How to Foster Honesty in Your Team

This is a guest post by Eduard Ezeanu. He is a communication coach with an attitude-based approach. He helps his clients improve their people skills in order to get the results they want. He blogs at People Skills Decoded and is also active on Twitter.

Most leaders periodically talk to their teams about how they value honesty and why they want more of it. This talk on honesty has become one of the classical management talks in the business world.

Young Man Being Honest with His Colleagues - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #12107875

Photo courtesy of ©

However, judging by their behavior, I have noticed that very few of these leaders actually encourage honesty. And I’m confident this doesn’t apply just for the leaders I know. It’s very easy to state that you want honesty from people; it’s much harder to create a culture that actually fosters it.

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With this is mind, I offer this four-step guide to encouraging honesty in your team.

  1. Lead by example. If you want to receive honest input, start by giving it. As the people on your team observe your honesty, this will make them feel more comfortable being honest themselves. On the other hand, if you don’t practice what you preach, it’s much tougher to influence others to practice that same thing.

    Where I find that most leaders have the biggest problem related to honesty, is in saying those things no one wants to hear: the bad news, the opposing opinion, the refusal, the negative feedback. This is why I think the trick to becoming more honest is becoming more courageous and talking about these kinds of things. When you can honestly talk about the sensitive stuff, being honest about anything else is easy.

  2. Be inquisitive. A major factor that inhibits honesty is when leaders get defensive as soon as they start hearing something they don’t like. They start to deny, blame, explain, criticize and so on. Consequently, the leader’s team mates begin restraining themselves from saying all they intended to say simply because they don’t like the reaction they’re getting.

    If you want your team members to speak honestly, it’s essential that every time one of them starts saying something difficult, instead of getting defensive, you do something much more constructive: you get curious and ask questions. This way, you prove that you are not afraid of the truth and that your main interest is to understand facts and opinions, not save your own skin.

  3. Accept and agree. Here is one of the best things you can do when someone tells you something you’re not comfortable with hearing: Ask yourself, “Which part of what this person is saying might be true?” Combat the natural tendency we all have to deny difficult truths by actively seeking to see reality from their point of view. Then, verbally agree with every thing you can.

    Of course, this is easier said than done. They key here I believe is to start by assuming that the other person is well-intentioned and may well be right. Then learn to identify and combat any tendencies you may have to deny things simply because you don’t like them. If you focus on learning this—and you practice—you will noticeably get better at it in time.

  4. Reward honesty. You must create a system in your team or organization which ensures that good things happen to those who are honest and not to those who are deceitful. You have numerous options: from verbally praising those who speak openly about difficult subjects to creating a performance review system which measures honesty and a promotion system which rewards it.

Honesty is not an easy thing to practice, and it’s certainly not easy to encourage. We have fears which make us not want to know, hear or say certain things. At the end of the day, I believe the best way to implement these steps is by understanding how much these fears can sabotage us and by having the courage to deal with them.

Question: What are you doing to encourage honesty on your team?
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  • Ilya Kralinsky

    My boss makes things very easy: he faked his way through college, has us do all his stuff, then he threatens to fire us if we even hint at being honest. It's much easier for everyone just to simmer quietly all day for years than for him to learn any of this. Good article, though.

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  • blessingmpofu

    one of the things some of my team members struggled with was that they feared they would be "looked at" or treated differently if they said what they felt and knew that the rest of the team or myself as the leader may not like. one of the things i did to combat this was actually say, outright, that what they said was not in anyway going to taint how view of them if they did it with the intention to better the team and our endeavors.

    another strategy i've employed is from "Axiom" a great leadership book by Bill Hybels was the Umbrella of Mercy. In short, this is a very practical exercise that allows people to share or speak especially when they are feeling vulnerable or insecure, but feel they need to speak up. When some makes use of it it also prepares helps me and the team put down our "ammunition" thus fostering honesty…

    thanks for the extra ideas Mike!

    • Eduard Ezeanu

      I think that as a general rule, the more people see that honesty has positive consequences, instead of the negative ones they're often used to, they'll be encouraged to be honest.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree. I think as a leader, you must give permission, affirm honesty when it happens in real time, and, as Eduard says, not be defensive. That kills a conversation faster than anything.

