Great Employees Are Honest (Behavior #2)

Honest and trustworthy behavior sounds so simple, but it is often hard to deliver.  And while most good bosses will take the truth and put it to productive use, too many react negatively and a few actually attempt to kill the messenger.  Getting honesty right takes finesse, and sometimes a good sense of timing as well.

What is meant by “Honest and Trustworthy.”

Being an honest and trustworthy employee is not as simple as abruptly blurting out in a crowded meeting that the boss has toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her shoe.  The honest employee speaks truth to the boss about things that actually matter – starting with anything that might be going wrong in his own area of responsibility.  This can be tough, particularly when the boss is of a type where every “problem” must have a name attached to it.  But if you aim to be a great employee, you must find a waythrough clever packaging and carefully selected timing.

I once worked for a boss that explicitly demanded that he never be surprised by anything.  When even the smallest of problems popped up, he expected to be prewarned – this despite the fact that providing said prewarning could result in a healthy dose of backlash.  A non-confrontational person by nature, I found myself flinching over the prospect of delivering ANY bad news to this guy.  My reaction was predictable – I held back bad news in the hopes that something good would happen to at least take the edge off of it, if not totally turn the situation around.  Sometimes that happened.  Usually, not.  On more than one occasion, I managed to get myself in even bigger trouble than I would have been if I’d just been upfront.  I’m sure my approach cost me in the long run, and I can only recommend to those striving to be great subordinates that, in this case, they NOT follow my example.

Being trustworthy, in addition to the obvious maintaining of confidences, means the boss can depend on your honesty, particularly when she needs it.  When I had several General Managers reporting to me, many of which were remotely located, being able to trust their honesty was critically important.  This meant that not only could I depend on them to let me know when there was a problem, but I could also expect them to inform me when they didn’t agree with strategies, policies, or decisions.  One GM became notorious for underselling every problem that came along, never talking about problems up front, and often attempting to divert attention from critical areas where he felt vulnerable.  Another GM was prickly and sometimes difficult when pushed for greater results, but he was always completely honest with me.  In fact, he didn’t hesitate letting me know when the sales strategy I personally authored wasn’t working in his territory – that took some guts.

I’ll let you guess which one of these two managers was more valuable to me!

Form your own conclusions, stand up for what you believe

More so than any other characteristic, being honest and trustworthy takes courage.  Courage to admit your own possible failures and shortcomings.  Courage to lay out the truth, as you see it.  Courage to sometimes even tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

That’s tough in a business environment, particularly when there’s a lot at stake.  To make honesty work with the minimum amount of risk, there are a series of steps you can take to at least partially protect yourself from unintended consequences.  Don’t kid yourself, however, sometimes being honest means suffering a bit in the short term in order to deliver more value over the long haul.

Determine what the boss really wants

Make an honest assessment of what the boss really wants.  What does she seem to value? How do the boss’s most successful subordinates behave?  If your supervisor rewards “yes men” and punishes those that are truthful, take the hint and be cautious with your honesty.  Look past initial reactions, which can often be negative – especially when perceived criticism is involved –  and instead watch what the boss does with the honest feedback she is given.

Speak early rather than late

In most cases, you’re well advised to express smaller concerns when problems first emerge than waiting until the situation turns into a big stinking pile.  Sure, you’ll speak up on subjects where you likely could have avoided saying anything, but those small moments of anxiety will be more than offset if and when a big issue blows up in your (and the boss’s) face.  Besides, how will your boss ever appreciate the obstacles you are successfully overcoming if you don’t talk about them?

Private, not public

Sometimes it is impossible to hold back honest disclosures in a public setting, but generally those observations should be saved for private conversations.  Sometimes the boss may demand that you take a stand in a public setting, and when put on the spot in this way it is usually best to be honest.  Sometimes employees have limited contact opportunities with their boss, and if they don’t speak in a public setting, the words will never be spoken.  When the opportunity exists to deliver “bad news” or a dose of “tough love” to the boss in a private setting, however, take it ten times out of ten, if for no other reason than you can’t be sure where the direction the discussion might take.  Do you really want to have the boss shooting down your idea in public?  Or castigating you in front of your peers for a developing problem in your area of responsibility?  Why even give her that opportunity?

Speak softly

Nobody likes to receive bad news and no one wants to deliver it.  You can soften your delivery by using two tried and true techniques.

1.       Deliver your message in a palatable way.  My favorite technique for this is what I call the “bad news sandwich.”  Take two items that are positive and slide the negative item between them.  Start and end your discussion on an upbeat note.  Using this method, you blunt the tough message by giving the boss of a sweet taste up front, and then remove the bitter aftertaste once you’ve delivered it.  Please note that doesn’t always work – I’ve had bosses that knew something bad was coming, and ignored the initial slice of good news and never allowed me to deliver the last.  That happens most frequently when the “bad news” is something that the boss really, really doesn’t want to hear.  Most of the time, however, serving up a “bad news sandwich” is a good way to package tough truth.

2.       Provide “completed work.”  By this I mean that you should deliver a proposed solution anytime you point out a problem.  This makes your honest revelation sound a lot less like criticism, and a lot more like the opening of a problem solving session.  If you plan on slaughtering the boss’s sacred cow with your honest observation, however, don’t be surprised if tactic this doesn’t work.  For most issues, most bosses will appreciate the fact that you’re not just throwing the issue at their feet for them to solve.

Can you take honesty too far?

Absolutely.  By bluntly delivering honest observations or hard facts to the boss, by criticizing her in a public setting (particularly if her boss is around), by going after core beliefs, or by making it personal, you can definitely alienate the boss.  Going too far will result in you being labeled difficult, curmudgeonly, or even defiant.  Once you are so classified, your effectiveness with that boss will be greatly reduced – perhaps to the point of being completely ineffective.

All good things in moderation!


All bosses need honest feedback, both to alert them of potential problems and to identify their mistakes and potential pitfalls.  Not all bosses, however, are receptive to such feedback.  Often times the Great Employee can make their honest input much more palatable by following a few simple steps that soften the message and reduce personal risks.  Even though the boss may initially react in a negative fashion, most will grudgingly admit that honest and frank feedback from their subordinates is absolutely necessary for their own success.