Telling Your Boss the Truth

Craig Haptonstall

Q: When faced with the dilemma of telling your boss the truth or what he or she wants to hear, what do you do?

A: Many of us have faced this situation. The boss walks into a meeting you are holding with your staff and presents a new idea or direction. She explains the new idea and with great excitement talks about future possibilities and performance implications. Then, very abruptly, you are put on the spot: what do you think? The dilemma hits you full on. You have two choices. Do you say the "correct answer," the one you know the boss really wants to hear? Or do you say what you really think?

We know from working with The Leadership Challenge database, and in conducting the Characteristics of Admired Leaders exercise, that honesty is the single most important leadership characteristic, and is the most often selected when choosing among the 20 characteristics listed. One of the lessons we can take from this knowledge is that if we expect the people around us to willingly follow our guidance and direction, it is very important that we model and demonstrate this characteristic in our everyday actions. In working with groups of people around the world in leadership development, it is obvious this one characteristic can pose a serious dilemma for us in facing our everyday challenges, such as the one described above.

In exploring this situational dilemma, people have responded with a variety of answers such as:

"You keep your job that's what you do."
"You say the right answer and live another day."
"You keep your mouth closed and don't say anything."
"Leaving information out is not telling a lie."
"You stay quiet in the meeting and follow-up with the boss after the meeting to express your concerns."

What is your response to this dilemma?
All of these hypothetical responses can create problems for us in demonstrating honesty to others. If people see us act in a particular way in the meeting, or say one thing, and they know our true feelings are different, we have created a credibility problem for ourselves. Others may observe our behavior and have some challenges seeing our actions as consistent with their understanding of honesty. Instead, they may interpret our actions as "political" or some other type of communication game (masking, diffusion, diversion). Our challenge is to figure out a way to say what we really believe, or at the very least, express our concerns in the meeting. This is a difficult situation, and one that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary in leadership behavior. At this fork in the road, it's often the path less traveled.

Now here is another way to look at this situation, knowing that this dilemma is very real for each of us as leaders, what does that tell us about how people respond when we are the ones asking the question? We must work hard to create an environment that supports peoples' willingness to say what they really think. We must continue working to be open to hearing the honest truth, even if we might disagree with their perspective or opinions. As leaders, we must create an environment where those around us are able and willing to share their opinions, even if they think we might disagree with the opinion or ideas. This is truly a Leadership Challenge for us all, and a choice provided by the fork in the road.

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