Creating a Culture of Honesty

I once worked for a company in which a change was coming to the department where I worked. It was a change that would be disruptive, as most changes are, and that would require adaptation by every person in the department.

After the change was in place, I asked a co-worker what she thought of the change. “I hate it,” she said. “I don’t see how this is going to make anything better. In fact, it’s making things worse. But I guess there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

I was impressed with her candor and honesty — until we and others in our department found ourselves in a conversation with the vice president to whom our department reported. The vice president asked us what we thought of the change. Everyone, including the woman who told me how much she hated the change, told the vice president that they thought it would require a little adjustment, but they were sure it would be great in the long run.

That kind of dishonesty happens all the time in workplaces. And dishonesty is not too strong a word to describe it. Feeling and believing one thing, but saying another, is the definition of dishonesty. It keeps teams from performing at a high level and it leads to all kinds of disharmony among co-workers. A company simply can’t get things done if this lack of integrity exists.

To overcome this kind of disingenuous behavior requires something of everyone at every level of a team:

  • Company leaders must set the tone and the expectation of honesty and integrity. And they must do more than just talk about it, they must demonstrate it. Leaders have tremendous influence on the culture of an organization. They must ensure their words truly reflect what they believe and that their actions match their words.
  • Mid-level managers, including the vice president in this example, must create an environment in which it is safe for employees to be candid and open. Employees must know they can express their worries and concerns and ask questions without fear of retribution. Often, retribution is not overt, such as terminating someone for speaking their mind. More often, it’s subtle — making life difficult for the employees who speak honestly, shutting them out of opportunities, constantly criticizing their work. Sometimes employees who speak honestly are labeled “malcontents” or “troublemakers,” and indeed some employees take on that role. But in order for a team to deal effectively with change and to perform at a high level, employees must feel safe in expressing their ideas, opinions and questions.
  • Once a trusting, safe environment is established, employees have a responsibility to speak sincerely and honestly. They will “test the system” first to see if it truly is safe to speak up, and then they must be vulnerable enough to trust it. In a culture of integrity and honesty, employees are obligated to say what is on their minds. That’s when the best ideas come forward and assumptions are challenged, which leads to growth.

4 Responses

  1. How would this change what we do???

    • Honesty and candor are necessary for an organization to function at its highest level. Lack of transparency and sincerity in interpersonal communication indicates a lack of trust between the people in an organization. Without that level of trust, team members are less likely to bring forward their ideas, to openly discuss and debate them, to count on one another for support as they manage projects and navigate obstacles to achieving goals, and to take risks that are necessary for an organization to remain vital and alive. No good can come out of a refusal to communicate with honesty. No relationship — personal or professional — can survive in the long term without the trust that is built through a culture of honesty and openness.

  2. […] they can go to learn all they can about the organization and to get answers to their questions. A culture of honesty is important here; employees must be safe in asking even tough questions and they must expect the […]

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