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4 Ways to Encourage Team Members to Tell You the Truth

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Are your team members lying to you?

No, of course they’re not. 

My team doesn’t lie to me, what kind of question is that?

When I ask leaders this tough question – Is your team lying to you? – those are the knee jerk responses I hear back just about every time. My reaction, inevitably, is to say.

Are you sure?

How do you know? 

What are you actively doing to create an environment where people can tell you the truth?

Whose responsibility is it if your team members won’t or can’t be honest with you?

Is it all on them or is some of this on you?

I ask these tough questions because my experience tells me many managers aren’t getting the full truth from their team members. More likely, they get half-truths, packaged messages and qualified news. At worst, they get lies and omissions.

If your team can’t tell you the truth, you have no chance for long term success. Zero chance. There is nothing more important than this. As a manager, your job is to make good decisions. Good decisions are impossible to make with bad information.

Today we’re going to examine some behaviors managers must avoid at all costs, because they create environments where team members feel they can’t be honest. Then we’ll look at some specific changes you can make to build an environment where the truth, no matter how hard it may be to swallow, is king.

As I’ve progressed in my career, from my first management jobs to running a large team, I’ve had to face a difficult reality. As you move higher in an organization, people (some people), find it harder to tell you the truth. They don’t want to disappoint you. They fear repercussions – real and imagined. They infer a certain power dynamic whether or not you believe it exists. And so, they package their messages, they qualify their statements, they seek out ways to agree with you.

I see this dynamic just about every day. Team members find it hard to be honest with senior leaders, managers and executives. Whenever possible, they try to find a way to be supportive, agreeable. They want to make the leader happy. They want to find common ground. It is a very logical behavior quite honestly. If that’s not the optimal career strategy, you could see how it would seem like a pretty safe one. Aligning with your boss on everything seems like a path to job security, doesn’t it?

It’s easy to sit there, as you read this, and be critical of this approach i.e. agreeing with senior leaders whether or not that means you have to tell half-truths every once in a while. But ask yourself honestly, what are you doing as a leader to create an environment where being honest is a better career move than being agreeable? What are you doing to make honesty a policy that pays off for your team members?

Do you have a tendency to overreact to bad news? Do you ever blame the messenger? Do you ever fly off then handle when you learn of some indiscretion and then explode a bunch of relationships your team members have worked hard to build? Whether you realize it or not, you may be creating an environment where your team feels you can’t handle hearing the truth.

Related: 3 Ways to Reduce Surprise Turnover on Your Team

Here are 4 specific behaviors managers can adopt that will help them create an environment where team members feel comfortable (and compelled) to tell the truth, no matter how hard those truths may be to hear.

1. Build a culture of calmness

With every passing year, as our companies move faster, the number of decisions a manager needs to make is growing rapidly. Every day it seems there is a new big issue or challenge or problem to deal with. If I overreacted to every piece of difficult news I got, my life would be a mess and my team would be anxious and stressed.

Unfortunately, some managers still react too strongly to every little problem they encounter. A campaign bombed, a new hire isn’t working out, someone did something stupid, a competitor made a big announcement. If you’re not careful, you can run around screaming from one thing to the next and leave a wake of anxiety behind you. This is not how you build a winning team.

My advice to managers is to focus on building a culture of calmness. This culture shift starts with you. Set the example. Learn to control yourself when you hear difficult news. Act logically and unemotionally when you are faced with problems. Show your team members how a leader faces challenges. Your poise will be infectious. It will trickle down. This doesn’t take years either. Start presenting a picture of calmness to your team and you’ll witness a noticeable and collective sigh of relief. The impact will be a team that can be honest with you and a team with the confidence to face difficult challenges with control and objectivity.

2. Focus on what do we do next vs. whose fault was it

I’m sorry to say there are still many managers out there who tend to shoot the messenger. They give such visceral, emotional reactions whenever faced with unfortunate news, their team members become too afraid to tell them the truth. Team members fear getting penalized just for being associated with something bad. God forbid they commit some mistake or indiscretion themselves – hiding the truth would seem like a more prudent move than being honest.

You may say, employees who can’t be honest are just not good employees. They lack a certain moral code. I say, look in the mirror. The one thing we know about companies is they are made up of people, and people are inherently flawed. We all are. If you’re operating as a manager with some misguided expectation that people will be anything other than human, you’re fooling yourself.

The best managers, in my experience, immediately jump to “so what do we do now?” when employees share tough news. They don’t dwell on whose fault it was or immediately jump to laying blame. They take the new information calmly, make a good decision and move forward. If further reflection is required, they do so constructively and only after the crisis is over.

My advice to managers is to make yourself an easy target for bad news. Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t make the consequence of communicating failure so high people feel they can’t be honest with you. That isn’t to say you don’t hold people to account. You do. And you give feedback and make changes when you have to. But, you cannot create an environment where the cost of telling you the truth is so high that lying and withholding become attractive options. Don’t create an environment where the “yes” men and women get ahead and the honest people get left behind.

Related: How You Manage Your “OK” Performers Could Be Your Competitive Edge

3. Get over things quickly and give second chances

Managers who hold grudges tend to get lied to a lot. The higher the price for disappointing you, the fewer people on your team that will own up to mistakes. I’ve seen some leaders who hold grudges for so long and so publicly, they create a culture of fear. They attract political animals and morally corrupt individuals around them. They’ve made the price for disagreeing with them or disappointing them so high, team members see no choice but to lie, withhold, and package information.

The best managers I know, can bounce back quickly from bad news and failures. They give people second chances so long as they still have reason to believe in the person. They tend to focus on the future and don’t dwell on the past. Team members see this. They grow more confident. They become willing to take calculated risks. They become comfortable sharing their mistakes and failures with you. This leads to better performance, a developing team, and a culture of honesty. This is what we want.

My advice to managers is to give feedback, hold people accountable, but get over things. If you find yourself holding a grudge over someone for a long time, ask yourself if you should just fire them instead. It’s not constructive, for anyone, to have someone on your team you can’t trust. When people make mistakes, but they used reasonable judgement, give them a second chance. Give them a third chance. Let people see that it pays to be honest in your organization.

4. Take and give feedback easily

It hurts when a team member gives you tough love. It always stings a little, to hear you’ve done something to upset people. Some managers react very poorly when criticism is given to them by team members. They get defensive. Their natural reaction is to justify or bite back. I know this because every time it happens to me, I can feel that reaction swelling inside me for a split section before I remind myself to be calm and embrace the feedback.

The fact is, you want your team members to be able to give you criticism. You are making mistakes, I can promise you that. And sometimes, when you’re moving so fast, it’s hard to see the real impact your statements and actions have. Sometimes your actions have unintended consequences. It happens. You need to build a team of people who feel they can be honest with you when you’ve done something to upset them. Likewise, you want to build a team of people who are willing to hear the same criticism from you.

My advice to managers is to focus on building a culture of feedback. Where all members of your team (including you) can give and take feedback easily. Where every ounce of criticism doesn’t carry existential consequence. Constant feedback and adjustment leads to higher performance. Building this culture starts with you. Learn to accept feedback well and give feedback fairly and with compassion.

When I ask leaders if their teams lie to them, the first reaction is always a visceral “no”. But then, as we probe a little further, we discover that like most things in your career, it’s just not that simple. What we do know, is that to be effective as a manager in the long term, you need to build a culture where team members feel compelled to be honest with you. They want to come to you with problems. They tell you when you’ve done something silly. Their first thought when a mistake happens, is to tell you about it. Honesty, like this, is a key building block of a performance culture. I’d love to hear any tips or advice you have for building honesty into your team culture.

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