Why can't we just be honest?

I've heard about the idea of radical honesty before but certain things about it made it hard for me to ever seriously consider. In a way you just don't shy away from topics that can potentially cause other people discomfort and you state your feelings bluntly using observations. The idea is to remove the little "white lies" that we tell for the sake of social norms.


Hellovon
by Hellovon
Only recently has this idea been occurring to me more often, and this time it's in the context of work. Which could potentially be one of the worst places to ignore social norms. You see, some of my friends have become managers at work and their role is new to them. I believe that part of their jobs is to have that radical honesty in evaluating work performance for the people they manage. Separating the "friend" from "subordinate" is probably new to them so they have a hard time giving honest feedback.

When I've talked to these managers about some of the issues I see with the new hires (peer reviews) that aren't performing very well, I'm met with a certain level of agreement. So I know that I'm not completely off base in my observations. But I'm not sure that all of these observations get back to the employee that is underperforming. There's a few outcomes I see happening from this: 1 - the underperforming employee does not realize the seriousness of the situation, 2 - the manager has not effectively communicated the situation to them, or 3 - the employee does not know how to rectify their performance. I guess a fourth option would be that the employee does not care, but I'll rule that one out for now since I do believe that these people care about their jobs.

There's no magic in separating your emotions from telling people bad news. If there's a trick to it then please let me know, but as far as I can tell it's always going to suck to give people bad news. Some medical schools even have classes on bedside manner because they know that doctors will have to give bad news at some point. But most managers in business never have to learn this skill it's just something they are expected to do.

Why can't we just be honest?

I was watching the show Transparent the other day, and in it, one of the characters is having problems with their marriage, they were describing things that were lacking in the marriage to their father when he asked them:

"Why don't you tell him what you want?"

"I don't want to have to tell someone..."

For some reason this struck me. The father's question about just being open with feelings and being blunt and straight to the point were met with the idea of 'social norms say that I cannot do this, people should just know'. But why? Why do we hide from making plain statements?

As far as managing goes, I think I would approach it in a manner that most of my previous/current managers never did with me. I would try to use radical honesty as much as possible, why do we play a guessing game where we read between the lines? I think in a way this would make me a harsher manager than most of the ones at my current company, but at the same time I would have let an employee go about 3 months before we ended up letting him go because I think the managers just had a hard time separating their emotions from it. Perhaps I would just be a more honest manager than really being a harsh manager, I think that I'm just better at separating the business and friendship aspects of work. So far none of my observations on our new hires has been wrong, I've just been more verbal than anyone else to speak up about their performance.

I think that radical honesty is something I want to try to practice more of this year. I don't usually do new years resolutions, I am a firm believer that if you want to make a change in your life that it shouldn't take a special day to do it. If I want to improve myself then I should start as soon as I realize that it's a change I want to seriously do.

I doubt that I will remove all of the "white lies" from my life. I'm sure that if a coworker asks me how I'm doing I will still say "fine" instead of whatever may really be on my mind. But as far as being more direct with people I think that is something I want to improve upon, in both my professional life and in my personal life. This idea scares me, I fear how it may change my relationships with people which is probably the main reason that I stay so quiet to begin with. But even if it fails, I think I will learn a lot from the experience.

I've already started this in a way by bluntly telling my manager that I was not happy with them and requested a transfer to another team. We'll see how the experiment goes as the year goes on. Hopefully I'm not jobless/friendless by the end of the year.

11 comments:

  1. I think the thing to keeping in mind is that work relationships are not the same as personal. With work there's at least some expectation that things won't always be sugar coated. With personal relationships the person on the other side of your conversation may have attachments to you or your words may come with a higher value to the receiver then say a worker who can flip you the bird and find a new job. If done with tact, and concern for another's wellbeing, I think one can be honest to their true thoughts and feelings by allowing themselves to express them more freely. I guess the real question is what's the ultimate price you are willing to pay ( such as the potential for an employee to quit or as you mentioned, the loss of a friend) for being radically honest? Does the reward outweigh the risk?

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    1. Rags2Riches,

      Work relationships are definitely much different than personal relationships, and sometimes there is reason to hold back what you really think to spare someone's feelings. "Yes dinner was delicious!" but sometimes when you don't say things simply because you don't want to change the status quo because it might hurt someones feelings is probably not the best approach. It's like being that person that's afraid to break up with someone so they just drive the other person away instead of being honest enough to tell them that it doesn't work. Yes, sometimes it sucks to be honest, but it can be healthier for everyone involved.

      As far as honesty at work I think people should always be truthful about coworkers performance. If I wasn't doing a good job I would want to know so that I could focus on making myself better. Rather than no one having the balls to tell me that I'm not doing well and then suddenly fire me one day. I'm not saying, "Hey Zee, you suck at your job, get it together." but if you are professional and honest you could say "Zee, this last project you were on was constantly behind. I realize that things didn't go exactly as planned but you need to try to keep the timelines up or let people know sooner." That's still honest and there's reasoning and logic behind the honesty being brought up. I think there is no risk when addressing performance or other work related things. Yes you may lose an employee over it but if they weren't performing well anyways then there's no reason to keep around someone that can't do the job properly.

      -Zee

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    2. Zee,
      Yes, personal relationships are much different. I used to have something on my Myspace page (yes ages ago) that talked about how honesty isn't really the best policy because most people can't seem to really take honest feedback. Personally I hate silence and would much rather have someone come forward and be upfront than be withdrawn and make me play the guessing game. I have been known to drive someone away, but I also have been known to be extremely blunt. There's a middle ground somewhere in there that I try to aim for.

