Gentle Honesty

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“Brutal honesty” is supposed to be a good thing. Lots of bosses pride themselves on it. But gentle honesty is better.

Honesty is good. You want to be honest with team members about their behavior and performance. But for most bosses most of the time, the more brutal the honesty, the less likely it is to be heard and acted upon.

The problem is the little furry forest creature that lives inside all of us. That critter is a relic of evolution and eons past. That critter helped keep the species alive by helping your ancestors and mine meet threats of all kinds. Unfortunately, the little furry forest creature can’t distinguish between a saber tooth tiger and a boss bent on brutal honesty.

Team members who sense a threat is prepare to do two things. They prepare to fight (argue, dispute facts) and they prepare to flee (blame someone else). What they don’t prepare to do is listen to what you have to say. The emotions generated by the “brutal” part overwhelm the ability to listen to your “honest” part.

You want the team member to leave the conversation thinking about what will change and not how you treated him or her. Here’s how to put some “gentle” in your honesty so you can achieve that more often.

Wait until the fires of emotion have cooled. Unless there’s some compelling reason for change to happen in the next few moments, wait until you’re both calmer.

Keep the team member safe. Deliver your message in private. Prevent interruptions.

Describe the behavior or performance you want to discuss in judgment-free language. Leave the adjectives at home. Describe who said or did what.

Describe the impact of that performance or behavior. This establishes why it’s important to discuss.

Wait for the team member to talk next. Wait as long as it takes. What you hear next may be a different version of the facts. It may be an admission that things need to change. Whatever you hear, it’s more likely to be the beginning of a discussion that can result in changed behavior or performance than anything you’d get with “brutal honesty.”

I’ve used this technique for decades and I’ve taught it to hundreds of bosses. I know it works when you do it right. But even after all this time, I still load up on the adjectives more than I should. You have to keep working at it.

Boss’s Bottom Line

You want a team member to leave a conversation about behavior or performance thinking about what will change, not how you treated them.

What do you think?

How do you deliver honest messages without being brutal?

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What People Are Saying

Angela M Hickman   |   12 Dec 2016   |   Reply

Tell them the story of a time when you experienced this same thing and how you too may have gotten it wrong and then share the solution. Self-disclose professionally to identify with an employee.

Wally Bock   |   12 Dec 2016   |   Reply

Thank you, Angela