My Single Most Important Lesson of 2014: Brutal Honesty

My favorite week of the year is the one that sits between Christmas and New Year’s. It provides natural downtime that I use to spend meaningful time with my family, reflect on the past 12 months, and plan for the upcoming year. During this time, one of my practices is to contemplate what I’ve learned since last year at this time.

This year, the lessons jumps off the page.

Brutal honesty, communicated with charity, is one of the most powerful leadership — and life — tools available.

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In his book The 5 Temptations of a CEO, Patrick Lencioni describes 5 deadly temptations that destroy the leadership abilities of any CEO. When I read the book, it hit me squarely in the face: Popularity over accountability; being well liked by those we lead.

Here’s how Patrick summarizes this temptation.

“[It] is one of the most common and it has to do with the dangerous need to be well liked by the people whom we lead. This is problematic because it makes us hesitate when it is time to hold someone accountable for their behavior or their failure to deliver results. Fearing that they will hurt the feelings of their staff members, too many CEOs avoid giving them the feedback they need to improve. This ultimately hurts the organization’s ability to produce results.”

After reading this book in 2013, I decided that 2014 was the year to put it into practice.

Here’s what I found.

Brutal honesty releases stress.

As with so many areas of our lives, issues become larger than life when we don’t deal with them head-on. By addressing issues, we relieve the stress that builds up by not communicating – and often we find that the anticipation was much worse than the conversation itself.

In one example, I spoke to one of my leadership team members about an issue I should have addressed a year prior, but hadn’t. When I confronted the situation, I found that it wasn’t really as big of a deal as I had made it out to be. In fact, my teammate was relieved that I had the courageous conversation and expressed a desire for the same outcome I was after. Simply putting the issue on the table took 90% of the air out of the balloon and things have been steadily improving ever since.

Brutal honesty motivates people.

Most people actually want to improve themselves and many actually thrive off of feedback. By sharing our perspective, we afford those we lead with the opportunity to get better. We encourage change.

The power of blunt feedback sank in for me when I spoke with one of my team members about a personality trait that was holding her back from effective leadership. I had significant angst about the conversation, as it seemed rather personal in nature. Much to my surprise, the individual was grateful for the blunt feedback. She immediately sought out advice and perspective from others and found ways to nip the issue in the bud. In fact, in the six months since, I have not experienced the issue.

Brutal honesty clears the air.

Sometimes, those who need to hear feedback already know the issue. Holding it back only creates stress them as much as it does for you. They wonder what you think, whether they have your support, and what they should do. Putting it out in the open clears the air.

One of my teammates is perceived as someone he’s really not. The perception stems from his past and his personality, but, it’s really an unfair assessment made by people who don’t really know him. But every once in a while he fuels this perception by the way he acts in the moment.

I decided to confront him about it and share what I thought was going on. By doing so, I learned that this perception is one of his biggest pet peeves. He was relieved to know that I had noticed and to be able to talk openly with me about it. He genuinely wanted my advice about the issue, but didn’t want to bring it to my attention. By having the open conversation, I was able to clear the air and we were able to begin got collaborate on the issue to gather.

Brutal honesty clarifies misconceptions.

It’s easy to to misunderstand actions and reactions. When we don’t talk about things that are creating stress, we are probably communicating our discomfort in other ways.

I failed to have a courageous conversation with one of my team members this year. My teammate had agreed to help me out with an initiative that went over and above his core responsibilities and he failed to execute on it. As time dragged on, I felt compelled to fix the problem. The issue became significant enough that I had to take action.

After I fixed the issue myself – something my teammate made note of – we spoke about what had happened. My teammate knew he had failed, and was relieved to hear that I recognized it as well. By stating the obvious and communicating openly, he came to understand that I recognized that this initiative was above and beyond his daily job, but that I was still disappointed in his performance.

This dose of reality was exactly what he needed. Without the conversation, he was left wondering what I really thought. Did I not trust him to do it? Was I furious that he was failing at his job? How did I perceive the situation?

I only wish I would have had the hard conversation before it had boiled over. It would have given him the motivation needed to take care of the issue himself.

Of course, brutal honesty can’t be delivered brutally. It must be delivered in charity. If you truly have — and the other person knows that you truly have — their best interest in mind, most people take feedback really well. By delivering hard feedback, by having the courageous conversation, we create higher performing teams and save ourselves issues down the road.

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