Can I be brutally honest with you?

A team is more than a collection of people. It is a process of give and take. ~ Barbara Glacel & Emile Robert

I worked with an executive team that gathered together each month to review performance, strategy, milestones and sometimes ridiculous things like the allocation of reserved parking spaces.  A meeting agenda was always meticulously prepared and distributed. Each agenda item was led by a champion, followed by questions and answers, and finally opinions from the team.  At some point the leader of the group, the Executive VP, would interject and start by saying, “I need to be brutally honest here.” I would always snicker when I heard this because this particular executive was never lacking in honesty or intensity when it came to matters of business.  For him to pre-warn the team, meant that the next words out of his mouth might be a little blunt – and usually were.  Most times the comments were spot-on, nerves would be struck, and a re-energized debate would ensue. In the end, the issue on the table would be probed, dissected, challenged, and alternatives and next steps were finalized.  Whew….item two please!

The tactic being used here is fairly simple – to solve a problem you have to dig, explore, and dissect it until all the facts are known.  You need to see the entire picture, warts and all.  To do this as a team each member must feel free to ask questions, debate assumptions, and challenge facts. The team sometimes has to go to an uncomfortable place – where feelings and even careers can be hurt. It can be brutal!

Why does this have to be so difficult?  Why can’t you just bring problems to your team, give a good situational analysis, state the options, and then ask for help and ideas?  Getting support from others is the foundation of high performing teams – right?

Well, not all teams are created equal.  In the case of this and many other teams, the pressure to perform was high, competition amongst the team members was extreme, trust levels were low, and the change management approach being used left many uncertain of their status in the pack.  In this environment, it was hard to admit to your peers and superiors when there was a problem, or that you were not in total control. Instead, you might dress up the issue with charts, graphs, overly optimistic forecasts – and hope that nobody asked the tough questions.

As a leader I see the importance in having teams that are open and feel free to say exactly how they see things. So how do we get teams members to be brutally honest with each other in a positive way?

It Starts with Trust.  Leaders use team building and coaching techniques that allow team members to become comfortable and supportive of each other.  This takes time – trust has to earned. It cannot be fast-tracked or rushed.  Once established, team members will open up to their issues and invite debate about options.

It is never personal.  As a leader you cannot let a debate turn personal.  Personal issues and feelings have no place in an open forum. In fact, they take the focus away from the task at hand – running the business. As a leader, if you see this type of behavior, then you have to resolve it immediately or consider removing both team members.

Cultural Differences Must Be Understood. How much one can openly question a colleague or state an opinion can vary by culture. Saving face is important in some cultures, but not in others. As a leader, you must encourage those whose were taught to lay back to speak up and contribute to a debate.  Others you have to muzzle.  In the end, everyone must be part of the process.

Share / Buy-in to a Common Vision.  Teams that understand and believe in a common goal tend to be more focused in their approach and more likely to ask the tough questions. Team members might disagree and debate on the tactics used to reach the goal, but the guiding principle brings a team together under a common banner. 

Management Sets the Tone: You and leadership team must lead by example.  A leadership team that does not reflect the values of honesty, trust and openness will often lead others in their charge to follow the same path. It starts at the top – you and your peers must set the example.

The Executive VP that I talked about earlier was a good leader. He challenged his team and always looked to question the status quo.  He thought that for an organization to succeed it had to be willing to ask the tough questions and face business challenges head-on.  If feelings got hurt, then so be it – you either toughened-up, or you were gone. In the end, the team “normalized,” a few changes were made, and the organization settled into a profitable position at the head of its industry.

How do you feel about asking the tough questions?  Do you know people who are brutally honest and respected for their candor, or not?  How can team be coached to open up so that honest and free discussions can occur?  I would like to hear your views.

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About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Leadership and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Can I be brutally honest with you?

  1. Jennifer Olney says:

    You have to be willing as a leader to let your folks give you the bitter pill of honesty. Those who lead without trust – and first step is respect – lead to no where. As a leader, you are charged with taking in the collective team, their talents and fit it within the overall mission. It takes time, culture and a strong willed leader to bring forth this kind of change to environments that lack the structure to have these conversations.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Jennifer for reading and commenting. As you say, a culture of open and positive communication takes time, effort and strength. The payoff for making this type of investment can be large. Thank you once again.

  2. Lisa Kanarek says:

    Without open communication and honesty, a team can’t survive. The members will start to have second thoughts about any decisions and question each team member’s goals and motivations. While I don’t think someone needs to announce that they’re being “brutally honest,” everyone needs to join a team knowing that honesty is #1. These are all good leadership tips. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Lisa. Some leaders have unique ways of communicating (many can be brutally blunt). The best ones find a style that best works for them – and, hopefully their organization.

