Let’s face it, people and institutions that we used to trust, because they were largely trust-worthy, are no longer, from politicians to clergy, bankers to the law. I don’t even know if I can trust some scientists any more, and that seems a pretty sad day.
I hate to sound opportunistic, preying on the broken trust of most people, but there is in fact an obvious opportunity here which is that if we can build our reputation, through our words and actions, of honesty and reliability, it can, in and of itself, build enormous influence and create an incredible ripple effect of positive impact. In effect, trustworthiness has become such a rarity, it’s become a differentiator that we can leverage for the good of our immediate circle and also distant.
So let’s take a moment to talk about honesty, honestly, and how a commitment to it can impact all our influencing efforts.
White lies are almost a given in business as well as person life:
- “Do I look fat in this outfit?” “No. You look great.”
- “Why is that report late?” “I’ve been too busy?”
- “Sorry I’m late. Traffic.”
Please don’t take this as a judgement or moral lecture. I’m as guilty as the next person of complimenting someone on a new blouse I didn’t like, telling someone I liked a present that I didn’t or suddenly looking interested when directly asked if I was bored, but less so of recent times. It takes a toll on our own well-being, our self-honesty, our integrity and authenticity and of course our relationships. I’m not talking about going out of our way to be rude or forthcoming in our opinions if they aren’t invited or helpful, but simply catching ourselves in those small moments to find a way to be more clear and direct.
I remember training a German woman once who was shocked at how polite everyone was trying to be in the Australian workplace at the expense of finding an effective solution. Her experience was that in her homeland people could more rigorously discuss the ineffectiveness of an idea without causing offence or implicating some level of incompetence on behalf of the person proffering it.
In my earlier days as a trainer I would sometimes get the feedback in my Evaluation Forms that I was being too generous in my feedback at the expense of more honest and clear critique. People wanted practical, real feedback.
Similarly in my early days of selling, I would often walk out of a meeting with someone who seemed just lovely, with whom I felt I had great rapport, and then I would follow up, fully expecting to have won the business and I simply wouldn’t hear back from, them but I would keep chasing under the erroneous belief that they really liked me and my offer.
Others were more comfortable to rip off the band-aid, telling me they’d gone with another provider and even gave me feedback on their reasoning, which allowed me to improve both my product and pitch. These days I find the directness that I used to find too confronting, to be refreshing and in fact my preferred approach. It’s encounters like these that have forced me to look at my own ‘soft’ approach over the years and to admit I’m not doing myself or others any favours and indeed, too often it’s been lazy communication, saving me from the effort of finding the courage or the words to be more straightforward.
Once a fellow trainer said to me “oh you know the old technique of borrowing somebody else’s story and telling it as your own?” I lied by nodding. It lowered my respect for her and it nags me to this day that I didn’t just say no, I hadn’t heard of it, nor did I understand the point of it. It compromised my own integrity, if only fractionally, but it’s those continual small moments that chip away at our confidence and authenticity over time.
When we are more honest in even the smallest of our interactions, we build a basis of trustworthiness that allows people to come to us knowing they will get a real opinion that they can’t get elsewhere.
It can be done kindly and thoughtfully. In our ‘Difficult Conversations’ workshop we explore scenarios like having to confront someone with bad body odour in the office, or the impact of poor behaviour. Being upfront about our intention is core to those conversations – our intent to improve their relationships, performance and career prospects as well as those of the team around them, helps them and us. A prefacing comment that states this intent not only contextualises the information for them but reminds you of why you’re there and bolsters your courage to say it straight.
This doesn’t mean couching along the lines of “I don’t mean to judge you but….” which clearly tells us that judgement is about to ensue, and shifts the burden of responsibility to the receiver who now not only feels judged, but also guilty for doing so. It means aligning your intention and words to come from a place of genuine helpfulness.
So back to our three simple examples above:
- “Do I look fat in this outfit?” “I don’t think it’s a particularly flattering/well made dress. I always think you look good in outfits like those pants last week with the red top” or “I’m not a good person to ask. I don’t give a toss about body shapes”.
- “Why is that report late?” “I prioritised X & Y which seemed to me to be more urgent and important to our strategic goals. Next time I’ll discuss those choices with you as I go”
- “Sorry I’m late.”
There are nuances of course. Sins of omission are different from sins of commission in many circumstances. Deliberate lying is very different from unintentional lying predicated on mistaken information or understanding. Lying to save your own or someone else’s life is better than inflicting serious violence or allowing it to be inflicted. The point however is that committing to honesty helps us to be clearer in ourselves about our shortcomings and opportunities while forging an extremely powerful base for influence with our teams, colleagues, management and clients.