Why is honesty at work so hard?

Future of Work

Before we begin fully, two quick stories:

1. I went to a meeting on Friday for my current job; ’twas lunch with the CEO of the company. There were probably 11 of us there, a mix of newer employees (I was the newest) and some 10-12 year veterans of the company. It was overall pretty informative and illuminating, insofar as any structured lunch with a powerful person can be, but one interesting nugget that came up is when he talked about trying to align his direct reports (the SVP level of the company). They used a consultant, and one of the first exercises involved his direct team having to say one thing he does that doesn’t help the business at all (and/or hurts the business). As you’d predict, they were somewhat scared to do this.

2. That consulting company’s leader gave a speech in Vegas in August that I saw. He told a similar story: he consulted with a Fortune 40 company, and he had the CEO’s direct reports fill out surveys about the pros and cons of the company’s leadership model. Then he got the CEO and his direct reports in a room and read some of the comments. Initially, the CEO said something like “Who said that one?” and no one took credit, even though the only possible people that could have written it were in the room at the time.

The broader lesson of these two stories is that full honesty at work is very hard, and yet, we wonder why things like “transparency” and “effective communication” don’t seem to happen readily in the workplace. It’s actually pretty simple: because in a lot of interactions, it’s simply hard to tell the complete truth. How could transparency arise from that?

But why?

The central reason is probably what power and influence does to people, as detailed in this Fast Company article and this video:

The other central issue is that “work,” as a concept, is a series of interconnected relationships and people which you ultimately need to manage for (a) the organization’s good but (b) your own good — in the sense that no one really wants to do the same job for 15-20 years, even if they say they love it. Whenever you have a complex ecosystem of that nature, honesty may not always be the best policy.

A third reason: think about the sheer idea of emotions. Everyone has emotions, and work can bring a lot of them to the fore — bad bosses, ill-conceived plans, mean colleagues. And yet, how often do you really see someone get emotional at work, even though you know they’re feeling something? Same issue: it can doom/stagnate your career to be “too emotional,” especially as a woman.

Forbes has even detailed 10 situations — ten! — where honesty isn’t the best policy, and No. 1 involves “an egotistical boss who may be threatened by what you have to say.” (That’s a lot of managers.)

I would actually say the current hiring / economic climate makes this an even tenser issue: when the economy is robust, if you disagree with people/practices all the time, you can simply try to leave where you are. That’s not as easy to do right now, so people often internalize the problems without a truly transparent way to deal with them, as Harvard Business Review notes:

The truth is that it’s hard to speak up about potentially sensitive issues. But Rashid’s company’s fast growth and strong results were based, more than anything, on one underlying requirement for anyone in a leadership role: courage.

Oftentimes, companies will talk about their “culture” being one of transparency, communication, courage, ideas from any level, etc. The thing is, “culture” is an amorphous word — it can mean different things to different people. For some, maybe that means “foosball and beer.” For others, it means “If I have a good plan, I can tell my manager.” For a third group, it means “money.”

Honesty at WorkThe hard truth is this: having a good “culture” is great for a company, but your “culture” doesn’t directly make you the money you need to survive and thrive. (Indirectly, it probably does — good people with good values can drive growth.) What makes you the money is products and processes and things like that. That’s why people focus there, and not on transparency (which can seem like a soft skill that good leaders — who often view themselves as “warriors” and the like — don’t need to have) or things like people’s trajectories. HR is a function, not a revenue stream. Honesty, listening, transparency, communications, empathy — those are ideas, not money-makers. That’s honestly how most people view it.

The greatest irony is that most people, when leaving jobs, will list things like “manager relationship” or “communications around the organization” as the reasons they left. But the modern workplace isn’t even remotely set up in a way where those things could be tangibly achieved.

You can’t be transparent — you need to protect your neck and the feelings of others.

You can’t be honest — the power dynamics are too complex.

You can’t listen — you don’t have time. Another meeting awaits! (“I have a hard stop in 10.”)

You can’t communicate properly — you’re more worried about communicating up (pleasing your bosses) then communicating down (letting the foot soldiers know what’s needed).

I do worry about the Future of Work, yes.


Ted Bauer

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