working because we’re not ready to accept the failure yet.

I can certainly remember plenty of examples when deep down I knew something wasn’t right or wasn’t working, but I just wasn’t prepared to admit it even to myself, let alone anyone else yet. In many of those cases my pride was getting in the way of my honesty. The result of this is that we or I kept doing things for longer than we needed to or should of. And the business suffered as a result.


2. Fear of failing

At some level, all of us fear failure. For some people its the very thing that drives them forward. I am both afraid of failure and I expect failure. I accept failure as a normal part of my life and as long as it is contained and within reason I’m very happy with it. It’s fear of unconstrained, disastrous failure, or repeated failure that keeps me awake at night!

One of the first things that everyone at Reward Gateway learns on their induction day is that getting things wrong is inevitable and a positive consequence of innovation. If we are afraid of failure we cannot innovate because innovation, doing things that are new, is always risky and the whole point of innovation is that you don’t know exactly what will happen.

If you have a culture which doesn’t embrace failure as an acceptable part of innovation, you’ll end up with a blame culture where people are frightened to be honest about what has happened and that gives you really bad business information. A blame culture is paralysing by itself, but the poor business decisions that it informs is really damaging.

You know you’ve got a great culture when someone is so unafraid of failure that they can come into your office and say that they’ve just wasted the last 2 months of a project, but not to worry because they’ve learned a lot and they’re stopping the project or changing track now and that will stop us from wasting the next 2 months. That’s a real level of honesty thats worth having. If you don’t have this in your team or organisation then make a start to getting it by being honest with your team about the fact that you’d like it!


3. Fear of confrontation

Many of us at least sometimes try and avoid confrontation - its only natural and human. Confrontation is unpleasant, takes up brain space and makes you tired. Of course we avoid it.

Fear of confrontation, and the discomfort that comes with it, is one of the most common reasons for not being honest with members of your team. And that inhibits their growth and their development. In extreme cases it inhibits them making changes to their work or their behaviour that could get them promoted or even safeguard their job.

Fear of confrontation is the root cause between not being straight with someone when you feel that honesty will hurt them or be uncomfortable. It’s where phrases like “reading between the lines" and "beating about the bush" come from. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have spoken to a manager who is concerned about the performance of one of their team and when I say "Have you spoken to them about {whatever the performance issue is}" and the reply is "Well not in those words…”

It’s not just managers with staff who need to practice direct honesty, its all of us with our colleagues. Sometimes departments don’t work well together, miscommunication happens and feathers get ruffled. But how often are departments really honest and straight with each other in a non-aggressive way to straighten things out and find a cure. Not often enough and not early enough from what I see regularly.

Fortunately you get better at managing confrontation with experience. So keep forcing yourself to do it, in a gentle and thoughtful way. If you’re seen to be being genuinely honest and sensitive with people for the benefit of their progress and the company then your confrontations will go smoothly and positively.


4. Excess optimism

Some of us are in jobs where we ride a roller-coaster of ups and downs as standard. Sales is one of those areas. Sales people and Sales managers need to keep optimistic otherwise they’d drown on the difficult days. Having a positive outlook is essential in those roles, but optimism by its very nature will skew your view.

Whilst optimism in many jobs is a good thing, an excess of optimism, like an excess of most things, is the enemy of honest, clear communications. An excess of optimism can undermine your credibility, especially if the passage of time shows that you are often off the mark.

Excess optimism is sometimes a wilful refusal to see reality and it's important to watch yourself and be aware of when your optimism might be taking over. My advice to sales managers is always to be optimistic and inspiring to your team, to push them to achieve their best, but be pragmatic and realistic in your communication upwards, to manage expectations. It’s always better to over-deliver rather than under-deliver.


5. Lack of thought

You might think that this one is odd but I’ve thought a lot about it. Sometimes, because of the pressure of events, we speak or write before we think. We communicate without the full facts and without a full consideration because we think that speed of answer or speed of action is more important than quality.

You might think I’m being harsh by categorising this as an enemy of honesty, after all - aren’t we acting if good faith if we speak with the best facts we have at the time? Well the answer is yes, but only if you’re a politician, because that’s their “get of jail free card" for most things.

Being a manager or a leader in an organisation is a responsibility and with that responsibility to you need to develop a sense of pace and measure. And if you’re going to embrace an honesty culture and reap the rewards that that will bring, you need to be certain of the facts you’re being honest about. And sometimes that will mean pausing for thought, research or reflection before opening your mouth.

In many of these examples, the enemies of honesty is impacting on clarity of judgement. In fact in most scenarios it’s ourselves that we’re not being honest with the most. If you can develop an almost pathological attraction to honesty, openness and transparency you’ll develop a clarity of purpose and culture that is unbeatable.

Glenn Elliott

Founder at Reward Gateway, Employee Engagement expert and Author of "The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement."


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