In my last blog I emphasized the importance and benefits of creating an open, honest, authentic and courageous communication environment in teams and in life. In this blog I want to dig a little deeper.
Living with a courageous and relentless commitment to openness and honesty is a powerful and, in my view, noble virtue. I am not merely saying this because I have personally adopted this commitment in my own life. I am saying it because I have seen the power of openness and honesty triumph over resignation, despair and challenge, as well as nurture opportunity many times. BUT, I have also seen openness, honesty and bluntness deeply hurt and deflate people.
People often think that “having no filter”, “calling it as they see it” and “putting it all out there” are virtues and an asset to their group or relationship. In fact, some cultures – the Dutch for example – pride themselves on their bluntness. When brutal honesty is delivered in a productive manner, it can definitely be a huge asset. But brutal honesty can also be a disaster and an impediment. It can hurt people deeply and leave casualties.
A sales manager at a global telecom company shared with me a story that I have heard in other places before: his boss asked him to represent his country in the weekly regional sales forecast call with the upper level managers. The economic times were challenging and deals were hard to come by, so everyone on the call was somewhat tense and apprehensive, especially his boss’s boss, who was under tremendous pressure from his superiors to perform. When it was time for the sales manager to present he didn’t have good news to share, so not before long he found himself being questioned, grilled and criticized by those who attended the meeting. Needless to say, he left the call feeling devastated and publically attacked, humiliated and demeaned. His boss’s boss had a different depiction of the incident. His take was: “The sales manager came to the call unprepared so I gave him some feedback and tried to help him steer his presentation the right way”.
If openness, honesty and bluntness don’t make a difference and empower people, they are not worth the dignity they stand for and represent.
I have also heard many people equate open, honest and authentic communication to “getting it all off their chest”. In fact, in a recent coaching conversation an executive expressed pride in the fact that he finally mustered the courage to tell his team-mate how he really felt about him, after a long period in which he accumulated pent up frustrations and resentments about his colleague. I empathized with his initial feeling of personal triumph. But when I asked him if the conversation made a difference to address, resolve or change things he wasn’t sure at all. In fact, upon reflection he admitted that the trust and partnership with his colleague didn’t get stronger, and they didn’t come out of that conversation with any tangible productive actions or directions. He left the conversation feeling relief, but his colleague seemed quite upset and disheartened.
Putting it all out there, or getting if all off your chest is the wrong focus. Making a difference should always be the purpose and focus of any communication. It should guide the approach, angle, style and intensity of all our conversations. If making a difference requires being completely open, honest and blunt, then so be it. But, if being completely open, honest and blunt would hurt, insult, demean or deflate the other person, it may be better not to say anything at all.
A friend of mine, who is teaching at a post graduate university, shared with me recently that her new boss adopted the “blunt, no filter” approach, which was less than successful in their environment. Her boss, who came from the finance world, did not take into account the less brutal and more “diplomatic” academic world she was now immersed in. My friend confessed to feeling wary and cautious about bringing issues to the front because of her boss’s unorthodox style.
There are always appropriate, effective and productive ways to communicate, give feedback and express criticism and dissatisfaction – no matter how severe – which elevate and empower people.
What good is it for anyone if people around them are torn down and/or afraid to speak their minds?