Please Don’t Soften the Truth: Leading from Authenticity



“An honest answer is the sign of true friendship.” -Proverb

I was having a conversation with a class of people attending XLC’s Corporate University Leadership Foundations Certificate program.   They had just received their feedback from our Leadership Circle Profile (a kind of 360 feedback tool).  The survey compared how they saw themselves along various dimensions of our leadership model against how their colleagues saw them.  As you might imagine, there were many cases where wide gaps existed.

The natural first reaction to this (after the stunned silence), is to reject the data.   Sure, we can all accept the notion that we don’t always see ourselves objectively.  And, most of us believe if our employees saw us in a negative way, they would tell us.   That is not usually the case.

The root cause of this is perhaps the largest trap we all (especially managers) fall into.

It stems from a fundamental need we all have to be liked by others.    In addition, most of us do not feel we want to intentionally cause discomfort or inflict pain (emotional) on others.   While these are both fine instincts, the consequence is often that we do not speak truth to others.   We hold back, or soften our words — often to the point that our true message or feelings do not get conveyed.

A common place for this problem to manifest is during performance appraisals.   Even when we have an employee with substantial developmental needs, we don’t want to crush their spirit.  So when we make a list of 5 “weaknesses” we generally feel obliged to follow-up with a list of 5 “strengths.”  While we may think we are being “balanced” in our comments, any high school chemistry student can tell you that 5 positives plus 5 negatives = neutral.   So this balancing effort causes the employee to hear a message that is neutral or “average,” rather than “here are some important areas in which you need to improve.”

I have even seen instances where a manager had the courage to WRITE down on paper critical comments that were pretty true to his feelings, but when he sat down with the employee in a face-to-face meeting, spent most of the time telling the employee a string of complimentary things that led to confusion about the true nature of the message.

So in the short run, we think we are acting in the best interest of the employee, with compassion and sensitivity, but in the long run our lack of courage results in a grave disservice to them.   Think about it.   Some substandard employees end up spending their entire careers being reassigned, passed over for promotions and excluded from crucial project teams, all the while performing mediocre work and never told the truth about how others feel about them and their performance.   How does this lack of honesty help them?

The next problem for you is this: All your other employees know you held back with the problem employee and failed to confront their lacking performance.   You have just signaled your willingness to look the other way, to tolerate mediocrity, and possibly to create a double standard of performance expectations.  That leads to resentment, morale problems and sagging productivity.  In this case, your lack of honesty (even though motivated by the best of intentions) is effectively creating a culture of softening the truth.   We all start to value politeness and congeniality over truth.    And why would you expect them to be more honest with you, than you are with them?  You are the cap in their level of behavior!

Two Basic Philosophies

Most of us see this question of honesty in one of two ways:

1)      Pleasing is the goal.  My premise above is based on this perspective.  We instinctively try to project what we feel the listener wants to hear, as this is the way we think we gain their appreciation and approval.

2)      Truth is the goal.  This perspective is driven from the concepts of authenticity and integrity.  People  who  adopt this philosophy believe the best gift they can give is total honesty, based on all the facts at their disposal EVEN WHEN THE TRUTH MIGHT BE SEEN AS “BRUTAL.”

You can tell my bias is that the second philosophy is far better for leaders.   Our goal is not necessarily to be liked, but rather to be RESPECTED.   As long as your delivery of truth is not based in anger, cruelty, vindictiveness or any  other purpose than what is in the best interest of the individual before you, people will see this as your being authentic, rather than cruel.  (I have attached some links below on the topic of authentic leadership).

If your delivery of truth is motivated by your focus on mission objectives, on team effectiveness and the good of the whole organization, I believe people will come to accept it even if they would prefer not to hear it.  Isn’t that a better gift to them than something that makes them feel good?

Related Resources

People Skills and the Philosophy of Honesty

Being Honest addressing the idea that honesty in your personal life CAN come from a place of love.

Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George

What is Authentic Leadership, by Andrew Cohen

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1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership

One response to “Please Don’t Soften the Truth: Leading from Authenticity

  1. Pingback: The Honesty of Discomfort « Into The Sacred Feminine

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