  3. Ann says:

    Team work can be hampered by the distance between team members as well as time differences when there are meetings. My daughter is a team leader of a group that has most of the members in the Urkaine. She has trouble with language, time differences, cultural differences and the fact that she is young. In her case diplomacy is as important as brutal honesty.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Ann for reading and commenting. Diplomacy is clearly a skill that one needs to possess to be a good leader. Remote and virtual teams require different tactics from co-located teams. Every team is different, so good leaders have to be able to make the necessary adjustments in their communication styles to best serve their teams. What a great learning experience for your daughter! As someone who has driven large projects on 5 continents, I know a bit of what she faces – I wish her (and you) the best! Thanks again for taking the time to read and respond.

  4. fratia112muresana says:

    A team is more than a collection of people. It is a process of give and take. ~ Barbara Glacel & Emile Robert

    this is the brutally honest point of view that can drive a team to succes !!

  5. Vesna Celebic says:

    I would just additionally like to emphasize a quality that good leader(s) must posses, as is in the basis, core, of all following team process, and that is reciprocal susceptibility to brutal honesty. While this does fall under “leading by example” category, I feel, from my experience, it needs to be accentuated, as it is the foundation for development of all other points in this article, a make-it-or-brake it. While this sometimes means sitting through “personal” (which can be perceived as time-unworthy) it is too often crucial for determining and then modifying / improving individual traits (own, as well as others’) to ultimately benefit the team. Thank you for this article, great summary of what is important.

  6. Geoff Warnock says:

    1. I’ve worked in high-pressure teams with good and bad team leaders. The teams got the project done on time / on budget / within the defined scope. A successfully completed project does not mean you have a good team leader. I’m one of the leaders that lacks candor. It’s an issue I have to address with my team well before we begin and I ask for feedback about my methodology of interaction with the team. It can get hectic and each team does go through the ‘forming / storming / norming’ process but to the degree that the leader allows it. Honesty and Brutal Honesty can be two different things. Brutal Honesty usually reflects a lack of respect for the person receiving the feedback. Anyone, and I mean anyone can be honest without being brutal about it. Brutal implies “unpleasantly accurate or incisive”. Why should honesty be unpleasant or incisive if we’re dealing with professionals or those that are team members? I clearly understand that sometimes, our plans and project results may not be on track or on target. Is it the fault of the team member? If so, deal with it professionally, nothing but opportunities there as we use the lessons learned in missing the mark as part of our risk management for the next project that is similar or the next project this particular team member works on. Be honest, your team will appreciate it all the more if you’re not brutal about it. If you don’t have the time to figure out how to talk with your team members professionally and use it as a learning opportunity, your long-term team performance will suffer directly and your future project management success will suffer right along with it. That’s how you build trust in your team – you take care of them, and their feelings about how they are perceived and how they are developed in front of their peers.

    2. It’s never personal. I’ve heard that before and I disagree with it every time. It’s personal. I understand what you’re saying about not letting it get out of hand between two members whose professional relationship may be adversarial but I want to use this opportunity to bring up a point Don’t ever let yourself think that your team members don’t take anything going on with the project as anything BUT personal. This is their job, most likely what they do because they have bills to pay and obligations to meet. How nice would it be if they really enjoyed what they do? When you speak to someone about their performance on a project, or simply their choice of attire that day, it is personal – every time. If you are ‘brutally honest’ or if you take issue with something someone is doing, think before you speak because you are going to affect them personally and it can hurt. “Toughen Up” – that is the language of managers that don’t have the time, experience, or interest to become leaders. Find them in your workplace and adjust accordingly. Don’t think that you can just separate work from personal – if you can, you are most likely lost as a truly productive member of your team and you should spend some quality time finding a new profession or job. I understand you cannot molly-coddle your team members but if you treat them professionally and give them the respect they deserve within the organization on top of the respect they deserve as human beings, you will go a very long way with your teams. You’ll build a relationship with your team members on a foundation of trust and they’ll know that when you speak to them, you’re doing so with compassion and understanding and a desire to stick with the issue. If you have two team members that are at odds with each other, by all means address it and let them know how they are affecting the team and their personal careers. Offer help, give it if desired, replace them if they don’t want to take advantage of the opportunity you are offering.

    I found reason and a good basis for your other points. In the world of today, cultural differences are present and must be dealt with. A recommendation would be to take advantage of the differences by bringing them to the surface as much as your team is comfortable with and use it as part of the team building experience. Team members are most likely desiring to become team leaders one day and they will have to deal with the same cultural differences as you are today. Help them become better by asking them to discuss their cultural impacts on the project and the team and allow each to question, learn and incorporate those differences into their own professional toolkits. Multicultural observances and understanding of our differences will result most likely in reinforcing how much more similar we are than different. I can say from traveling the world over many decades that the project team member in XYZ-stan is just as interested in their family and future as you are.

    Your corporate management not only sets the tone, they also drive your corporate climate which will eventually translate into the corporate culture. The culture can be used to your advantage if its a good one, or it can be used as a springboard for change through success if it’s not a good one. It all depends on how much you want to be a change agent for the better in the world. If you are different, and take your team to new places of success and innovation, you will be noticed and you will begin to change the management climate – that eventually could lead to a change in the culture of your organization. What a legacy you could leave behind. Speaking of what you leave behind, if you were to leave your organization today, would they notice? If not, why are you still there?

    Geoff Warnock

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