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Why honesty matters at work

Voco Team

Photo credit: Associated Press

If there’s one thing that the dramatic downfall of the UK’s Prime Minister has taught us it’s that, despite our differences, we all value honesty. Some of us are willing to overlook the occasional bit of truth bending; perhaps putting it down to miscommunication or a difference of opinion. Perhaps dismissing it as unimportant compared to the multitude of other ‘more important’ issues - surely those in power withhold the truth to protect us, right? 

But, when it becomes clear that the behaviours of a person, government or organisation are almost entirely driven by the absence of honesty then, eventually, it’s game over. When honesty is absent, so is trust and trust is the foundation of any meaningful and lasting relationship; at work or otherwise.

Living a lie

So let’s level up. Why is honesty so important and why should we strive for it in our working lives? Well, it’s a matter of principle that’s deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. Why? Because we lie. We all lie, and we all know it. From the perennial response, ‘yes, fine thanks’ to the tales of the tooth fairy that we tell children, lying is in our DNA and in many ways is a necessity that enables us to function. If we told a casual enquirer how we really feel, we might leave ourselves overexposed and the acquaintance overwhelmed. It’s simply not always appropriate to tell the whole truth and nothing but. 

But, we all know how much it hurts to be lied to when it really matters. So we call out honesty not just as a virtue but as the foundational guiding principle of our institutions so that, when it matters most, we can trust each other enough to feel psychologically safe. It’s why in the core values of almost any organisation from schools to start-ups, you’re likely to find words like integrity, trust and respect. All of which are built on the understanding that, for these values to thrive, we need to be honest with each other - or at the very least, protect and promote the truth where it counts. 

For honesty to be the best policy, we need to believe in it and to understand why it is not always present. Recognising the difference between, ‘prosocial lies that are constructed to benefit others; and antisocial lies that are selfish’ (Mares and Turvey, 2018), is important. Knowing when and how to distinguish between the two, is crucial. This is particularly important if you are a leader or decision maker in your organisation. Are you presenting a positive version of the truth to protect your employees well-being, or are you withholding critical information to protect yourself and avoid conflict? 

Cruel to be kind

We don’t lie because we are fundamentally bad, quite the opposite. We lie because we are conditioned to favour harmony over conflict, and harmony and truth aren’t always compatible. It can feel easier to tell a ‘little white lie’ than to tell the truth, because the truth can hurt. Isn’t it easier to tell someone a piece of work is ‘great’ and then make changes yourself, than to give them more critical feedback? Sure, but to what end? The desire to protect other people from truth, though with good intent, is both diminishing and counter-productive. It also stifles development and creates a false insulation that ultimately feels like betrayal when finally the truth is revealed (because let’s face it, it almost always is).

So how can we make it easier to be truthful? 

Having a confidant to share the whole truth with is often the missing step on the path to honesty, especially when deciding how to respond to difficult situations or decisions that will have a big impact on others. Without an impartial ear to help us make decisions about what to disclose, we are more likely to be inadvertently drawn to the ‘antisocial’ lie and, in doing so, cause ourselves and others unnecessary discomfort, or even pain. 

A safe space to spill the truth

Being honest isn’t about revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings to everyone (no teary Instagram posts required), being honest is about creating transparency; sharing relevant information and trusting the people around you enough to know that they will consider that information with respect. And, because sharing information makes others feel respected, it’s highly likely that they will.

Having someone to share those ‘innermost’ feelings with; someone who will challenge your thinking, offer advice and create space for you to think, can help to create distance between your emotional response to a situation and the necessary next steps. Rather than being tempted to protect yourself from the judgement of others by withholding truth, you feel empowered to share the reality of a situation without fear of retribution. For example, if we all had a therapist on tap to help us to work through everyday emotional issues, we might feel more able to change our instinctive ‘I’m fine’ response to, ‘Actually, I’m not feeling great today’, without fearing rejection - or that you’ll burst into tears by the office mini fridge.

Similarly, if we have someone with whom to reciprocally share our unfiltered thoughts and feelings with, we might find that honesty begins to feel more natural and less combative. Finding a way to say what needs to be said can be truly empowering; both for you and the person in receipt of this honesty.

Avoiding the echo chamber 

Surrounding ourselves with people who tell us only what we want to hear is a shallow pursuit that can leave us feeling empty. But, we aren’t always aware of this dynamic in real-time. Increasingly, we are encouraged to consume information that plays to our preferences, rather than challenging them. It makes the pursuit of truth almost impossible when you can’t find a clearing through the fog of Fake News. 

Taking a step-back, asking questions and seeking alternative opinions - even those we don’t agree with - is really the only way to combat our innate confirmation bias. Owning up to our own gullibility and being honest with ourselves, is the first step to creating a culture of honesty in our lives so that we can bring this into our places of work. 

When we are complicit in the charade of comfortable avoidance of honesty, we create an environment that feels unsafe, for everyone. It takes only the lightest touch of truth to topple this house of cards and only the slightest push to encourage the unburdonining of truths withheld by others. 

To run and participate fully in functioning organisations, we need to know that we are safe to speak up. We don’t need echo chambers, we need truth both within and between ourselves. Because the truth sets you free and when we feel free, we are happier, make better decisions, have better relationships and create a better future

Why not book a demo with us to find out more about how peer support can help build a more honest culture in your organisation?


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