I've managed people now for 16 years (I started young!) and in that time have grown to understand the real benefit and value in being honest at work.
From being honest with your peers and colleagues, honest with the people you line manage and honest with the people who line manage you. Honest with your external partners and honest with your funders.
I believe in honesty.
That sounds like such a straightforward thing to say that I’m sure you’re thinking ‘duh, of course that’s right’, but real and authentic honesty is more difficult and scary than you sometimes think.
But why do I think honesty matters at work?
1. Honesty supports productivity
A few years ago I worked with someone who wasn’t totally honest at work – they were struggling, they weren’t achieving the results they needed to, they couldn’t keep up with their workload and it was making them increasingly anxious. Rather than sharing any of that, they kept it to themselves. They struggled more. And more.
The result was that the wider organisation didn’t value their input or recognise the work they were doing. They spent so much time making false promises (because they didn’t want to let anyone down) and then failing to deliver (therefore letting them down) that their personal credibility disappeared. As did the respect that much of the organisation had for them.
Compare that against someone else I worked with who knew they were struggling and came to talk to me about it. They couldn’t get through their to do list, they couldn’t prioritise and they just felt overwhelmed. The sense of panic was rising for them and that was immobilising them from getting anything done. They were honest about their struggles and at that point they didn’t have a solution in mind but we worked together to problem solve. The result, they gained more respect from me and those around them. They were more able to cope. They got the support they needed. Their anxiety decreased. Their productivity increased and they felt happier at work.
This website argues that “When you practice honesty at work with your actions, not false promises and false excuses, you start to gain the respect of colleagues and managers alike. It’s a breath of fresh air”.
2. Honesty builds credibility
Do you remember the childhood story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf?
It’s a story I was told as a child and one that I also have told my children.
This is how it goes
“Once upon a time, there lived a shepherd boy. He was very dedicated to his work and enjoyed tending his sheep at the top of a hill.
But one day, he felt really bored.
Suddenly he had an idea. He went over the edge of a hill and started shouting “Help, Help!, There is a wolf”.
Hearing the boy cry out, all the villagers rushed to help but reaching the top of the hill, they could see that the sheep were safe and grazing away.
The villagers were angry.
The boy was amused.
The next day he was again bored and repeated the same prank again.
The villagers again rushed to help.
The sheep were, again, still fine.
A few days later, the shepherd boy was up on the fields when a wolf approached and started killing the sheep.
The boy called for help.
Thinking it was a prank, no one came”
I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate that honesty builds credibility and dishonesty destroys it.
3. Honesty gives a sense of security.
Being honest sometimes means laying yourself bare – telling the truth about your challenges and letting people see you for who you are.
A few months ago, I experienced some challenges within my family life and took the decision to be honest about this with my wider colleagues, my team and my Board. This does not mean that I share everything with everyone – because that’s not appropriate and because I don’t want to. But it does mean that I’ve explained that I’ve got some stuff going on that needs to take some of my time and some of my focus at the moment.
Do I feel vulnerable?
Oh yes, completely wide open.
Because I’m the Chief Executive of a relationships charity, and I’m sharing some of my day to day experiences about the personal ups and downs of relationships (with a real focus on the downs at the moment)!
But do I feel secure?
Yes I do.
I feel understood and supported by my colleagues and my Board. Sometimes I’ve needed to change my place of work, change my diary commitments, make different priorities and be available by phone rather than face to face. I’ve been absolutely ok to do that and in doing so have felt secure.
Secure that I’m seen as more than just a job title but a whole person.
Secure that I can bring my whole self to work and not just my skills.
Secure that I am valued for being me.
"The challenge is that telling the truth isn't easy. Psychologically, it demands certain conditions: feeling safe, feeling supported, and being encouraged"
I’m grateful that I work for a charity where I feel all those things – safe, supported and encouraged.
I wish the same for you and as a leader in the social sector I pledge to do all that I can to create and sustain these cultures across the sector. My key tips so far:
- Encourage honesty by being honest yourself
- Create safe (and confidential) spaces to enable people to share if they want to.
- Don’t meet honesty with negativity – try to understand and empthasise even if you don’t totally understand
- Offer support but don’t force it.
- Work out for yourself how much of your private life you want to disclose – everyone’s line is different, but knowing yours makes everything easier
- Understand that everyone’s line is different – so don’t pry or judge what they disclose or not
- Treat everyone and every situation as a gift and a unique opportunity to learn
I’m on quest for honesty in the sector. Will you join me?