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The Importance of Truth-Telling for a Leader

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Dee Ann Turner was Vice President, Talent and Human Resources for Chick-fil-A, Inc.  In her book “Bet on Talent: How to Create a Remarkable Culture That Wins The Hearts of Customers” she talks about the importance of truth-telling for a leader. She writes that “the kindest thing you can do for someone is tell the truth. This is especially true when providing feedback.” She tells us that truth-telling helps people perform better and often strengthens relationships; it’s likely that people would thank you for telling the truth, even when they don’t like it.
As a leader, this really resonated with me. I always enjoyed giving positive feedback, administering a good performance evaluation or promoting a team member. The flipside of this was not so enjoyable, but every bit as important. Some leaders will sugarcoat difficult messages, perhaps because they want to be liked or perhaps not to hurt the feelings of the person they were providing the feedback to, and I know that I did that over the years as well. But we do no favors to our team members, instead harming them, and not giving them the chance to improve, when we don’t tell them the truth. Here are a few specific situations in which it is important for leaders to tell their team members the truth:

  • Overall job performance. In the organization I worked at as a leader for nearly 38 years, I was always told by my leaders that an employee should never be surprised by their annual performance evaluation rating. What that meant was that I as their leader should be talking to my team members throughout the year, providing clear performance expectations and giving them feedback, both positive and constructive. But far too often, employees were surprised when they received their evaluation, anticipating a better review/rating than they actually received. After setting clear expectations, leaders need to regularly provide feedback so that there is no misunderstanding, and that both the leader and team member are on the same page at the end of the year. Each team member should always know where they stand at all times. Are they meeting expectations, not meeting expectations or exceeding expectations? And, if they are not meeting expectations, do they understand what is needed to improve their performance? A leader does their team members no favors by not being honest about performance that is not hitting the mark.
  • Performance on a developmental assignment. Employees who are intentional about their growth and development often take on stretch or growth assignments to aid them in their development. The assignments are called “stretch” because they are intended for the individual to stretch beyond their current level to see if they can be successful at a higher level. They are also called “stretch” because there is no guarantee that they will be successful with the challenging assignment. A lot is riding on these assignments (promotions, leadership opportunities, etc.), and your team members have a high degree of motivation to be successful. But sometimes, they are not able to successfully compete the assignment, and leaders must be honest in providing clear and specific feedback.
  • Potential or readiness for a higher job level. In my organization, we had job levels ranging from entry level to senior level. Not everyone would reach the senior level, though almost everyone aspired for it. Those positions had job descriptions and expectations which required advanced level skills and demonstrated leadership ability that not everyone had. Leaders have to be honest with their team members who don’t currently have the skills or experiences needed for those levels. They need to clearly communicate what would be needed in order to be considered for the senior level position. Some will be willing to do the work to be competitive for one of those positions and some will not. But all need to hear the truth from their leader about their particular situation.
  • On their readiness for leadership. One of my favorite things to do as a leader was to mentor those who were interested in a formal leadership position, or work with one of my team members who was. Unfortunately, not everyone who is interested in leadership will have the skills, competencies and abilities necessary for a leadership position. They may be a high performing team member, but not able to influence others, cast a compelling vision or inspire others to follow them. When we encounter those situations, we need to be honest with the individual, and clearly communicate the situation. This will be extremely disappointing for them, but hopefully the honesty of the leader will reduce their frustration down the road.

I agree with Dee Ann when she writes of truth-telling being kind. It will most likely not feel like that at the time, but perhaps later, when the emotion is taken out of the situation, the individual will thank you for being honest with them. I even had a friend, who after terminating a team member, was thanked by her for doing so, as the act led the individual to make some long overdue changes in their life. I understand that is an unusual reaction, but it was the result of a leader being truthful about a team member’s performance. What are some other situations you have found that it is important for a leader to tell the truth when providing feedback?

Author: Bill Pence

I’m Bill Pence – married to my best friend Tammy, a graduate of Covenant Seminary, St. Louis Cardinals fan, formerly a manager at a Fortune 50 organization, and in leadership at my local church. I am a life-long learner and have a passion to help people develop, and to use their strengths to their fullest potential. I am an INTJ on Myers-Briggs, 3 on the Enneagram, my top five Strengthsfinder themes are: Belief, Responsibility, Learner, Harmony, and Achiever, and my two StandOut strength roles are Creator and Equalizer. My favorite book is the Bible, with Romans my favorite book of the Bible, and Colossians 3:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 being my favorite verses. Some of my other favorite books are The Holiness of God and Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. I enjoy music in a variety of genres, including modern hymns, Christian hip-hop and classic rock. My book Called to Lead: Living and Leading for Jesus in the Workplace and Tammy’s book Study, Savor and Share Scripture: Becoming What We Behold are available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.

One thought on “The Importance of Truth-Telling for a Leader

  1. Thanks, Bill. Well said and relevant.

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