Does honesty matter in leadership? If we are providing direction, creating an environment where our people can grow and we are being insistent on performance, does honesty matter?

Let me consider some definitions before trying to answer that question.

The dictionary definition is:

Hon•es•ty ? ?[on-uh-stee]
noun, plural hon•es•ties.

  1. the quality or fact of being honest; uprightness and fairness.
  2. truthfulness, sincerity, or frankness.
  3. freedom from deceit or fraud.

Using the dictionary definition, we need to be fair, sincere and to speak and act with an absence of deceit. But in whose mind must we be seen as fair, sincere and free of deceit?

Politicians seem to have their own definition of what honesty is. Take, for example, “Honest” John Howard’s concept of the non-core promise, including not breaking his election promises, after his first election victory. Or Tony Abbott arguing on the 7.30 Report in 2010 that only his written commitments should be treated as binding.

Political spin doctors will have us believe that honesty is about what people want to hear. They tend to take what the polls are telling them top of mind and reframe the message to incorporate the polling results either directly or as a camouflage for the real message.

Honesty, in my experience, and even if we take the dictionary definition, does have at least two perspectives; that of the speaker and that of the listener. When we communicate as leaders, it is the listener’s view of what is honest that is paramount. Not ours.

Listener’s expectation

From my experience, listeners are looking for honesty couched in three different frames of reference:

  • This is what I wanted to hear (the spin doctor’s version of honesty)
  • At least I now know
  • Now I understand

What I wanted to hear
Listeners in some situations believe that someone is being honest when they are told what they wanted to hear. However, the good feeling which comes from being told what you want to hear disappears in a glut of inconsistencies between what is said from one time to another and between what is said and what is done, if what they are told is not true.

A version of honesty where people are told what they want to hear does not provide leadership to anybody. As the saying goes, “Better to be told the truth and hurt for a moment then to be told what you want to hear and hurt forever”.

At least now I know
Most people find it difficult to cope with ambiguity. They seem to be able to cope better with a sense of loss or even affront than they can over ambiguity. It appears to me, as I observed people who have gone through a significant change, that the period of waiting, not knowing and listening to rumour dressed up as facts was much more stressful than the period where they knew the truth. They seem to be able cope better when the “truth” did not change from week to week even if it as worse than the rumours.

To people in this situation, communication is seen as being honest if it removes ambiguity.

Now I understand
When people are told things that leads to an understanding of what is happening is the third level of comprehension of what honesty is that I have observed.

People need to understand about a topic, the:

  • What
  • Why
  • When
  • Where
  • Who and
  • How

At this level, a communicator is perceived as being honest as long as the listener is informed on the processes involved and updated on outcomes and changes to processes whenever something changes.

This level of perceived honesty automatically removes ambiguity as a matter of course.

At this level, leaders trust people to receive and process what they know as the truth at the time. Leaders trust their communications skills to have consistent words, tone and pace of voice and body language. Leaders trust themselves to write and speak in a way that is easily understood and convincing.

What this means for leaders is that they must communicate with people regularly. For important events they need to tell people what is going to happen as soon as they know. If they don’t know that they must tell them how and when decisions about what is to happen will be reached and who will be involved.

Honesty matters

Honesty does matter in leadership. It is important to help people understand about topics and not to just remove ambiguity. Telling people what they want to hear is not a substitute.