December 4, 2012

Have you asked yourself one of these questions about using candor in the workplace?

  • Will I sound harsh or confrontational?
  • Will I hurt her feelings?
  • How can I be forthright without making him feel attacked?
  • Why does this take so much courage from me?

Since the days of the caveman we have known that tough, scary stuff causes “fight or flight” reactions in humans (animals too, but that is a different topic).  Is it any wonder that we often think about direct speaking as causing the 21st century version of “fight or flight”- – “confrontation or concession”?

I am a big fan of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Great by Choice. Jim Collins says in Good to Great, “All great companies are brutally honest with themselves.” I have often quoted him to emphasize how important it is to be really candid in organizations.

Brutally honest?

I do understand what Jim Collins and others are saying with this type of language.  They are asking us to pull no punches, and no kidding, be fully honest. Yet I am wondering if this tough language about sharing the facts, telling the truth, and being forthright with our colleagues actually gets in our way of being candid.

Does terminology like being “brutally honest” fuel the notion that honesty is tough on others? Does it support our assessments that speaking the real deal will take great courage and naturally must be harsh and challenging?  That being direct with others is 180 degrees apart from respectful discourse, or that it is not kind to others?

If we can adjust to thinking about candor as talking openly or being curious, versus attacking or confronting our colleagues, we have a shot at avoiding fight or flight responses in ourselves and others.

The language around honesty may really matter.