Your Team Won’t Tell You The Truth

Your employees are not going to tell you the truth. You can wish they would. You can want them to. You can tell them each and every day how much you value their opinion and welcome their feedback. You can convince yourself that you’re a different kind of leader, someone who’s open to hearing the hard things. And nothing will change.

People only change when it’s in their self-interest to do so. So if they’re not telling you the uncomfortable truth, it means it’s not in their self-interest. It’s not the fear of being fired for saying the wrong thing. It’s more subtle than that. The willingness to tell you the truth—or, better said, the unsanitized truth—comes from a feeling of safety that goes far deeper than any management tactic or technique can ever go.

We all keep our self-interest in a box inside of ourselves. It’s so well protected most of us would have a hard time describing what’s in there. But the box is designed to do one thing and one thing only—to guide us in becoming more of who we are without getting trampled on along the way. And it’s the latter part of that sentence—the self-preservation part of self-interest—which is the reason there’s nothing you can do to pry that box open in someone else. It only opens from the inside.

Your employees and colleagues will feel safe when they have the consistent experience, the undeniable reality that telling you the whole truth, is in their self-interest more than it is in yours.

Your team will open the box—will open up its contents to you—only when it’s safe to do so. Your employees will feel safe when they have the consistent experience, the undeniable reality that telling you the whole truth, is in their self-interest more than it is in yours. Paychecks, perks, and positive vibes won’t do it. Being a friendly, compassionate and flexible leader won’t either.

You have to prove it to them beyond a shadow of a doubt. It starts by sharing their reality—by accepting that they’re afraid of you no matter how much you wish they weren’t (or, perhaps more incisively, afraid of the negative impact you could have on their life), and staying in the conversation no matter how personally mortifying it is to realize you’re playing a part in creating that dynamic. In fact, when you get that sick feeling in your stomach—when you realize the unsafe world you’ve created in spite of your best intentions—that’s the day you become the leader your team is waiting for.

Making it safe—which has nothing to do with making it easy or lowering your standards, in fact, it's to the contrary—that's the work. It’s in these spaces—in the hard relational skills —where all of the best answers are. It’s where you'll find new ways to express yourself and your care and compassion for people in ways that might surprise you. If you start creating this kind of space—even if you do it 5% better today than you did yesterday—they will start opening up. You'll have to re-earn this right with them 100 times before they trust that it’s real.

Is it worth it? It just depends on how much you want to know what’s in the box.

Jonathan Raymond