The wellbeing cost of the dishonest workplace
I highly recommend the book ‘The Everyone Culture’ which follows three highly successful companies who have deliberately built cultures based on transparency, so they can become ‘Deliberately Developmental Organisations’. These are organisations that prioritise learning by continuously working on our weaknesses and inadequacies so that the business can get better. This is not just a new approach to HR or a faddy L&D initiative, it is their business strategy. The book outlines how managing human dynamics in the context of everyday business creates commercial, emotional and reputational success. It’s an enlightening and practical assessment of the things that divide companies who lean into the fear of change from those who stay stuck in a comfortable status quo. It’s a great read.
Honesty sits at the heart of their ability to make this happen. By being completely honest about what holds individuals and teams back, the business is able to make new progress. These companies create the conditions and permissions for people speak up and speak out, they solve issues at source. Their culture expects people to do the work to overcome personal growth challenges and find new solutions. Weakness is actively looked for, so it can be worked on. They pay attention to how our flaws, tendencies and beliefs affect how we do the work we do, and actively help each other to get better at getting out of their own way.
Many of us say something about integrity or honesty in our values or company principles. And while none of us would self-identify as being dishonest or working without integrity, these are things that show up daily in our workplaces. I’m not talking about the kind of dishonesty that is overtly unacceptable or the kind of integrity that is a given for being in a good, decent business (although in recent times, let's face it, this is a struggle for some). I’m talking about the subtleties of dishonesty, that are disguised as being helpful, doing what is expected, keeping the peace, little white lies to avoid confrontation, avoidance and procrastination, towing the party line.
In this week alone, I can recall a handful of conversations with people that talk directly to this kind of dishonesty. Situations where people have said one thing privately, and then another to the group. Or where inappropriate behaviour has been observed but calling it out was seen to be ‘upsetting the apple cart’. My last article talked about blocks to inclusion and it’s this subtle dishonesty that lets exclusion continue to live on in our cultures.
There is the dishonesty that lives in the collective. The things we see but don’t say. The ‘Office Politics’. Talking negatively about peers that disappoint or are difficult. The silent nods in meetings when inside we disagree. The vents we have down the pub. The knowing eye rolls. The rumours that gain momentum through the unsaid. The things we just put up with. The people who are out of line, but no one wants to say so. The authors of the book pose an interesting question ‘On a scale of 1-10, how frank are you with each other about matters of importance to how the business is run?’. I bet few of us answer a solid10 - self-preservation usually holds us back from really saying what we see or truly think.
Then there’s the dishonesty we have in ourselves. We have our official job title, and then the one that we feel on the inside - ‘Head of I hope I don’t get found out’, ‘Lead worrier in I’m not good enough’, ‘Senior of I’m not the expert everything thinks I should be’ or ‘Director of I am perfection and must portray this at all costs’. We spent a lot of time and energy in hiding our weaknesses and managing others’ impressions of us, and it affects how we do the work of work, how we relate to others, and how effective we really are.
The reason that radical honesty is so uncomfortable is that many of us work in cultures that that salute perfection, achievement, always knowing the answers, getting things right first time, not fucking up! So, we hide our weaknesses. We’ve come to accept our politics and have stopped questioning the things we put up with - they’re quirks of flawed humans at work. It’s part of our workplace identity. So, we just go along with it. We worry about offending and upsetting others, we struggle to have the tough conversations, so we have become adept at partial honesty when we do bring the tricky stuff up. We are hard-wired to belong, so we don't want to be the odd one out.
We shouldn't feel bad if we are identifying with much of what I've described. It's been the norm in business for a long time. It's become institutional in how companies work. Those that are different to this have actively designed something different and better. They have invested in their alternative reality. But for most of us this way of being is costing us. It costs us our progress. It stifles our growth. It creates bottlenecks and obstructions that cost us money. It keeps us locked in ineffective processes. It prevents us from feeling safe to experiment and try new things. It keeps us in a place where fear masquerades as our friend.
