There are two types of leaders – those who can only tolerate brutal honesty and those who cannot tolerate brutal honesty at all.
Leaders who are relentless about driving a culture of open, honest, and courageous communication around them are typically extremely committed to high performance. They have zero interest in, or tolerance for, internal drama or politics. They operate at a high level of personal integrity, authenticity, and ownership. And, they expect and demand the same from people around them.
They make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to get away with doing the things that undermine and weaken the organization, such as pointing fingers, adopting a victim mentality, indulging in destructive politics, and “cover-your-ass” behaviors.
These dynamics and behaviors distract everyone from the goals of the organization, and even if these behaviors are subtle, they drain energy and waste everyone’s time. Eventually, people begin to feel that they cannot make a difference, and the organization loses focus and cannot achieve the results it seeks. In today’s environment of growing competition and limited resources, no company can afford this.
In contrast, leaders who avoid brutal honesty at all costs are part of the problem. They enable and permit unclarity and vagueness in roles, decisions, and objectives. Lack of clarity often fuels politics. Contrary to their declarations, leaders who lack courage thrive in political environments. In fact, they use the politics to hide and manipulate people to do what they want them to do without having to do the tough ‘dirty work’ of taking a stand, expressing how they feel, making clear decisions in sensitive areas, and giving direct feedback and coaching to their people.
I was working with a senior executive team of a very large global service company. At the start of our engagement, I interviewed all the senior executives and a handful of managers to gain insight into the culture and dynamic of the organization and its senior team. The interviews revealed significant issues and dysfunctionalities in the levels of trust, cohesion, collaboration, and communication between lines-of-business and functions, as well as between the senior executives themselves, including the CEO.
When I presented my findings, all the executives confirmed the issues. While people were somewhat startled by my summary, everyone seemed extremely relieved that the truth was finally out.
The executives were eager to engage in open and honest dialogue to address the issues and start driving change.
While there were no disagreements about the issues, the CEO took the dysfunctionalities personally. Despite his declarations to the contrary, he behaved in a defensive and passive-aggressive way, suppressing all courage, goodwill, and progress. Needless to say, the executives became weary and fearful of expressing their views. The dialogue became inauthentic and useless; everyone left the conversation feeling frustrated and discouraged about the lack of senior openness to change.
I could see over a short period of time, following the meeting, that the executives started to disengage and invest less of their commitment, passion, and energy in trying to change things.
Any manager or employee can be the catalyst for change, even reversing damage created by past-behaviors and establishing new high-performance team dynamics. It takes courage to be a role model and hold others to account. In fact, in an environment where people are used to only voicing what they think their leaders want to hear, managers need to stand for a higher standard of brutal honesty, refusing to settle for any less than that!
No matter which method they use, they must make their unconditional commitment to honesty known and must convince their people that they mean it. It’s not enough to declare it. Managers need to demonstrate through action that they are genuinely open to feedback, criticism, and input, including about themselves.
As we all know:
It takes ten rights to fix one wrong and one wrong to undermine ten rights.
The leadership philosophy of open, honest, authentic, and courageous communication can be messy, lonely, and painful at times. However, when leaders have the courage to behave authentically every day, a powerful platform of authentic team ownership, commitment, and accountability emerges around them.
Brutally honest leaders inspire, empower, and equip the people around them to tackle any challenge and/or opportunity they encounter, no matter how unfamiliar, complex, or difficult, in a powerful and unstoppable manner.
Nothing can beat that!