We think we talk straight, but in practice, we fall far short of the mark. We dance around the real issue and dole out information as though we are dealing with the infirm, who in their weakened state are incapable of handling straightforward communication. We think we are “protecting” people from hurt, so we do not talk about things that add to their distress.
But our real concern is for ourselves, not others. We avoid the discomfort of confronting sensitive issues and broaching what appears to be unsafe territory. We keep our real thoughts and feelings to ourselves, or hand them out to a privileged few and tell them to keep it private. But there is a significant gap between what leaders think is effective communication and what people want to hear.
People have a burgeoning capacity to hear the truth, but leaders have been taught to restrict and massage what they say. When leaders are not forthright and direct, people do not trust them; committed partnerships break down and teamwork crumbles. In a guarded and closed environment, there is a burning necessity to protect one’s own interests at the expense of others, and people revert to unproductive, automatic behaviors.
Talking straight responsibly is simple in principle but difficult to apply. Some leaders soften their message. Others dump their reactions on coworkers saying whatever is on their mind, thinking they are talking straight. Both are incorrect: Talking straight responsibly—with emphasis on the word responsibly—is not a license to say whatever you feel. It requires that you be authentic, emotionally honest, and accountable for what you say and how it impacts others.
Most leaders, by their own admission, avoid difficult or sensitive conversations. I have two questions for you:
Do you want people to talk straight to you and provide you with candid and complete feedback?
Are you willing to talk straight with others and provide them with candid and complete feedback?
The common response is to answer yes to the first question but no to the second. We want “straight talk” from others, but we are reluctant to talk straight to others.