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Why an Honest Culture is Essential for Growth


truthhurtspantsHonesty is not always the best policy.

This is something that I have learned from spending the last decade with a man who is terrible at little white lies.

Having your husband gaze into your eyes and tell you, “That haircut is weird!” or “You look kind of puffy, are you tired?” is no fun.

His annoying little habit, although hard on my ego, actually makes him an incredible employee.


Because he refuses to be a yes man.

My husband’s enduring candor means that he is unwilling to ignore problems in an attempt to keep feathers unruffled.

Today’s workplace culture is so determined to avoid conflict at all costs, that a simple willingness to point out cold hard truths can save companies from investing unsoundly, moving forward on flawed projects, and general self-destruction.

Denise M. Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup blames “too much emphasis on reaching consensus” for lagging sales back in 2011. She credits the decision to shift from a “play it safe culture” to one that empowered employees to act boldly, and go against the grain, for turning the company’s fortunes around.

Read more about how Denise cultivated a bold company culture.

According to many top CEO’s, creating a company culture that invites honest feedback, and encourages employees to speak up, and challenge the status quo is vital to an organization’s ability to grow and innovate.

But, I still don’t think my husband would be doing his company’s CEO any favors by telling him that he looks tired. Thankfully (for our financial situation and my ego), he has gotten a lot better at learning the difference between constructive honesty, and brutal truth telling!

“There is a vast difference between picking projects apart and picking people apart.” – Gregory Ciotti, Help Scout and Sparring Mind

Pointing out previously missed, yet possibly fatal flaws when working on a project is constructive, even though it isn’t fun for anyone involved.

Pointing out every single rough patch along the way isn’t helpful, and it can be horribly demoralizing for your team.

Reaching a balance is difficult. Navigating employees’ emotions, navigating your own emotions, and maintaining positivity, whilst maintaining a culture that both accepts and encourages constructive critique is difficult.

Almost as difficult as finding a gentle way to tell your spouse that their favorite pair of pants are no longer flattering… But it can be done!

Here are a couple of tips:

Critique the project, NOT the person

Make sure that you direct your critiques towards the project, how it is moving, and the areas that need improvement, not towards individuals, or their character traits.

Once things get personal, rationality flies out the window, and any insights that may have been gleaned are lost to emotion.

For example:

“Honey, those pants are just too worn out, we should replace them.”


“Honey, you just can’t fit into those skinny jeans anymore.”

Make it about the pants project, not the person.

Offer a solution

Notice the suggestion to replace the pants, this provides a new thing to focus on, a common goal that will bring the team together, and move the project forward.

Not to say that you always have to offer a great solution, but trying to provide some insight or general direction will make any negative feedback easier to swallow.

Maintain control

Just because you are encouraging your team to be real with you, and each other, does not mean you should encourage them to say whatever the heck they want.

You want to cultivate a company culture that encourages employees to challenge the status quo and ask hard questions.

You do not want to encourage bullying, or personal attacks.

Step in when you see team members cross this line, be firm with them so that they know that the behavior will not be tolerated, but also be very clear with them about why you are stepping in.

Not everyone has great, or even decent social skills. Your hard-truth telling employee may not even know that they have crossed a line. As their leader ,you must clearly explain the difference between being brutally honest, and constructively critical. You may even need to break down exactly how their behavior is inappropriate and  advise them on how to proceed in the future.

Be patient with your team, listen to their feedback (even when it stings), and, as always, lead by example.

You will be rewarded with innovation, growth, and success.


I really like my new pants!

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