Date posted: March 8, 2017

Being honest with each other is simple: I say exactly what I think and feel, you say exactly what you think and feel – what could possibly go wrong?

Turns out, quite a lot.

In most workplaces, some critical feedback is withheld, poor performances are tolerated and elephants wander into rooms, noticed but not discussed, because of our inability to be open, honest and direct.

In a family business, this can have added complexity because of long histories, the multiple roles we play for each other, the difference between “family” and “other staff”, and the emotional loading of having seen each other in almost every possible state from birth to death.

If people don’t feel safe to speak honestly and directly about workplace issues, they will either:

  • Learn to ignore the problems and become complicit in making them worse
  • Use passive-aggressive methods such as muttering, gossip and sarcasm to express their concerns, all of which bring more trouble
  • Try to speak up anyway, potentially risking their jobs, or
  • Just leave – seeking somewhere that people deal better with reality

So what does it cost a company or organization when people are not open, honest and direct with each other? It’s impossible to calculate. You’d have to be able to measure all the missed opportunities, the good people who left in frustration, the poor performers who thrived on the avoidance, and the bad decisions that went unchallenged because people had lost either the ability to ask critical questions or the freedom to express them.

It may be easier to think in terms of what can be gained by building a culture in which people are robust enough to speak directly and also hear the direct words of others. What can you achieve then? The feedback comes faster, more clearly and more often. It is more likely to be heard and understood before it is judged. Information and ideas are carefully considered. Each person can be both more analytical and more creative – as openness and honesty are essential in both ways of thinking.

Some people are not honest with others because they have not learned to be honest with themselves. Others are honest within but do not feel safe to be so with others. If you want people to be more open, honest and direct at work, one thing we must do is make it safer for them to do so.

That’s why the first principle of Bullshift is “Don’t be defensive > Be curious”. When we’re defensive, we push the conversation away – we tell them to ignore their concerns, mutter about it, risk their jobs or leave. When we’re curious, we bring the conversation in – we make it safe for people to speak their minds within the company rather than complaining to customers or suppliers or gossiping in corners amongst themselves.

You can read more about the Bullshift principles here

When you go to the Doctor and they say, “How can I help you today?”, what do you say? “I’ll give you a hint”?

I bet you don’t. Most of us give them as much information as possible. And why? Because we want them to help us solve a problem.

How are you going to solve the problem if you don’t understand it properly? And how are you going to understand it properly if you can’t have an honest conversation about it?

If it’s a mechanical problem in your car, you can flip the bonnet and open tubes until you find it. When you’re dealing with people problems, you can’t just flip the bonnet – you’re relying on them to be honest with you, to give you as much relevant information as possible.

If you can cultivate openness, honesty and straight talk around the minor things that happen every day, you’ll help people to build the robustness to deal with the big stuff when it happens. You’ll also help people to be more honest with themselves so they can see when they were at fault and take some responsibility.

Make it safe for people to be honest – with themselves, with each other and with you.

Don’t be defensive – Be curious.

Andrew Horabin is the author of Bullshift and will be delivering a short keynote at the FBA WA State Conference on the Wednesday 7th of June, join us to hear more on this fascinating topic.