Taking the brutality out of brutal honesty

June 18, 2013: 1:45 PM ET

Largely out of fear, people don't spend enough time communicating, especially if they see something going wrong.

By Harrison Monarth


FORTUNE -- Paulett Eberhart is no shrinking violet. Brought in to turn the ship around at Philadelphia-based engineering and technology firm CDI, the executive told her team to be "brutally honest, but in a respectful way," even if they had to pound their fists on the table to get her attention.

A big problem at many businesses, Eberhart recently told the New York Times, is that people don't spend enough time communicating, especially if they see something going wrong.

It's one thing to agree to offer honest feedback when the boss demands open communication. It's quite another to be courageous enough to speak up. Fear of being pegged as a dissenter or worse stifles about a third of U.S. workers (34%), according to a study of over 100,000 workers by consulting firm DecisionWise.

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Cultivating a climate of open communication starts at the top, with the CEO or founder setting the tone for the rest of the leaders of an organization. Even a single incident of punishment for speaking up the "wrong way" can destroy management's credibility.

Linda Henman, president of Henman Performance Group, says the best way to encourage any behavior is to reward and model it. "If executives want openness and transparency, they should start by being open and transparent in their own communication." Then, they should create routine ways to hear directly from employees, she explains.

Take a page from General Motors (GM) CEO Dan Akerson's playbook. Akerson regularly hoofs it through the halls to check the temperature of his staff. Henman suggests walking around and inviting feedback is a good place to start. "When you hear something, thank the person for his or her candor," she advises.

It might even make sense to rethink the office floor plan, as physical walls can easily turn into perceived barricades. Even though employees are working remotely in record numbers, executives have technology on their side to aid the practice of open and frequent communication in the workplace.

Whether they're halfway across the globe or in the office next door, leaders need to grow a thick skin, because opening the floor for commentary could lead to a flood of feedback, both positive and negative. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh not only welcomes commentary from his staff, but also encourages customers to let him know how the company's doing -- even if they are unhappy with a product or service. The trick is to manage your knee-jerk reactions when you receive unflattering reviews.

Lashing out defensively will shut people down. "Shooting the messenger is the pinnacle of foolish," notes D. Kevin Berchelmann, CEO of management consultancy Triangle Performance. "The bad news continues, but you just joined the ranks of 'last to know.'"

Embrace the bearers of bad news and encourage honesty. Leaders can help employees with this by coaching them on how to properly present and argue their findings and ideas: clearly, concisely, with evidence, and sound reasoning. "They need to know that you want all relevant information," Berchelmann adds, not only the status of things that have gone exactly as planned.

If employees are shy or reluctant to offer their ideas and views, managers may want to designate a devil's advocate whose sole job is to poke holes in proposed solutions. This person must be in a position to understand the subject matter at a deeper level, able to see the drawbacks of a given idea and feel empowered to offer dissent. It shouldn't always be the same person, and colleagues should nonetheless be encouraged to think critically and speak up, whether they are the "designated dissenter" or not.

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It's also important for leaders to be mindful of the tone they are setting in their communications to staff. You could easily be discouraging dissent without even knowing it. "People need to know that you are going to be for them, even when they don't do well," advises Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries for Leaders.

In the end, though, you actually have to want to hear what other people think. "Transparency and communication requires openness and a willingness to listen to peoples' ideas, thoughts and opinions," says Jim Scott, co-founder of Minneapolis-based creative agency Mono. Encouraging a diversity of opinions will ultimately help a business grow and improve, Scott says.

Telling employees you want their honest feedback is a step in the right direction. Showing them that you mean it is even better.

Harrison Monarth is the founder of GuruMaker -- School of Professional Speaking. He's also the author of The Confident Speaker and Executive Presence.

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