Can We Be Honest?


Can we be honest? If we’re going to be successful change midwives, honesty is very important.

In this technique card from Leading Technical Change, I talk about some of the ins & outs of this complicated topic.

LTC Technique Card

The first point is urgent: Being honest means believing everything you say, not saying everything you believe.

Honesty is really important, but people quite often over-share in the name of pursuing honesty.

Every healthy person, for instance, has moments of extreme negativity. Our honest reaction might basically amount to, "I hate you I hate you I hate you. Your mom is ugly and your dog is stupid."

Now, I might actually believe that, however momentarily, but even if I do, saying it isn’t "just being honest", it’s a) saying something just because you believe it right now, and b) being pretty mean, and frankly, c) highly contraindicated.

Another point, related to that first one: You can defer parts of what you believe, without being dishonest.

You are allowed, even encouraged, to find the right place, time, and especially tone for it is you’re thinking.

It is naive to think that everyone who turns to you with a question is actually asking the question as written. One person can ask you the same exact question at two different times, and still be asking you for two different things.

Being honest successfully involves you grasping a very rich and messy context, including your mood, their mood, the phrasing of the question, the spirit of it, and so on.

A third point: one place I do nearly always speak out: When leaders presume a level of trust from their underlings that I do not believe those underlings actually have, I nearly always speak to it.

People dramatically underestimate how power-over influences trust-relationships and dialogue. There are many fine, even beloved, people in power-over settings, who do not understand that our lack of trust is not actually a reflection on them, but on their current role.

As a coach, I am often uniquely placed to be able to help them understand this, in a way that their underlings have no route to.

Next, what about confidences?

As one’s influence in a team grows, people will very often reach out, in confidence, to tell you about something they see in the team, something they’re not happy with, something they think you haven’t noticed, something they don’t want to bring up.

When that happens, be very careful. Regard it as a win. You’ve been given a very special gift, someone is offering you one of their secrets.

Honesty be damned, do not betray secrets. Here’s what you can do, though. You can ask the confidence-giver if it’s okay if you speak to the issue, should you notice it, without mentioning who helped you notice it.

The truth is, more often than not, the answer is that that’s fine. The truth is, they often brought the confidence to you for exactly that reason. It is the outcome they wanted all along.

Finally, though, don’t be afraid to talk about reality.

Coaches aren’t motivational posters, or corporate glad-handers. You don’t have to pretend that a problem is not a problem.

On the contrary, looking at a problem and accepting, cheerfully, that it’s a problem, is one of the ways you can be greatest benefit to your teams.

There’s always problems. If there weren’t any problems, we wouldn’t be looking to change things, now would we?

Coaches should model, perhaps above all other things, the cheerful and open acceptance of reality, and be explicit in identifying issues, and proposing a way forward, even if that way forward is currently out of reach.

One more pro-tip: higher-ups aren’t actually non-people, tho from that little ant-position down on the ground floor, they sometimes seem to be.

They’re people, and they also know about trust, and value honesty. Try getting a c-suite person off by herself, and just talking and listening to her. She’ll actually respond to you as anyone else does. Hesitantly, at first, but over time, relaxing into the relationship.

Over the years, I’ve been contacted back-channel by many a high-ranking person, to do what: to give me a confidence about something that’s going on that they want me to notice and poke at. 🙂

As a coach, my integrity is one of my most valuable assets, and I protect it very carefully, and think about it often.

Honesty really is the best policy, but take your time, don’t be mean, and listen more than you talk, and you’ll do fine.

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