Why are people so afraid of bluntness?

What is wrong with being blunt?

Most people generally tend to avoid being too blunt. However, in many organizations bluntness is non existent and in most organizations Ambiguity and Vagueness are an epidemic.

I couldn’t count the number of times I have been in a meeting about an important topic and someone rambled on and on without getting to the point, or someone expressed their opinion and still no one understood what it is, or someone said they had the solution only to continue to highlight the problems, which everyone already understood to begin with.

People tend to talk a lot without saying much!

I see this behavior at every level of the organization, from the most senior executives to the lowest level employees. In fact, sometimes it seems that the higher you go in the corporate ladder more politically correct and vague the communications.

People seem to associate bluntness with negative qualities such as disrespect, carelessness and offensive and hurtful behaviors. I understand why people have these perceptions.

Most people tend to be blunter when they are upset, frustrated, resentful or fed up with something or someone. In these emotional moments, people tend to express themselves in a more compulsive, abrasive and less thoughtful way. We also tend to regret things we say or the way we say things more often when we are upset.

However, when you check the word blunt in the Thesaurus it gives you:
frank, honest, straight, candid, no-nonsense, forthright and straight-talking.

What is wrong with these synonyms? If we all had more of these qualities we would probably be much more effective; we would probably move things faster and waste less time on BS.

Bluntness is relative. Some cultures like Belgium and Australia for example, pride themselves with their bluntness. What is considered blunt in Asia is considered cautious and/or politically correct in the UK or the USA.

Also, even though generally speaking most corporate cultures don’t encourage or tolerate bluntness, different corporate cultures have different levels of tolerance.

I have seen teams that can address even the most sensitive challenges like peer reviews, budget and resource allocation and promotion decisions in the most open, honest, direct and blunt manner without anyone leaving the conversation feeling offended, upset or diminished. In contrast, I have seen more examples of manager and/or employee who mustered the courage to be blunt only to get criticized, sidelined and even fired for inappropriate behavior or not being team players.

The level of bluntness in a team depends on its leader; his or her personal courage and comfort level with frank, honest, straight, candid no-nonsense communication, as well as their ability to instil a safe and productive environment in which risk-averse, honest, straight, candid, no-nonsense communication is accepted and adopted by all.

Some leaders don’t have the courage to create a blunt environment because they are afraid that some of the bluntness may be pointed at their lack of leadership resolve, authenticity, transparency and/or effectiveness.

If the leader is blunt, but he or she doesn’t create a safe and productive environment around them, people will become afraid and behave in cautious and politically correct ways. Needless to say, team productivity, effectiveness and morale will deteriorate.

Alternatively, when team members want to be frank, honest, straight and candid but their leader is politically correct and risk-averse, there will be a greater likelihood of political, passive-aggressive behaviors and dynamics.

Whatever the culture, in order for frank, honest, straight, candid and no-nonsense communication to be productive and impactful, it has to be based on a genuine foundation of respect and trust.

When people feel that they are not judged by their bluntness, but rather they are viewed and respected based on their commitment, performance and results, they are less likely to experience blunt comments and interactions as a danger or threat.

When people trust that their leader and team members are in it together and they always have each other’s backs, not just when it is easy or things go their way, they will be excited to participate in and contribute to making their team environment more frank, honest, straight, candid and no-nonsense.

So, if you want to create a more frank, honest, straight and candid team environment, don’t shoot down or shut down blunt communications. Rather, create a greater team context of respect, trust and partnership among all team members. The stronger foundation you build the bolder your communications will be.

And, of course…. You will have to be courageous to do this!

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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