Lessons From a Leader: How to Encourage Straight Talk in the Workplace
If a co-worker asked your opinion about her new outfit—and you didn’t really care for it—how would you answer? Truthfully? Or, would you tell a little white lie to keep from hurting her feelings? We live in a polite culture. We’ve learned from an early age not to make waves unnecessarily. “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” the adage says. I agree for the most part, but there’s an important difference between being polite to someone socially and not stating your real opinion in a business situation.
Years ago at a previous job I thought I had agreement with an idea I presented to senior leadership, only to find out later they had no intention of approving my plan. They never let on during the presentation, however, because they knew I’d worked hard on it and didn’t want to make me feel bad in front of the group. Looking back on it, the experience caused me to question the courage of our senior leaders and ultimately resulted in lot of rework that may not have been needed if they’d been straight with me from the start.
At my current company, the concept of "straight talk" is generating a lot of discussion these days. We’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t really do our best work unless we’re comfortable having open, honest, courageous conversations with each other. But how straight is too straight? How can we be honest, polite and respectful all at the same time?
Here’s what I’ve learned. First, when you’re having a conversation, sending an email or calling a meeting, be clear about what you need to accomplish and what you expect from others. Looking back on my earlier experience presenting to senior leadership, I should have opened the meeting by saying something like: “Today, I’m going to recommend a new approach to tackling this challenge. I’ll review with you the pros and cons as my team sees them, and will invite you to share your thoughts, as well. At the end of this presentation, I’m going to ask each of you individually for your approval to move forward.”
By setting the stage with clear expectations, I might have made it easier for the leadership team to feel comfortable offering honest feedback and compelled to share their thoughts immediately. It certainly would have minimized the risk that any of us left the meeting with the wrong impression about what was decided or how to move forward.
Second, I’m learning that until everyone gets used to the spirit of openness and straight talk, it’s wise to tread lightly. There’s a fine line between being direct and being rude, and everyone will draw the line in a different place. So if you’re about to say something that might be construed as a bit too direct, preface it with a fair warning. A lot of individuals at my company are prefacing comments with “In the spirit of straight talk,” which lets the audience know they may hear something more direct than usual.
Experiment with being direct, and encourage others to do the same; it’s the only way you’ll get comfortable with straight talk and determine where to collectively draw the line in your organization. You may also need to draw out the straight talk in others. If you feel like someone is beating around the bush or not telling the whole story, ask for clarification: “I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say.”
Of course, you have to be prepared for what you might hear when asking for the truth. I’ve found in most cases that people welcome straight talk—whether positive or negative. It helps them know where they stand, what they need to do and how their efforts contribute to the success of the business. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all want to know at work?