  • Chris Spradlin

    Great Post!!!
    We must also remember that we are called to lead PEOPLE! The people we lead are given to us by God, they have real emotions, lives, hearts, families, hurts, pains, joys and passions. In leaderships…we lead entire families by our decisions not just individuals. I hate to simply state the obvious, my for much of my life I forgot I was leading PEOPLE but acted if i were just merely leading people.

    • Eduard Ezeanu

      People, now there's a word I like. Just like the word leader.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Excellent point, Chris. Thank you.

  • Anthony

    Isn’t being honest with his “team” what got General McChrystal in trouble?

    • Eduard Ezeanu

      Anthony, I don't know about this particular case. You will find plenty of stories where honesty saved people, or got them into trouble. It's the pattern which interests me.

      • Anthony

        Sorry about that. I didn't realize this was a guest post. I was trying to jerk Mike's chain.

        • Eduard Ezeanu

          LoL! No problem Anthony ;)

    • Laurinda

      I think that issue is he wasn't honest with his superior and criticized his leader to the team.

      • Anthony

        How do you know he wasn't honest with his superior? All we know for sure is that he had an open and apparently honest relationship with his team.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I think being disloyal to his boss and talking ABOUT him rather than TO him is what got him into trouble. (Thanks for yanking my chain. I couldn’t resist responding!)

  • Eduard Ezeanu

    Scoti, I do agree with you that many corporate managers are not receptive toward opinions different than their own. This receptivity is exactly what they will need to learn if they want to foster they honesty they talk about so much.

  • James Castellano

    I try to make it safe for others to speak. One rule we hold fast to is staying on topic and professional. You can speak your mind provided you follow the guidelines. Being honest does not mean being nasty.

    • Eduard Ezeanu

      Staying on topic is one rule I always like to see applied in business. Say what you want to say, but keep it to the point.

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  • Ali

    I've taken a new oath to speak more truth in the workplace (with tact of course). This eliminates the needless pursuit of ideas that not everyone agrees upon. It also streamlines communication because conversations are not colored with misinterpretations of what someone "thought" the other person said.

    Great post – I enjoy reading your insights on a regular basis. Keep it up.

    • Eduard Ezeanu

      Ali, I think honesty and tact are the best combination in communication. They create something I refer to as 'constructive communication'. It gets the best results.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I think that really great leaders—ones who are secure in heir own identity—will seek out truth-tellers like you. Keep at it!

      • Eduard Ezeanu

        Thanks Michael. I think honesty is in the very fabric of great leadership.

  • Michael Hyatt

    That's really too bad. I think it is critical if an organization is to achieve its greatest potential.

  • Cyberquill

    Somehow I've come to associate honesty with getting fired on the spot.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You need a new boss.

  • Don Harkey

    Wow… when I caught this article on my feeder, I thought it might be interesting… but I didn't expect it to hit quite a nerve to so many people!

    I guess my addition to the discussion is this… THERE ARE HONEST PEOPLE OUT THERE! In fact, with technology accelerating communication, honest business owners do better than those who are not honest. If you work for a dishonest boss, it is time to fire your boss. Take your strengths and passions to someone who earns it. I know that is a scary proposition in a rough economy, but in the end, you will be happier and make a lot more money working for the good guys.

  • Kirstine Vergara

    My former boss would always encourage us to make suggestions for the company's betterment. But most of the time he would turn down our suggestions because he felt that we were just trying to make an excuse. I mean, why in the world would you ask us to help, if you wouldn't want to listen. It was really frustrating.

  • kevin s

    In the words of Billy Joel "honesty is such a lonely word" We try to encourage honesty by setting an example of it, modeling open dialogue and giving as much information as possible. If the leadership is not living and leading honestly, then noone else will.

  • Gina

    Great post. We have found that having an open and honest dialog with the team sets the standard going forward. If the team sees management giving it straight- good or bad- then that sets the tone. They will know that they can be honest as well- no matter what.

  • Rosario Becerra de Gasquet

    I am interested in speakers in St Louis or anything related to Human Relations in leadership please let me know , have a book?

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