Do you have the courage for brutal honesty?

I love working with leaders who are relentless about driving a culture of open, honest and courageous communication around them. These leaders are committed to high performance and 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: point fingers, adopt a victim mentality, indulge in destructive politics, and “cover-your-ass” behaviors that distract from the goals of the organization.

Even if these behaviors are very 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.

I was working with a senior leadership team of a large and successful telecom company. At the start of our engagement I interviewed all the senior leaders and a handful of managers that report to them to gain insight into the starting condition of the organization and teams. The interviews revealed significant issues and dysfunctionalities in the levels of trust, cohesion, collaboration and communication between functions and between the senior leaders themselves, including the CEO. When I presented my findings pretty much everyone confirmed the issues. While people were somewhat startled by my summary, everyone also seemed extremely relieved that the truth was out.

We set out to drive change. However, every time I tried to engage the senior leaders in a direct conversation about their dysfunctionalities they were reluctant to do so. While there were no disagreements about the issues, the CEO and some of the leaders took these personally and therefore, despite their declarations to the contrary, they avoided facing them at all cost. From my standpoint, they lacked the courage to engage with brutal honesty. As time passed the second tier managers became more and more frustrated and discouraged about the lack of progress. People disengaged and invested less of their commitment, passion, and energy in the change initiative. As a result, progress stalled and cynicism grew.

Any manager can be the catalyst for breaking undermining patterns, reversing past damage and creating a high-performance team dynamic – if they are willing to be a courageous leader, role model this behavior, and call his or her people to account for it too. In an environment where people are used to only voicing what they think their leaders want to hear, managers need to stand for a new code of empowering honesty, refusing to settle for any less than that!

No matter which method they use, leaders must make their unconditional commitment to honesty known, and they must convince their people that they mean it. It’s not enough to declare it. They need to demonstrate through action that they are genuinely open to feedback, criticism, and input, including about themselves.

As one of my clients once admitted:

It takes 10 rights to fix 1 wrong, and 1 wrong to undermine 10 rights.

This leadership philosophy of open, honest, authentic and courageous communication can be messy, lonely and painful at times. However, time and again, I have seen it lead to significant transformations inside organizations. In fact, clients have repeatedly shared with me that creating a new level of communication at work has also made them a better person in their personal life, changing the way they relate to their children and their spouses. One CEO even told me once, “It saved my marriage“.

I am not a marriage counselor, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, one thing I do know is that when organizations have the courage to be authentic every day, a powerful platform of authentic team ownership, commitment and accountability emerges. The team is then equipped and energized to focus on any challenge or opportunity that lies ahead, no matter how unfamiliar, complex, or difficult it may be.

As a result, the team becomes unstoppable.

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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