Honesty is the only policy

How undervaluing honesty has become a culture-wide problem. Most of us have been in a professional situation in which we had to decide whether or not to be completely honest. For some, there’s no question; an innate authenticity kicks in and they have no qualms delivering the whole truth, warts and all.

For others however, it can be less black and white, particularly during the implementation of a business-critical programme. When reporting back to senior colleagues or stakeholders, some find it incredibly tempting to leave out or gloss over aspects of a project which may not be going completely to plan, especially if they find themselves in a working environment in which the unvarnished truth is seen as less than welcome.

But why should this be? Why do some companies seem to view honesty as a barrier to, rather than a facilitator of, success? We’ve taken a closer look at the systematic undervaluing of honesty in the workplace, and how you can make sure your business doesn’t fall into the trap.

Sugar coating the truth

Where there are pervasive misconceptions of honesty within a company, it tends to be a culture-wide issue. Some businesses, however subconsciously, are based on cultures of fear or blame, in which admitting to a less than perfect performance could result in serious repercussions. Can you really blame someone for sugar coating the truth if their job is on the line?

Strategy execution specialists Mentor Europe have a different name for sugar coating – they call it ‘green-shifting’. The company assists its clients in carrying out important business programmes and transformations and, as such, categorises any obstacles as green, amber and red.

Within a culture where honesty is undervalued, programme managers may deliberately underestimate the severity of problems they’ve come across in order to avoid reprisals – making red issues amber, and amber issues green. They tell themselves and their fellow programme deliverers that they’ll rectify the issues before the next meeting, so there’s no need to let on and risk the wrath of their managers.

In most cases, all this does is make matters worse; by the time the red problems can no longer be swept under the carpet, they can be serious enough to jeopardise the entire project.

The ‘ostrich’ effect

But it’s not just blame or fear-based cultures that can stop people in business being honest. Companies that promote positivity and optimism can be just as down on someone who ventures an honest, but less than rosy, projection.

If, in the name of a ‘can-do’ approach, even the most outlandish plans and programmes are seen as viable, a team member who offers a more realistic point of view can be dismissed as cynical, pessimistic and/or unsupportive.

Just like a proverbial ostrich, senior managers bury their heads in the sand and refuse to listen to a voice that could help to shape a more practical and sustainable project.

Honesty must start at the top

In the majority of cases, if a company culture has a tendency to reject honesty, the problem will have originated at the top and trickled down.

When leaders and CEOs are not completely honest with themselves about the feasibility of their own ideas, or about the reasons behind the need for a business-critical programme, a skewed version of events can become the norm.

Often, the director of a company envisages a grand plan and asks his or her teams to deliver it, without first stopping to ask themselves if it’s achievable, or possible to give the project the necessary time or resources.

As David Hillard, Chief Executive of Mentor Europe, says, “Targets are not plans”. Without the means in place to successfully bring the idea to fruition, the programme delivery team can end up on the back foot from the very beginning.

Things can be made even worse if the director will not (or cannot) honestly accept why the business needs the critical programme or transformation in the first place. If those at the top do not recognise their, or other people’s, previous decisions or actions that have contributed to the current state of play, the critical programme is unlikely to bring about its intended results and may even repeat the same mistakes.

With such a foundation, it’s not surprising that a programme delivery team can feel pressure to not be completely honest when reporting on progress, and the chances of an effective project are reduced even further. Business leaders must lead by example when it comes to honesty, particularly when embarking on an important programme.

How to give honesty its dues

So, with all this evidence of the value of honesty, how can you ensure your company culture encourages it?

We’ve already made the point that much of it lies in a top-down approach; a business leader’s own attitude to honesty will influence how the company as a whole views openness and sincerity.

The other vital element is trust, or the reassurance that there will be no blame or penalty simply for offering an honest opinion, and that it won’t be ignored. This open culture, in turn, fosters trust amongst team members and senior executives, resulting in better cohesion and productivity.

In the case of a business-critical programme, it’s vital that everyone involved trusts each other to give and receive honest feedback without fear of rebuke or disregard. For this to happen, there must be an understanding that everybody can speak openly when they need to, and that there is no blame culture in effect. Every project encounters problems, but in an open company culture, they can be met and solved head on.

Of course, no company has to face transforming culture or carrying out an important project singlehandedly; there’s expert guidance available.

Liz Parsons is a brand journalist working with Mentor Europe.

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of HR Future magazine.

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