Never punish honesty

As a leader, there will be many times when others will bluntly share unpleasant information with you, and often it will be unsolicited and poorly delivered. Sometimes this information will involve their opinions on your behavior or effectiveness. Sometimes it’s their opinions on various decisions or judgment calls you have made. Sometimes it’s even information about how they’ve failed at following some process or meeting some expectation.

In these circumstances, I’ve found that there are two primary ways to respond:

  1. You can react negatively, which will undermine their trust and discourage them from sharing future information with you.
  2. You can take a deep breath, thank them for sharing the feedback, and deliberately develop a curiosity about their views.

Responding negatively can look like many things, including:

  • Telling them their opinions are wrong
  • Telling them their opinions are unwelcome or out of place
  • Arguing with them
  • Becoming defensive
  • Telling them they are not meeting expectations
  • Etc.

In the end, while each of these reactions may be understandable and perhaps even justified depending on the topic, responding negatively in the moment reduces the likelihood they will come to you with honest feedback in the future. Instead, I try to reframe it mentally as, “This person is offering me a perspective I don’t have, and as unpleasant as it may be, that understanding can help me be more effective.”

In particular, I’ve been taken aback at times by the bluntness of my reports in volunteering information about how they’ve failed. Even in the times when I would have been justified in responding that their stated behavior was unacceptable, by reacting negatively, I wouldn’t necessarily prevent the behavior from re-occurring, but I would make it much more likely that next time they wouldn’t tell me. I realized in the moment that I would rather know the unpleasant truth than believe a false reality.

Instead of reacting, I’ve learned to detatch from my own emotions and lean into my curiosity and ask questions to try to better understand the situation. Why would this person do that behavior? Do they actually think that’s ok? By reframing the conversation as, “This person is offering me information I don’t have that can help me be more effective,” I’ve been able to shift from frustration to gratitude. I try to respond by saying, “Thank you for trusting me enough to share that.”

At times I’ve questioned whether it’s right not to react, but I kept returning to the same question and conclusion: Would I rather know or not know? The best way to optimize for knowing is to not punish their honesty.

The key point here is NOT to ignore or overlook bad behavior. It’s to decouple giving the necessary corrective feedback or behavior modification from the point of receiving the other person’s honest feedback. It’s not either-or–it’s both. But they don’t have to take place in the same moment. When the other person is speaking, your job is to listen to understand, not to respond. By not punishing their honesty, you can validate and strengthen the other person’s trust so they will come to you again in the future. This lets you instead focus on gathering new information that will help you better understand reality and improve your ability to succeed in improving future behavior. It’s also consistent with being a continuous learning environment where past failures are learning opportunities rather than punishment opportunities. Remember, the objective is to minimize future bad behavior–not to punish past bad behavior.

Copyright © 2023 Richard Morgan.