Earning the Blunt Truth
Human connection is something we all need. In fact, according to Maslow, it’s the most necessary thing for humans right after our basic physiological and safety needs like water, food, sleep, and personal and financial security.
Maslow calls it “Social Belonging” and it includes constructs like family and friendship. If a human lacks a sense of Social Belonging, they end up with feelings of loneliness and also become more likely to suffer from clinical anxiety or depression.
Due to this, we have evolved very complex social systems and customs to maximize our connectedness. The idea of family, community, and even countries exist, in part, due to our innate desire to stay connected and identify with each other in a common form.
Social media is another elaborate way of fulfilling this need. It has become so pervasive that people now can spend their entire lives pouring out their every thought and emotion hoping for a stronger sense of Social Belonging.
Yet when it comes to the workplace, we obediently put on a professional facade and follow the common workplace norms that accompany business life. We do this even if it comes at the cost of only knowing our co-workers marginally and having only the faintest of connection.
This seems unintuitive, given the immense amount of time we spend at work and because of how important Social Belonging is to each of us. Of course, this all makes sense if we refer back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – more important than Social Belonging is Safety.
Because of our proclivity to Safety, our main priority at work is to stay employed and get paid. That paycheck will fulfill our needs of having food to eat, a place to live, and medical care for our families. Chatting with Ingrid from payroll and learning about her new pug-corgi mix is a social plus, but it won’t provide little Timmy with the braces he needs.
Due to this imbalance, we adopt a certain professional personality at work that we confidently believe will allow us to keep our job, get paid, and maybe get a little of that Social Belonging we crave, but not too much. Admittedly, this charade has its benefits:
- It creates expectations of shit gets done here and this is not your home.
It’s not cool to be watching the latest season of Black Mirror during your sprint retrospective.
- People attempt to suppress negative emotions like anger.
You can’t run your demo if Roger went full Office Space on the computer in the main conference room because his code review failed.
- Employees have an assumed respect for their superiors, or at the very least, an understanding that those superiors are in charge. This provides a final source-of-truth for peer disagreements and company direction.
More than likely, your last argument with your boss about a feature that could affect hundreds of thousands of customers paled in comparison to your last argument with your spouse on who had to get back out of bed to turn the light off. Without a manager there to decide, you both stubbornly decided to sleep with the light on.
This professional attitude we carry with us at work is magnified in employee/manager communications. Suddenly, everything the employee says becomes more rehearsed and words are chosen more carefully. Happy hour after work no longer includes the boss unless Marissa from HR commits the cardinal sin of forwarding the invite.
When the boss walks by, eyes widen. Employees begin mentally scanning through all of the items they were supposed to do today, yesterday, and that one thing they were asked to do two months ago that they’re 95% sure was forgotten about. Employee’s prepare, in their heads, the responses they’ll give if asked about them.
“Yeah, we’ll be finishing all of the items in this sprint – but in our next sprint. We call it a marathon!”
“Yeah, my commit was the one that broke the build, but that’s only because Tracy didn’t lint her JS and how am I supposed to work in a file with tabbed code?!”
This professional, cover-my-ass attitude is likely the default outlook for many employees at numerous companies. The implicit knowledge that the boss can fire the employee at any time creates a power-dynamic that can lead to blaming, excuses, and worst of all – dishonesty. And it all comes back to the desire to keep my job, at any expense – including lying.
As a manager myself, if I want to know the status of a particular initiative, do I want the employee to tell me the status of 90% of the project but leave out the other 10% that’s not going according to plan? Do I want to hear that they’re behind, but leave out that it’s due to their teammate Kyle’s inability to ever hit a deadline? Or do I want to hear the blunt truth?
There is only one option I want: the blunt truth. With it, I may be unhappy, it may even cause more work for me, but I can at least readjust my expectations and I can begin the conversation around potential solutions. Any response that other than the blunt truth leaves me feeling there isn’t any action required by me and there is no way for me to improve the situation.
