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