We want the truth

When did we start twirling the truth instead of telling it? “Authentic communication” seems like an oxymoron these days.

CEOs want to keep employees calm and content, so they only share the good news. The corporate communications folks sanitize the truth in the company newsletter. The public relations department finds a way to put a happy face on any negative story.

Let’s stop putting lipstick on the bullfrog. If it’s the ugly truth, call it what it is.

Candor is in such short supply in corporate America, I actually think it can be used to your competitive advantage. You might be thinking, “But if we’re honest, won’t it cause employees to become concerned, ask too many questions or even leave the company?” On the contrary, I think most employees today are hungry for some good old-fashioned honesty. They are sick of the hype, doublespeak, and jargon that says absolutely nothing.

Some examples: A fifty-something manager told me that he has interviewed for the same internal promotion three times. Each time someone else got the job. “When I asked my director why I didn’t get the job, he told me that I was so happy and jovial all the time, the senior level people think I’m perfectly happy in the job I have. Somebody isn’t being entirely truthful here. I’m a big boy. Why won’t they tell me the truth so I can do something about it?”

Another example: A company was acquired by a bigger competitor. In a large employee meeting with the CEO, one of the employees asked, “Should I be worried about losing my job?” The CEO replied, “The long-term viability of the organization in this marketplace is very positive. We are poised for positive growth and are very optimistic moving forward.” Say, what?

Contrary to the apparent conventional wisdom, I think employees respond in a mature way when they are treated as adults. The companies who work hard at authentic communication have more committed employees who don’t leave, because they know they can’t find this candor in many other places. And when employees are told the truth about their performance in an ongoing, honest, respectful way, there is less finger pointing and a lot more accountability. And when the company experiences some bad financial times, employees are more likely to ask, “How can we help?”

So what are we afraid of? Not being liked? A lawsuit? Poor morale? Any labor lawyer will tell you employees are more likely to sue if they are surprised by a sudden firing out of the blue. Any consultant worth their fees will tell you the best leaders are respected, in part, because they level with people and tell it like it is.

Here are some common sense solutions for authentic communication at work.

Be honest about how you reached a decision. Walk them through your decision-making process.

Don’t expect employees to jump on board just because you feel comfortable with a decision. I have been in countless senior management meetings where the members discuss an issue (for hours) from each department’s perspective. A consensus is reached once everyone understands all facets of the issue. Then they walk out the door and issue a memo to their employees that sounds like meaningless hype. Is it any wonder that their employees are confused or resistant? Respect their intelligence and explain the “why” in enough detail so they can buy in.

Stand in the employees’ shoes.

Whether you are speaking or writing to employees, keep in mind they have one big question, “How will this affect me?” When a client was faced with phasing out a technology product, that was soon going to become obsolete, he knew it meant redeployment, or even layoffs.

In a meeting, one of his employees said, “It seems as if the sales have been going down in this product for months now.” The president replied, “Yes they have been and they will probably continue to slide. You’re probably wondering, ‘Am I going to have a job?'” He went on to explain how he was going to start cross-training them in other areas where sales were growing. In addition, he was going to rely on natural attrition rather than lay off employees. “I can’t guarantee there won’t be layoffs but I will do everything possible to use that as a last resort.” His candid response did a lot to keep morale from tanking and his best employees from jumping ship.

Adopt the mindset that honest feedback is the most caring thing you can do for a person.

As long as you look at honest feedback as something that could “hurt feelings” or “make him mad at me,” you will continue to avoid telling your employees the very things that will help them the most. Consider this: If your best friend or child worked for you, would you tell them about something that was hurting him or her? Of course you would. Why? Because you care about them. You’d say, “I care about your success here. And so I want to mention something that I think is getting in your way…”

If you care enough about your employees to speak honestly, adult to adult, they will repay you with honesty and commitment in return.

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President of Milwaukee based Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc. Executive coach & management consultant with 98% success record (measured by clients). Specialties: Executive/leader team coaching; 360-degree feedback processes & development plans; facilitating executive planning retreats, resolving team dynamics issues, presentation skills coaching. Corporate experience includes officer of Northwestern Mutual, Miller Brewing, Clark Oil and Refinery.

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