Unfortunately, the blunt truth option is only one option out of potentially dozens for this employee to choose from and that’s not a great ratio, statistically speaking.
Plucking the Needle
Receiving candid honesty from employees does not come free. Even in close personal relationships outside of work, we all filter our thoughts and actions to differing degrees to soften our opinions if we feel like it will offend someone. It’s probably not best if you go on a tirade in the comment section of Grandma’s latest political post, so we instead decide to scroll on.
We may even physically avoid someone just so we don’t have to broach a difficult subject. Maybe skipping this next trip to Grandma’s is going to be too contentious because even though you had a cool head earlier, you later, after a drink or two, decided to go back and write a full-fledged diatribe rebutting Grandma’s post.
If this is how we can act in our personal relationships with people who don’t have the power to take our Safety away, then you can imagine how much more narrow our filter becomes at work, and then even further with our manager. To override the innate feeling we have to fulfill Maslow’s Safety need requires immense trust and regular assurance from our manager.
So what techniques do managers have to earn the blunt truth and to continue to get it from their employees?
The most significant concept to follow is reinforcement.
With any type of action from others, the most effective way to encourage it to happen again in the future is to reinforce the behavior through your response to it. Because reinforcement can be either positive or negative, it’s important I touch on which should be used and when.
Negative reinforcement can be very effective with humans. Fear, shame, and guilt are all very powerful motivators that can be used to forcefully manage employees. Almost assuredly, there is a large population of the public that only go to work every day because they fear losing their paycheck. There are people who will be working late tonight because their boss publicly shamed them after a mistake they made.
Although these tactics do work, they should only be used extremely sparingly, if at all, and only if all other options have been exhausted. These tactics typically only work in the short-run and come with a myriad of other costs that almost always deem them unviable.
Because we want long-term results it’s best to practice a positive attitude and try and convey appreciation and encouragement when the blunt truth is shared. The tough part about this is that often the blunt truth contains news that may not thrill the manager or may just be something that the manager disagrees with.
It’s hard to meet this kind of news with positivity or even just neutral objectivity because its repercussions may have an adverse impact on the manager. He may now have to put in extra hours, he may now have to hold a lengthy discussion to try and bring the employee to his side, or may now have to pass on this same bad news to his own manager. If the manager reacts negatively to the news, gets emotionally agitated, or just gets downright furious with the employee, it will reduce the likelihood that this employee will want to share news like this again.
The response to blunt truth needs to find the delicate balance between expressing gratitude for having the guts to share it but also addressing the root problem. If an employee is consistently expressing bad news due to their incompetence and the manager is always meeting this news with positivity and thankfulness it won’t induce any change from the employee.
So how should a manager strike this balance?
The most straightforward, and my preferred way, is to just state it plainly. “Thanks for letting me know Jane, I know it wasn’t easy to share that with me.”
Prefacing the conversation with this one sentence frames the rest of the discussion in a different light. Just me having to think and say the sentence forces me to put myself in Jane’s shoes. This will likely disarm my own annoyance and maybe conjure up times where I’ve been in Jane’s situation myself.
If I were instead to react to Jane with vindictiveness, the rest of the conversation would become adversarial. At that point, the exchange now viciously loops around a defensive Jane, who isn’t focused on the solution but focused on proving her innocence.
The most salient point regarding reinforcement is that it should always motivate the employee to perform the action again next time.
Ultimately, earning the blunt truth comes down to a level of trust between a manager and their employee that renders Maslow’s Safety need moot. If an employee trusts that their manager will not punish them for sharing uncomfortable truths, then the worries of Safety dissolve and solutions can be discussed without issue.
So how does rapport typically progress between most people?
The simplified answer is that exchanges of increasing vulnerability, followed by reciprocal sharings, are what draw us to each other and increase our rapport.
If a stranger or acquaintance shares a vulnerable truth with us, it may catch us off guard, but we become much more likely to share something vulnerable about ourselves in return. If a distressed co-worker shares with us that their father recently passed away we’re not likely to just say “sucks for you”. In most cases, we will apologize, ask if there is anything we can do, and if appropriate, we may share our own story of our experience with a deceased relative.
