Leaders often ask this question. There are some times when being honest is not possible, for example if a publicly listed company is about to be taken over and that hasn’t yet been announced. Yet leaders often start from an assumption that they have to lie….at least a little! When I ask them what would happen if they were honest, they discover that the lie was really just an avoidance strategy. It was an easy way of avoiding messy emotions.
When I was an HR Director, I remember helping the CEO with the redundancy of a senior executive. Another member of the executive team was a good friend of that leader, and also a friend of mine. She came to me one day and asked if this executive’s job was in danger. It’s understandable. She was looking out for her friend.
I couldn’t tell her this. The decision wasn’t yet final, and we hadn’t communicated with the individual about it. So I said to her “I can’t answer questions like that in my role”.
This points to the difference between honesty and openness. It’s true that you can’t always be 100% open with everyone as a leader. However, when you can’t be open, there should be a good reason why. You can be honest about the fact that you can’t discuss the issue. You might even be able to be honest about why. People usually respond to that with understanding and acceptance.
When deciding whether to be honest, my rule of thumb for leaders is this: start with honesty and only work your way back from there if you have to. By ‘have to’, I mean if there’s a good and ethical reason to do so.
Leadership is inspiring hearts and minds to commit to a cause. Your trustworthiness as a person is central. Lying or giving ‘non-answers’ (politician speak, or fobbing people off) damages people’s trust in you. It also tells them you don’t care much for the quality of your relationship with them. These are real costs that cut to the heart of your impact as a leader.
If you are honest, even when you can’t be totally open, people will trust you. They’ll feel safe with you. Without trust and safety, you won’t get commitment to your cause.