      As for co-workers, I would be cautious of inserting my opinion to them directly to them as it could look like someone is belittling them, rather than being helpful. That's what managers are for.

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  2. I agree. I hate when employers "sugar-coat" and issue. It really hurts everyone. The employee doesn't think the issue is a big deal because of how the employer addressed it. In 3 months when the employee is fired, they are blindsided and the employer is forced to now take the time to hire and train someone new. Had they just been honest, they could have saved a ton of time and energy.

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    1. Jon,

      Yep, it's an unfortunate when employers feel the need to not address the seriousness of an issue. They might bring up whatever the problem is but they don't convey the message of "this action needs to stop or your performance must improve".

      -Zee

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  3. Thing is, honesty or diplomacy/tact I think depends on your work environment. You could work in an environment where full in-your-face honesty works, ie if you're not doing a good job, you are told of this in no uncertain terms.

    However, I'd say that in most office environments, it's not so easy to be honest like that, so tact and diplomacy are required, which may result in the 'white lies' you speak of.

    I have to say that in my experience, whilst refreshing to see when they display it because it's not common in the workplace, people who are blunt and honest do not last very long, not in our business anyway. Either they will be pushed out because other people complain they can't work with them, or (if they are managers) they get put on training courses to change their style. Managers who 'sugarcoat' issues too much should also be put on training courses as they are not doing their jobs properly.

    Still, it's hard to know where to draw the line between being honest and being considered rude or thoughtless.

    I have to say that to get on with my life (work and personal), I tell my fair share of white lies just because it's easier and it does no harm.

    Good luck with your experiment!

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    1. Weenie,

      If you are the low man on the totem pole then it's hard to give that honest feedback because most people should be more senior and know your job/business better than you. If that's the case then those people need to do some personal evaluation of themselves because the company is probably not wrong and you are.

      But managers should be honest and to the point with underperforming employees. If their poor performance/attitude/whatever isn't up to the necessary standards where eventually they will get fired because of it then someone needs to let them know. I would love to know if I'm not doing something well before I'm just blindsided with being fired. It gives me a way to prove my worth.

      I think one of the things about honest evaluation and feedback on the manager side of things is a later follow up. For example, if someone is told their performance isn't good, and they improve it. The manager should come back later and say, hey, I've noticed that you've really been doing well lately, keep it up. That way the feedback isn't always just negative, but still honest.

      But there is a fine line between being rude and honest. I think if it can be constructive then it's less likely to be rude, whereas if you are just commenting on someone's wardrobe you don't like.... it's better to just keep quiet.

      -Zee

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  4. Hi,

    My concern is that most of us are not ready to give and receive honest feedback, you will tell me why, first of all giving a honest feedback is really difficult as you must abstraction of the feeling, which we are not genetically made for.
    To receive honest feedback is on the same trend, are you happy when somebody tell you something that you know, you have been trying to improve but still not enough or you thought you did.

    So everybody is facing both issues at the same, so it's easier not to give a honest feedback because it will probably hurt the other party and you are not ready to receive honest feedback.

    It's the most difficult thing in life and most of the couple that divorce is just because of that.

    Nice post and good luck in honest journey.

    Cheers, RA50

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    1. Retiredat50,

      You're reasoning is spot on here, humans just have a hard time taking feedback without attaching emotion to the words. Sometimes people can take feedback and use it constructively without attaching emotion to it. Like athletes for example, when a coach tells you how to run with better form or shoot a ball to keep their trajectories straighter, it can usually be done without offense being taken.

      But having someone tell you that you're bad at something you do 8 hours a day... that's a difficult thing for most people to not take personally.

      Maybe we should all start viewing our jobs as something similar to sports and managers as our coaches. Maybe then we will receive critiques as people just trying to help instead of people being jerks that we have to deal with everyday.

      -Zee

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  5. Radical honesty is definitely something I'm applying to my own blog more than ever lately (which I suspect makes a few readers uncomfortable. I'm also starting to suspect it makes me sound like I am a lot more miserable than I actually am, because let's face it, focusing on/talking about things we wouldn't normally admit to tends to come off as a bit of a downer. But for me it's all part of working through those emotions.)

    In a workplace context ... I would add one thing. I think back to how a former boss of mine was treated and I think that constructiveness should also play a part. No point in radical honesty if it's just an excuse to be mean, petty, and personal.



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    1. NZ Muse,

      I'm definitely applying this to my blog more and more lately. I sometimes mention when I'm depressed, I have a post about dealing with being bipolar growing up and how it impacts my choices now. But it's also somehow easier to write about the things you need to vent about and get off your chest. This blog is my hobby so I can take it whatever direction I want, even if I'm just using it to therapeutically get my thoughts out of my head. But I feel like people are less likely to share slightly good events. I would probably never talk about a project that went smoothly at work, but if something completely broke down at work and I had to put in a lot of extra hours.... Yeah, I'd be more likely to bitch about it.

      I also had a recent situation at work where I was being a bit too honest at work. I was giving constructive feedback to a new process they were trying to implement. It was a terrible idea, I gave them many reasons why it was horrible, and I gave them a suggestion that would be better for both our company and our clients. It was valid feedback, but perhaps I used the word "bullshit" a few too many times in my emails cause it wasn't received well :) . My managers had a few talks with me about how I'm just acting up since I'm leaving their team so that wasn't fun. But I was validated when many other people on the email chain chimed in and agreed with my assessment of the situation. So in a way I was constructive, but I guess I let a little to much of my frustrations come through.

      -Zee

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