Why blunt honesty boosts success for business
Honesty is the best policy.
From the moment we learned to speak this lesson was drilled into us. Yet, in many businesses being honest isn’t valued.
In fact, honesty is seen as negative – an unwelcome voice of doom that could easily derail the best-laid business plans.
But a lack of candour hampers the chances of successfully planning and implementing the very business-critical programs that are fundamental to business growth.
No company can afford to stand still. Fierce competition and demanding clients dictate this. But without honest attitudes, underpinning a large-scale program, it’s unlikely to deliver the results the business wants.
So, what stops people from telling the truth in business?
Let’s examine some of the factors contributing to “management double-speak” on business-critical programs, and how companies can create an open company culture – with honesty at its core – to constructively design plans for radical change.
Misconceptions of honesty
When company cultures are based on fear or blame, the pressure to project an image of success can prevent program managers from being frank about a program’s progress.
Bad news, or simply “telling it like it is”, is often unwelcome.
If program managers dread reprisals for being honest – even fearing for their jobs – the temptation to sugarcoat the truth can be overwhelming.
At Mentor, we call sugarcoating – ‘green-shifting’. People don’t like delivering bad news.
If problems are categorised as red, amber or green, according to their severity, program managers who fear how the news will be received, often play down really serious problems.
Convincing each other it’ll be fixed before the next review meeting, so “let’s not expose it at all”.
So, red becomes amber, and amber becomes green.
But what if the problem is not fixed by the next review meeting? And even more have emerged, compounding the original problem.
By that time, red problems are too serious to ignore, and it can be too late to do anything about them. They may even threaten the entire program.
As Sal Laher, CIO of South African electricity provider Eskom says, “We have a lot of great program managers, but some do not know how to share bad news. And things happen—suppliers fail, estimates are wrong. The problem is, if management finds out when it’s too late to do anything about it, they’re already in trouble.”
Yet, not all cultures that discourage honesty are fear-based.
Even companies that boast a positive ‘can-do’ approach can handicap their critical programs by closing their ears to an honest voice.
If there is a belief that wild and unrealistic plans are achievable, anyone who ventures off-message can be vilified for being a ‘loser’, ‘cynical’ or ‘negative’.
This lack of openness, coupled with a company’s inability to talk freely about its problems, is common. And, more often than not the reason behind many failures to implement the strategy.
CEOs should lead by example
A company-wide view that honesty is not welcome usually means this belief has filtered down from above.
Business leaders can be just as guilty of not being frank with themselves, both in terms of their own vision, and why the business needs a new approach in the first place.
A senior executive or CEO often comes up with an ambitious concept for change and tells their team to carry it out – without considering whether it’s even possible – and without allocating adequate time, funding or resources.
Targets are not plans. And a program delivery team can find themselves fighting a losing battle from the very outset.
“While having an audacious goal is not a bad idea, not having the resources, plan and people to execute it is definitely one,” says Infosys’s Ramachandran Guruswamy.
Further problems surface when leaders don’t honestly recognise the performance dynamics that have led to the need for the new program in the first place.
Brutal honesty is rare and difficult.
It leads to awkward questions about a company’s previous decisions and its current leadership.
Yet a shared understanding of the actual causes of the current state of affairs is absolutely essential to any business transformation.
Throw in the understandable reluctance of the team to report back honestly and the program is on very shaky ground.
It’s up to senior executives to lead by example and approach a critical program realistically – and with some humility.
Mistakes may have been made in the past – but without leaders being honest with themselves – they will be repeated.
Honesty and trust are interdependent
It’s clear a lack of honesty can be damaging to a business-critical program. So how can a business promote a culture of openness and sincerity?
This type of culture is not possible without trust – reassurance that being honest and flagging up concerns won’t result in punishment, or fall on deaf ears.
At the same time, an open culture leads back to trust and helps to create cohesive, high-performing teams.
When a business takes on an important program, it’s crucial from the start that the program delivery team trust both the stakeholders – and each other – to hear and receive honest feedback without judgement or condemnation.
Creating a safe space in which team members can speak openly is fundamental to this – as is the move away from any sort of blame culture.
This way, when problems inevitably occur, they won’t be swept under the carpet but can be tackled head-on by the team as they emerge.
Finally, a business should adopt evidence-based, rather than opinion-based, discussion. When the direction of a critical program is led by opinion, the most senior person in the room will always get their way.
Indisputable facts are just that.
They form a much more stable foundation than ‘opinion’ for any business program, as well as creating an open forum where anyone on the team can highlight potential problems.
Eisenstat and Beer claim that, “In the twenty-first century, organisations will have to institutionalise a means for having honest conversations if they want to endure.”
Without honesty at its core, plans conceived with the creator’s head-in-the-sand can quickly cause a business-critical program to fall apart.
And there are a few of those around.