I once worked at a place where subtle dishonesty ran deep. Here’s what I learned about its impact:
: People didn’t feel safe to say what they didn’t know
: Nobody liked to question the things that didn’t work
: Turnover was high
: People didn’t progress quickly
: Lots of energy wasted on looking good
: Employer brand reputation was affected
: People hid their mistakes, lots of ass covering
: Self-interest prevailed
: Negative emotions were a normal part of office life
: Adoption of anything new took forever
: Fire-fighting took place instead of forward planning
If we want to be the kinds of businesses that foster creativity, are able to solve never before seen problems, are genuinely inclusive and provide space for real growth and development, then we need to bake honesty into the fabric of the work we do and into our relationships with each other. Honest cultures keep the focus on the collective goal and provide clarity to how I need to grow so I contribute meaningfully to progress for the business. And it goes without saying that it's really really good for our wellbeing.
So, how do we engender more raw honesty when we've seen it can feel risky and unsafe. Here are my thoughts on how we can start to bring more realness into our workplaces.
: It starts with the leaders showing willing to be vulnerable, with inadequacies
We need to feel safe to show up with honesty, and the creators of that safety are our leaders. They have all the power to set the tone for how the culture embraces it. I recently spoke to a leader who has their areas for personal growth on the office wall for the whole company to see. It’s this kind of role modelling that lets others know that it's ok to have weaknesses and that by being open about them will help to overcome them.
: Be clear on what we want to shift the dial on, so we know how to be helpfully honest
Being asked to simply be more honest risks creating stress. We need clarity on why we are valuing a more transparent culture. How will honesty help our company? We need to know what we want to be more honest about. It may be that like the pioneering companies we hear of in this book, we want to put personal growth at the centre of business growth. It may be that we use a culture of honesty to help us embed ways of being more inclusive in everything we do. It might be that we seek to embed our purpose and values more deeply into how we do everyday business. People need to have a clear context for how they are showing up with refreshing honesty.
: Create feedback rituals that help people get to source issues
Feedback is important for building trust in others and in creating opportunities for growth. Given often, it gives us the space to solve issues at source and to practice being open and honest with each other.
Give and get feedback often. I've worked with a system of 3:1 – 3 positive things and 1 area for development, given timely after working with each other. In other businesses I’ve been part of, we’ve created practices for feedback on how well we communicate with each other and our tendency for reaction over response, so that we can remove blockers and strengthen our ability to show up better as partners.
A few things to bear in mind about feedback:
Frequency matters – it needs to feel part of working life to become embedded as how we do things.
Having focus is important – being clear on what are we asking for feedback about helps give direction.
Don't rush to solutions – what’s really going on behind the thing we’re receiving feedback on, because that’s what we need to work on.
Feedback doesn’t just have to be top-down - feedback can be encouraged between everyone. What would it look like to have feedback buddies across your business where people had someone who would always give them an honest perspective?
: Clearly establish the link between better you, better us and better business
Charlie Kim of Next Jump, one of the companies profiled in the book, astutely says ‘We have to get better at getting better, because we are so good at failing’. Nobody is perfect, so let’s not expect them to be, we are all works in progress. The sooner we embrace what holds us back, the better chance we have to improve on it. The more we lean into our weaknesses, the less attached we are to perfection. There is no denying that human dynamics and business effectiveness are inextricably linked so we would do well to acknowledge and embrace the relationship.
How would it feel to have everyone in the business naming the thing they were trying to get better at? What would it feel like to see how working on those things actually helps us have more productive meetings, better processes, smarter ways of working, make better decisions faster, find solutions to old problems?
We need to get messy before we can make progress, which means we have to let go of having everything neatly tied up with a bow. It’s a mindset shift that brave businesses and their leaders are making and it’s a world that I’m excited to be part of the unfolding of.