A colleague recently asked me this question, and it’s a big one. We all wrestle with it from time to time. Lying is never acceptable, but as a chief people officer and coach, I often have to withhold confidential information I can’t share. Many people do the same.
But the fundamental question remains: How honest should you be at work?
To answer this question, I offer some fundamental principles, a series of tests, and a set of tools I use to get to the best available answer. None of this is foolproof, but these approaches help me work my way through complicated and sometimes difficult situations, and perhaps they will help you.
Honesty and integrity are essential to one's self-respect, to building strong relationships and a good reputation, and to supporting a healthy and productive working environment.
Integrity, in particular, is a bottom-line principle. In a previous company, we made integrity one of our core leadership characteristics. We built it into every People process (hiring, performance evaluation, promotion, etc.), and the company and our corporate parent reinforced this with their behavior. And, of course, no one should break the law - there’s no better way to lose your job and get your company in big, big trouble.
Honesty and openness make a positive difference at work. I feel better, and work more productively, when I am able to be open about my views, my feelings, and my circumstances with my managers, peers, and direct reports. Hiding these things takes a lot of energy, and though it may be convenient in the moment, it often leads to bad long-term outcomes.
An example of choosing to be open: A consulting firm partner I used to work with made a point of coming out to his clients about his sexual orientation. While this was not always easy or comfortable, the partner told me that if he hid something that was this important to him, his clients would intuit that he was hiding something, and that feeling would lead to uneasiness and mistrust, damaging the relationship that is essential in management consulting. This approach worked for him.
Being fully open at every moment, however (sometimes we call it being “authentic” or “transparent”), is not always the right answer. There’s a time and a place for everything. Especially in public settings, getting into arguments or confronting your manager rarely works to your advantage. (This does not absolve us of the obligation to tell the truth and address problems when we learn about them; it’s just a question of when, where, and how.) Understand your context. The office is not a boxing ring, a therapist’s office, or a confessional; we do not need to tell everyone everything all the time.
Three principles I try to stick to:
Be honest about what’s most important to you.
Use your judgment about when to say what to whom.
Never violate integrity, lie, or break the law.
Try some tests.
So: when should you be honest at work? Here are some tests I often use (including with myself!).
What’s your goal? What are you looking to get out of being honest? Is it to resolve an ethical issue? Is something not working right? Or are you angry, upset, or disappointed? Ethical problems need to be addressed; so do dysfunctions. And if you’re spending a lot of time being angry or disappointed, you’re not going to be at your best and most productive, and neither will your working relationships. But not all of these things are of equal weight, importance, or urgency. Dysfunctions and ethical problems can threaten the entire organization, and need to be resolved. Regardless of the type of problem, the following questions can help you figure out how to respond.
What’s your part in this? If happiness is an issue, often the best place to begin is with yourself. Recognize and take care of your feelings before you go to the other person. We all have pet peeves, hot-button issues, vulnerabilities. The fact that someone behaved in a way that upsets you does not necessarily mean that they did something wrong. Many problems dissipate - or at least become more manageable - when we take care of our part.
How important is it? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg explained that on her wedding day, her mother-in-law advised her, “’In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’” Ginsberg had an extraordinarily supportive marriage (which lasted for 56 years), and also an exceptional career, starting at a time when women could barely get jobs as lawyers and ending on the Supreme Court. So ask yourself, does the issue really have to be addressed? Does it have to be addressed now? Sometimes, the answer is simply no - it’s better to let it go and move on.
Is this the right person to solve the problem with? It seems obvious that if someone is messing up, you would want to let them know what you’re seeing and help them fix it. But here it’s important to take a systems view. Perhaps that employee is messing up from your perspective because their goals, or their department’s, conflict with yours. Or because they’re doing something their manager told them to do, or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it here.” In these cases, the employee is not the problem; in fact, they may be aware, but powerless to act differently in the current system. Work back to root causes and see if you can find a way to address those by partnering with the people most able to help.
Is this the right time and place? Respect the dynamics of the situation. Obviously, contradicting a senior person in the middle of a meeting is rarely a good move. You may well be right, but nobody likes to be embarrassed, and it’s rarely worth damaging a relationship to talk about a detail. And remember that some people react to every challenge with an argument. With a former boss, I found it much more productive to wait, reflect, and then come back with a discussion from a different angle. Often, I was able to get my ideas enacted - but it wasn’t by creating a big conflict at the wrong time.
