Most of us appreciate honesty, which is why honest leadership is in such demand. In fact, recent research by Professors Kouzes and Posner in the book the Leadership Challenge show that honesty is the most sought-after leadership quality.
Their research has been repeated across multiple countries over several decades. Honesty has always been in the top four leadership characteristics, with the most recent study being completed in 2017.
In this post, I’m going to take a look at honest leadership, why it matters and how we can be honest more often.
Are You Demonstrating Honest Leadership?
Most of the thoughtful leaders I speak to would probably say they’re quite honest in leadership. However, I don’t think we’re being as honest as we could be.
When I run leadership training, I like to run polls with the leaders in the room to see if I can uncover some of the trends out in the workplace.
The types of things I’m interested in are why leaders struggle to have difficult conversations and what sometimes stops leaders from doing the good leadership things they know they want to be doing.
These polls are not scientific of course. However, I find that what the leaders tell me is consistent with what I’m seeing in workplaces and through the experiences of my coaching clients.
Some Recent Insights From My Leadership Training Attendees
Here are some of the insights I’ve gathered recently:
- The top things these leaders were worried about when having a difficult conversation were upsetting the other person, and dealing with the other person’s emotions.
- Feeling anxious was by far and away the most prominent emotion felt by leaders who had to tackle a difficult conversation with a team member; and
- The most common time management challenges faced by these leaders was being interrupted by other people, and struggling to say “No”.
One of the things I notice about these points is that these leaders are experiencing significant stress related to safeguarding other people’s feelings.
They don’t like saying “No”, they tolerate interruptions for fear of being seen as rude, and they feel anxious when faced with difficult situations.
This is not to say that these leaders are weak or submissive. In my view, it’s more that the natural need for approval, to get along with people and feel accepted as part of a group is coming out strongly and raising stress levels for these leaders.
All of the anxiety and feelings of needing to be liked or accepted are natural. But sometimes, we need to resist them in order to lead effectively and be more honest in leadership.
Avoidance: The Bane of Honest Leadership
In another recent training session I ran to help leaders develop better coaching skills, one of the activities had a scenario where a team member had bad body odour.
The exercise was a questioning skills role play, where the leader had to ask questions to uncover more of the context behind the problem.
Instead of starting with something like “I’ve noticed that sometimes you have bad body odour at work. Are you aware of this issue?”, every group asked questions to try to get the person to discover for themselves they had bad body odour, without telling them directly.
I realise that body odour conversations are very personal and can be extremely tough (and have had to have these conversations myself).
However, I was surprised at people’s natural tendency to avoid broaching the topic directly, and to dance around it instead. It was more surprising because this was only a role play – it wasn’t even a real situation!
Most People Would Prefer Honest Leaders
If you ask most people in the street, they’d probably tell you that “of course we want honest leaders”.
So why then, do we still see toxic workplaces, bad behaviour, political manoeuvring if everyone knows we should be more honest and open?
Now, I’m not saying that a lack of honesty is the reason behind all leadership problems. However, I believe it has a significant part to play.
I don’t believe that leaders are going around telling outright lies, either. But I do believe that avoidance is a very common form of dishonesty.
This avoidance comes in several forms, including:
- Withholding information. Holding back what we really need to say, to spare somebody’s feelings.
- Softening our message. Watering down our words, or using false praise to make sure we don’t offend someone or come across as critical.
- Not taking action. This might involve putting off a difficult conversation or delivering an unpleasant message altogether. Sometimes, we might hope that the problem will go away by itself.
You might have noticed some of these creeping into your leadership from time to time. I know I certainly have fallen prey to these, or at least felt tempted to avoid unpleasantness in certain situations.
So How Can We Be More Honest In Leadership?
The research tells us that honesty is one of the most valued leadership characteristics. So, it stands to reason that we should be attempting to be more honest.
In general, I find that people appreciate an honest leader, even if it means they need to hear a harsh truth.
Here are some ways we can try to be more honest in leadership, to build trust with our people.
1. Think of the Positive Outcome You Want For the Other Person
Sometimes we are trapped in our own minds. We think about what we’re trying to gain, or the impact of the situation on us.
However, if you need to deliver a difficult message in an honest and open way, it’s useful to think of the positive outcome you would like for the other person.
This can make difficult conversations easier because you feel better if you believe you’re actually trying to help the other person in some way.
