Your answer to this question will shape your career.
Are you brutally honest?
Are you a tactful diplomat?
Is there a middle ground to strike, and how do you know where to strike it?
It seems like a simple enough question, but is it?
I wrestled with it for the better part of twenty-five years at work.
I wrestled with it again for about twelve hours this past weekend.
I know many successful leaders who are honest to a fault.
I know several successful leaders who will charm the pants off you.
So, which is better for your career? Brutal honesty, or deft diplomacy?
We answer this question every single day, whether we realize it or not.
Every meeting, every co-worker interaction.
Group projects, performance reviews, weekly 1-1s.
For a few, the answer is always the same. They are hard-wired one way or the other. Brutally honest or deftly diplomatic – and they don’t wander from one to the other. These leaders operate from the inside out, never giving much thought to what anyone else thinks or needs. They tend to be either highly principled or completely out of control. They’re quite rare, so we won’t spend much time on them today.
Most leaders, me included, have leanings in one direction or the other, but tend to oscillate between the two. What drives that oscillation is some combination of empathy, fear, temperament, and situational awareness.
If I honestly assess my career, my tendency has been to be very direct and honest with my employees – perhaps a bit too direct at times. And I tend to be much more diplomatic with co-workers and superiors – perhaps a bit too diplomatic at times. I think some of that comes from conflict aversion. Engaging in conflict with people who work for you is easy. There is a natural hierarchy that offers rules of engagement and a path to resolution for every situation. It’s much more difficult when you start having conflict with your peers or with your boss. The rules of engagement get blurry. With peers, you can end up in long-lasting stalemates, passive aggressive behavior, gossip, and politics. It can be exhausting to engage in conflict with your peers. It can feel easier to take a pass and be diplomatic. But then you risk getting run over. With your boss, there are clear rules of engagement, but those rules make it extremely easy to opt for diplomacy over honesty almost every time. But if you’re not brutally honest with your boss, are you doing your job effectively? Are you not doing her a disservice by being overly diplomatic?
I think my profile is fairly common – tough on your team, cautious with your peers/boss. But I have also observed a lot of the opposite profile. In fact, one of my biggest frustrations was watching peers be incredibly soft on their own teams while holding other departments to a very high standard and being brutal in the delivery. The hypocrisy of it drove me crazy. I’ve always felt a key strength in a leader is to be able to look at your team through an objective lens and be honest about your own weaknesses. When I see leaders ignore their own weaknesses to focus on the shortcomings of other teams, it raises a red flag.
I hope you can see why this question is a bit trickier than it might seem on the surface. But it’s a question we must answer every day. Here are three concepts for you to consider as you answer this question for yourself and try to strike a balance between brutal honesty and deft diplomacy.
To build a great team you need to build a culture of honesty. Without honesty, you can’t improve, and without improvement you will ultimately lose. You can view a team this way just as you can view your own personal development. If we can’t be brutally honest with ourselves, we have no chance of improving in any meaningful way. At the very least, we won’t improve fast enough to outpace self-aware leaders vying for the same roles. Last, without honesty there cannot be trust, which makes it virtually impossible to build a loyal team for the long term. Great teams are built on trust, not charm.
My advice for leaders is to be brutally honest with your team – about their performance, your performance, everything. Certainly, you need to deliver honesty in a way that is motivating and uplifting, but the honesty itself is non-negotiable.
To be effective at work over the long term, you need to build an internal network of supporters. It doesn’t pay to make enemies of your peers – at least, not many of them. By the same token, you also can’t allow yourself or your team to be run over by aggressive leaders and teams who don’t play fairly. This is a tricky dynamic for leaders to navigate and probably the number one frustration I hear from coaching clients.
My advice to leaders is to build a reputation as someone who is at least as hard on her own team as she is on other teams. That will buy you some latitude to be brutally honest with other groups. What you cannot do is be seen to give your team a pass while being hard on others – that will compromise your network. To execute this in practice, I suggest keeping a mental tally of gives and takes with your peer group. I try to do two overtly kind and supportive things for every one tough criticism or harsh feedback I offer. As long as the tally stays positive, I feel my network is in decent shape.
There is no more important relationship at work than the one you have with your boss. This is where your promotions and pay come from. If the relationship is positive, it can last for many years and across companies. To build a strong relationship with your boss for the long term, it must be underpinned in trust and mutual respect, which means you can never lie to your boss … ever. But it’s your boss, which means you also need to be considerate of their time, their multitude of priorities, and the overall dynamic of the relationship. So, you can’t just be an endless flow of brutal honesty 24-7-365. You must be more tactful than that.
My advice for engaging with your boss, is to carve out specific times for brutal honesty sharing. As I’ve said, you must always tell the truth, but you can be deliberate and constructive about when and how you give tough, honest feedback. Schedule feedback sessions, ask if it’s a good time to share, balance some good and some not so good. Be honest but be constructive and helpful. And, over time, as you build trust with your boss, she will seek you out as a source for that honesty.
Honesty or diplomacy?
We answer this question every day at work, whether we know it or not. My advice is to leaders is only to be a bit more thoughtful about how we answer it. My hope is I’ve offered you a few nuggets that will help guide you as you work with your team, your peers, and your boss.