Brutal Honesty – Good or Bad?

Living with a courageous and relentless commitment to openness and honesty is a powerful way to live.  

I am not merely saying this because I have personally adopted this commitment in my own life, I am saying it because many times I have seen the power of openness and honesty triumph over resignation, despair, and challenge, as well as nurturing opportunities to build trust and relationships. 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 strong leadership virtues. In fact, some cultures – the Dutch for example – pride themselves on their bluntness.

This ‘brutal honesty’ can definitely be a strength when it is delivered in a productive manner.  However, brutal honesty can also be a disaster and an impediment, it can deeply hurt people and leave casualties.

I have seen examples like this multiple times in many companies.   In one of the companies where I coached a sales manager was asked by his boss 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 the sales manager’s boss’s boss, who was under tremendous pressure from his superiors to show results.

When it was time for the sales manager to present he didn’t have good news to share, so it didn’t take long before 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 direct feedback and tried to help him steer his presentation the right way”.

If your openness, honesty, and bluntness don’t make a difference and empower the people you are communicating with, you have missed the mark big time.

People also often equate open, honest and direct communication to “getting it all off their chest“. In fact, in a recent coaching conversation, an executive boasted about the fact that he finally mustered the courage to tell his peer how he really felt about him, after a long period of accumulating pent-up frustrations and resentments about his colleague.  At first, I empathized with his feeling of personal triumph.  He acknowledged that he left the conversation feeling relief, but his colleague seemed quite upset and disheartened.  Also upon further reflection, he admitted that the conversation didn’t address, resolve or improve anything. In fact, it damaged the trust and partnership with his colleague.

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 university post-graduates, shared with me how her boss adopted the “blunt, no filter” approach.  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, as a result his approach was less than successful.  Consequently, my friend confessed to now 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 – that elevate and empower the person you are communicating with.

What good is it for you or anyone if people around you are torn down and/or afraid to speak their minds?

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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