We need to talk: How to speak honestly in the workplace

We need to talk: How to speak honestly in the workplace

We all pay lip service to honesty as a virtue, but because of conflicting or unclear objectives and agendas, some people hit the truthfulness mute button and instead mouth insincerities or even lies. 

How honest should we be at work with our colleagues, senior management and clients?  

Even though there are many times when bluntness may be called for, tactlessness doesn’t always achieve good outcomes. People’s feelings can be easily hurt, so we must weigh up the benefits versus problematic outcomes. 

When you give honest feedback you need to be very mindful of:

  • Tone – same words and harsh tone can lead to different results.
  • Generalities versus specific examples – being too general can enrage, specific feedback with examples help people understand.
  • Short, simple and factual is best versus alienating with longwinded repetitive detail that drills into someone’s head.
  • Negative-only focus versus also exploring positives.
  • A blame or ‘fault’ focus when in fact you may be part of the problem and need to take some responsibility.
  • Words can be neutral or coloured, sensible or stupid, exaggerated and emotional vs discreet and sensible.
  • Will this be private or at a meeting, in writing, phone call or face to face. Don’t make a public display or put in writing what you will later realise was totally inappropriate – because you were angry, because you felt justified.
  • Other issues going on at the time for you and the other person. Are you overloaded, emotional or stressed right now? Maybe they are for personal reasons.

Be careful. Be ready to apologise if you are at fault.

Calibrate the level of honesty until you get it right. Sometimes it only takes a few candid, timely words and a person is back on course. Other personalities require much greater finesse if you’re to get the best out of them, and assuming you’re not in a position of unfettered authority, sometimes you have to acknowledge your unreasonableness and apologise.

The brave whistleblowers

The biggest testimonial to Australian attitudes to honesty in the workplace is seeing what happens to whistleblowers. In most cases, they receive very little support and too frequently suffer undeserved criticism, condemnation or even get ostracised. 

This is an indictment of the priorities of many companies and bureaucracies when it comes to honesty in the workplace. 

Truth is not its own reward in these situations; those who nevertheless speak out possess a despairing kind of courage, which should be lauded – but institutions of all kind invariably take many years to transform their behaviours – often tragically late for the whistleblower.

Perhaps it’s time for the “honesty matrix” – a kind of S.W.O.T that enables companies to become stronger and better places to work. It amounts to both a statement of intent and policy whereby each party negotiates the level of honesty they’ll issue and wear, along the lines of the following:

  • All sides to feel comfortable in raising issues as they occur (this must come from the top down) and respect each other
  • Encourage parties to stick to the facts, allow for people’s very different communication styles
  • Avoid blaming, defensive attitudes and seeking only to find fault. Ensure everyone is open and takes responsibility for positive outcomes.
  • If something is deemed to be wrong, the proponent should seek facts and/or a second (maybe third) opinion and then take it to management
  • If an allegation is made, encourage people to give their views in confidence before taking things further
  • Discuss orally but be sure to summarise issues in writing
  • If managers wish to raise a problem with a colleague or worker, do so clearly and tactfully and provide specific examples
  • If an employee wishes to be candid, give them space to do so and listen before calmly addressing matters
  • Focus on positive actions – what are you jointly prepared to do about it? Discuss and implement ways forward.

Honesty must be more than lining up a target and hitting a bullseye (necessary as that sometimes is). Focus on positive outcomes, with less damage to the truth-teller and hopefully, improved results.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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