Tell The Truth

It is amazing to me how hard it is for us to really tell the truth at work. I don’t mean that we lie. I mean that when it comes to talking about the hard stuff most of us tend to minimize, avoid, soften, or otherwise mask the honest feelings we have that are controversial, impossible, or messy. This is particularly true when we are trying to tell each other about feelings that are uncomfortable, which can really be wide ranging, from hard feedback (see Jim’s tips from our last blog here), disappointing news, mistakes, tough feelings, or fear.

So instead of saying something like this: “I am struggling to support this decision, Sarah, because I am uncomfortable with your vetting process. I fear someone got missed and the buy-in of everyone is critical.” We say, “Sure, go ahead and send it out if you think it’s ready.” Sarah never gets our collegial feedback, and the product is of a lower quality. Even worse, next time Sarah gets ready to issue something, we interfere early to prevent it because we have an old nagging feeling (that we have never told her about!) that she will miss someone, so we do it ourselves.

There are 3 repeat offenses I see that mask the truth at work and I offer here alternatives for tuning up your candor and the health of your work relationships:

  1. Failure to state an opinion, but harboring one. Our opinions at work matter, especially when we are partnering or on a team, and our buy-in to a concept or an approach is visible by others and felt, even when we think not. Most of us are highly tuned in to the body language and emotional footprint of what people say beyond words, as Amy Cuddy speaks to in her TED talk. Oftentimes, for expediency on # ‘s 2 and 3 below, we hold our opinion inside, stored up to use as ammunition later, to the detriment of our co-worker and the quality of the action taken. Alternatives to this one involve using “I” statements, which saves you from putting someone on the defensive by stating “you,” to which most of us respond poorly. For example, “I am noticing myself hesitating to tell you what I am thinking/feeling, but I know you value my opinion. I think…” Another option is to qualify your view but adding, “I think this is a personal preference, but if it were me I might have…”
  2. Worry about the other person feeling badly. In the workplace, most of us have the capacity to handle the pinch points of feedback when they come.  I know of no one at work who wants to be treated with kid gloves, coddled, or only given effusive messages of adoration. This means that the truth may sting, but it remains worth it. I recently had a colleauge tell me that they felt I missed the mark on meeting planning for a shared event. I, of course, was sorry that I had done so, but once I evaluated the truth she shared, I had to agree–I can and will do better next time.  Our relationship is better because of our rigor.  So try this: “I know this kind of honesty is hard, so thanks for being open.” Or, “As you know, I believe in you and love your work, and I know you want me to tell you straight, so here’s what I noticed…”
  3. Fear of being weak. This truth stopper lands us dead in our tracks as we hesitate to admit to our own mistakes. Someone we tell ourselves the story that if we do not share our errors or failures, people will think better of us.  The opposite is actually true when it comes to creating strong connections at work and at home. A mentor of mine Dr. Brene´Brown says that we are drawn to those who are vulnerable but we hesitate to be vulnerable ourselves, and this is never more true than when it comes to owning a mistake, misstep, or misunderstanding. We will do almost anything to “look good” when what people we work with most crave is simple that we “look real.”  Try this: “This is hard for me, but I missed this…” Or, “I am struggling because I think I blew it at the meeting yesterday…here’s what happened…”

Our partnerships at work depend on the authenticity with which we engage so that others find is reliable, trust-worthy, approachable, and worthy of investing in the partnership. Elizabeth Gilbert’s first line in her bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love said it beautifully: “Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”  We can do it kindly, compassionately, and with forgiveness for self and others, but to work well with others, we must tell it.

Jim Morris