For example, if somebody is lacking motivation, you may want them to feel more motivated and enjoy coming to work, as a result of a challenging conversation. It’s not all about you wanting them to be more motivated.
Instead, it’s about them being able to enjoy their work more, rather than struggling through each day.
This type of reframing may seem like a mental trick, but ultimately most thoughtful leaders like to help people. Reframing your intent in this way can make you feel more helpful.
This means you can be honest, and by being honest, you’re trying to be helpful.
2. Focus On the Long Game
Many of our workplaces are focused on short-term outcomes.
Monthly reporting or quarterly sales targets have us looking only a short distance into the future. It’s common for leaders to be pushed to deliver results quickly so that the latest figures look good.
In reality, whether a client signs up on June 30th or July 2nd doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in terms of the outcome for the client. But in our reporting, the company will show greater revenue in the current financial year, which makes the senior management look good right now.
Individually, we tend to do this too. We focus on looking forward to the weekend and “worrying about it next week”.
Our brains are constantly battling between seeking short-term gratification and focusing on longer term goals, according to research from Princeton University. This can lead us to take the easy, short-term option, because it feels better at the time.
However, focusing on long-term potential pain can be beneficial.
Tackling a Problem Early Can Make For An Easier Conversation
Let’s say a team member is behaving badly, disrupting your team. At the moment, it’s just annoying other team members, but there’s no major crisis just yet.
If you avoid tackling the problem early, however, you’re likely to see bigger problems later on. Other team members losing motivation and respect for your leadership, for example.
To help you take action earlier, focus on the potential problems that may occur later down the track. When you tackle a problem early, it’s actually likely to be an easier conversation because you can stop it before it gets out of control.
When left to fester, it could result in a big problem, potentially needing HR support and formal performance management or other team members quitting. This is unpleasant for everyone, and a whole lot more effort for you and for HR.
Focusing on the potential longer-term problems that may happen can help you to demonstrate more honest leadership.
Learn More: How Short Term Thinking Leads to Bad Leadership.
3. Choose Different Words
Many people have become accustomed to telling “white lies” or lies that are designed to spare someone else’s feelings.
Often, this can cause greater problems in the long run, if people find out you weren’t being honest with them.
Something I learned from neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris in a podcast recently was that you can change the words you use to be more honest, without needing to be brutally direct about it.
For example, let’s say you know some information but you don’t think it’s appropriate to share with your team.
Instead of saying “I don’t know”, you could say “I don’t think it’s appropriate to share that information with the team right now”.
The result is the same – you aren’t sharing the information. However, the difference is that you’re being honest in the second statement, but not in the first one.
It may sound like a trivial difference, but even this degree of honest leadership can help to build trust with a team, and help you maintain your integrity at the same time.
Do you notice any situations in your leadership where you could make a similar change to the words you use?
Learn More: 7 Things Leaders Should Stop Saying.
4. Take the Time For Self-Reflection
If you want to demonstrate more honest leadership, it’s important to be aware of your behaviour.
One of the ways we can do this is to take time to reflect on what has happened during our day or week.
You can start to take note of times when you may have:
- “Watered down” your language to make a message easier to receive
- Avoided a hard conversation; or
- Told a lie to avoid upsetting people.
Of course, it’s also good to reflect on the times when you were honest and open. When you’ve noticed the times when you were and weren’t as honest as you could be, you can start to look a little deeper.
What was it about the situation that made you lie, avoid or dilute your message?
How could you deal with that next time?
Over time, you’ll come to notice when you’re potentially being less honest than you could be, which can help you change your approach.
Learn More: Blind Spots: How to Shrink Yours to Lead Better.
Remember: Most People Want Honest Leadership
The research of Kouzes and Posner is clear. Honesty is one of the most highly valued leadership qualities.
That means people are looking for it in their leaders.
So even though honesty might feel uncomfortable and daunting, it’s what many people are actually looking for!
This doesn’t mean you need to be barbaric and overly direct. You can be honest, and still be respectful. The people who say “I’m just being honest” as an excuse to be rude or insulting have not got it right.
But hopefully knowing that people want honest leadership will help you to feel more comfortable opening up and giving it to them.
Do you struggle being open and honest with your team? What could you do to potentially demonstrate more honest leadership? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!