Is honesty always the best policy?

i_cannot_tell_a_lieAnyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I’m a firm advocate of honesty in the workplace. I think honesty is the least we should expect from our leaders and, to be frank, in these days of hyper-transparency, the chances are that any lies, fabrication or spin will, sooner or later, come back to haunt you.

Does honesty require a “full disclosure” approach or is that not just unrealistic but potentially damaging? For example, how honest (or not) is it to focus on the opportunity that a change represents for the many, without referencing the unfortunate consequences for the few?

I’ve been challenged on this more than once with arguments such as:
there’s been too much doom and gloom ….
morale is at an all-time low ….
we need to do something to reassure our high performers that there’s light at the end of the tunnel ….
if we talk about the investment story rather than the cut and burn, people will feel it’s worth hanging on for

You can sense the desperation, at all levels in the organisation, for an unambiguously good news story.

The conundrum is that, on the one hand, employees are less inclined to believe a message of hope and optimism if there is no reference to their current reality, plus a convincing explanation of how the business can make the transition from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

On the other hand, if you admit to the current, less-than-rosy reality, how will the marketplace react when (not if) these messages leak outside the organisation? Will investors reward or punish such honesty?

A cursory investigation into the rumour and speculation that is already ‘out there’ is likely to be very liberating. True, there’s a world of difference between industry speculation vs attributed quotes, but it’s empowering to decide to take control of the messaging and acknowledge that the current state of affairs will be your springboard towards a better tomorrow.

I recently read a short feature referencing research published by Wharton Business School with the title: Why honesty is not always the best policy at work. The opening comments contained the following claims:

Telling the naked truth to your employees can result in panic, stress and spite. … Lying in the right circumstances can be ethical, helps breed trust in difficult times and can help boost morale.

I was so disheartened by the article that I couldn’t bring myself to read the full research as it seemed to be referencing a bygone era, characterised by a parent/child relationship between employer and employee.

The employer/employee contract has changed a lot since the 50s and 60s. Job security is practically non-existent. The pressure to do more with less is ubiquitous, and the phrase “our people are our most valuable asset” has, in many organisations, become a risible cliché. The one thing employees should be able to expect from their leaders is honesty.


About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
This entry was posted in Authentic communication, Business Leadership, Culture, Employee Engagement, Internal communications, Leadership Behaviours, People management / motivation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s