This exchange humanizes each party and finds a common thread around an issue that has affected each deeply. Finding common experiences, interests, and ideas that affect two parties in a deeply meaningful way creates an immediate bond.
Building rapport ultimately boils down to this kind of interaction and it’s surprisingly economical in its process. If one party shares a low vulnerability item, the other party is likely to respond in kind. If one party shares a high vulnerability item, the other party is likely to respond in kind.
If over time two parties gradually share from lower to progressively higher vulnerability items, rapport is gained:
Low Vulnerability Interaction
John: “How was your weekend, Beth?”
Beth: “It was alright. I mostly just stayed in and caught up on some sleep.”
John: “Oh, sounds great. I love those kinds of weekends!”
Medium Vulnerability Interaction
John: “How was your weekend, Beth?”
Beth: “To be honest, it wasn’t the best. I was feeling a little down and mostly stayed in.”
John: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Let me know if you want to talk about it. I’m happy to lend an ear.”
High Vulnerability Interaction
John: “How was your weekend, Beth?”
Beth: “It was pretty rough, John… My boyfriend broke up with me and I’m having a really hard time with it. I’m not sure what I did wrong and I’m feeling pretty depressed about the whole thing.”
John: “Oh, Beth, I’m really sorry to hear that. I’ve been in a similar situation with my ex and for me…”
This very contrived example illustrates the different levels of vulnerability we decide to share with people depending on our established rapport with them. Each shared statement from Beth gets a reciprocal response back from John. When Beth decides to share more with John, he’s likely to share something of equal value back with Beth.
So how do we apply this knowledge to our professional relationships?
I wouldn’t suggest just blindly sharing your intimate personal details with others expecting that they will reciprocate. The progression must be gradual and boundaries should absolutely be respected. Some people have no interest in sharing personal information at work and those wishes should be respected. But just because you may not end up being best friends with your co-workers doesn’t mean that the rules of vulnerability don’t apply.
If Lorraine manages Paul, and Lorraine feels that Paul is struggling on a project but is failing to ask for help when he really needs it, Lorraine has an opportunity to both solve Paul’s issue and build rapport with him. Instead of just plainly telling Paul that he needs to swallow his pride and get the help he needs, she can share a story from her own career where she was in a similar situation and how she didn’t get help, which resulted in the failure of the project.
By sharing this story, Paul gets to see his manager in a vulnerable position. Instead of worrying that Lorraine is just unsatisfied with him, he sees Lorraine as someone who has been in a similar situation and is just watching out for him. These two scenarios may end in the same outcome for this particular project, but in future projects, Paul may now be more likely to come to Lorraine proactively when he’s in need of help.
This one exchange between the two is just a single brick in the wall. For it to stick and get all of the benefits of great rapport, this kind of pattern needs to be consistent.
Blunt Truth Building Opportunities
Reinforcement and building rapport can be done in pretty much any interaction whether it’s in person, via email, or even through chat. My favorite times for each depends on which it is.
Reinforcement is great in private settings, but it’s even better in public situations. Praising employees for their actions publicly taps into some pretty deep pride centers and sticks with people more intensely and for longer. This makes reinforcement great for group situations like daily standups, retrospectives, and weekly newsletters.
Rapport building is longer-form and is usually best in more intimate settings where vulnerability sharing is less risky. This makes it prime for regular one-on-ones, lunch, or water-cooler talk.
The Blunt Truth About Blunt Truth
So what are our key takeaways?
- Blunt truth comes from a mutual respect and deep trust between two parties
- That trust requires consistent upkeep and can be broken easily if trust is compromised. It requires constant vigilance from the manager and careful forethought when going into situations where you want blunt truth
- Building rapport through vulnerability sharing earns trust
- Reinforcement of blunt truth sharing continues and amplifies future blunt truth sharing
- The best opportunities for building rapport and reinforcing are in private and group settings, respectively