Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.



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.