Do you have the skills to navigate through this situation? Does the other person? Ideally, you want to address problems to improve situations and working relationships. But this works only when both parties have the ability, time, and energy to work together. If you often fly off the handle when you are feeling really angry, you may not be well positioned to solve the problem. Or if the other person tends to shut down - or malign you to others - or behave in some other unconstructive way, then a conversation between the two of you may make things worse, rather than better. In this case, seek an alternative. Talk with someone in confidence, or someone within the organization (your manager, the People team, or Legal) who’s in a position to help. Get the problems off your chest; practice; consider another angle, or another time.
Does the culture support feedback and honest dialogue? Some organizations and some leaders place a high premium on feedback and work hard to create cultures in which everyone works toward constructive resolution of problems. If this is your situation, or if you feel you can make a positive difference, then do have the difficult conversation. But if your culture is avoidant, or lacks candor, or is highly political, then addressing the problem directly may backfire. In such cases, you need to think twice before you lay all your cards on the table. Again, a manager or someone else with authority may be able to influence the situation with less conflict, and without damaging you. And if you find that the culture consistently conflicts with your values, you may need to find ways to change it - or find a culture that suits you better.
Are you in a leadership role? If so, you have additional powers - and responsibilities. As a leader, you set the tone for the people you manage and influence, and you are leading by example - whether you are aware of that fact or not. So your bar of responsibility is significantly higher. Remember that decisions you make affect not just you but the entire ecosystem, so always be on your best behavior, because others will watch - and imitate - how you act.
Use your tools.
Any craftsperson will tell you that it’s much easier to get a job done when you have, and use, the right tools. Here are some I try to employ.
Patience. I was not born with a big supply of patience, and I often run short. There are certainly situations where it’s appropriate to be a pain in the neck, but there are plenty of others where I have to remind myself of English poet John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Other people’s priorities are not always mine, and mine are not always right. My former colleague Bryan gave me a useful operating principle: “When things are going in the right direction, I’m very patient. But when they’re not, I’m not.”
Logic, emotions, and intuition. Logic can help you step back from the situation and do some scenario planning. What will happen if you ask the other person for a dialogue, or confront them? What will happen if you don’t? What is the approach that will get you where you want to go? Emotions are important, too, since they provide insight into what’s going on inside you. Acknowledge them. But emotions and gut instinct do not always provide the best guidance - particularly in the heat of the moment. Remember the lessons economist Daniel Kahneman explained in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: In some situations, intuition will take you quickly to the right answer. In others, you will get to the right answer only if you use your higher-order cognitive skills and take the time to reason your way to the best decision. Make sure you’re paying attention to your head, your heart, and your gut: All of them have information, and you will get a better answer if you use all the information you have.
Curiosity and empathy. These are two of the most valuable skills I learned to develop in becoming an executive coach, and I find they always pay dividends. Ask yourself why the other person acted as they did. Try to figure out how they were thinking and feeling. This approach can give you valuable insights; it can also help you approach the other person as a partner, rather than an adversary or a problem, and move from conflict to resolution.
Political skill. Organizational politics has a bad reputation, and indeed organizations that are highly political are often dysfunctional, rewarding bad behavior and impairing performance. But where there are people there are politics, and pretending politics don’t exist won’t do you any favors. Understanding the dynamics of your organization and finding ethical ways to work through them is usually a wiser approach than flying blind. I recommend a book called Enlightened Office Politics for its insight into the realities of organizations and how to manage them in beneficial ways.
Good counsel. Everyone benefits from getting some perspective. Whether it’s a trusted colleague, a friend, your partner, a coach, or a mentor, air things with someone else. Get some distance; invite insights into your own behavior, motivations, and capabilities; think and feel things through. Do some role plays and practice! You may not necessarily need advice (i.e., by asking, “What should I do?”), but insight is always helpful and can bring you to new and more constructive ways of addressing difficulties than just going by your gut.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t tell my colleague what to do. Wherever appropriate, I try to help people to understand themselves, reach their own decisions, and act accordingly, rather than giving them explicit direction. If they’re right, so much the better. If they’re wrong, well, it’s an opportunity to get some insights into their own behavior and the system in which they operate.
But I did introduce some of the tests and tools. By applying them, I hope my colleague will gain self-awareness, skills, and autonomy, and have those lessons reinforced by outcomes. There will also be a benefit to the system as a whole, because the more each employee acts with integrity, wisdom, and skill, the greater the likelihood that both they and the organization will learn, grow, and improve.
© 2023 Peter L. Allen