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Showing up with honesty to empower people

A close up pair of boots in front of a campfire with other people in the background around the campfire
Ember Experience stoke session

We have all heard the adage “Honesty is the best policy.” In recent Listening Tours, honesty with staff, transparency in communication and expectations, and role modelling of leadership have been identified as major pain points within staff experience.

Honesty is an important value and behaviour, but as a leader it can be a difficult tightrope to walk. Honesty is a key component to being authentic, fostering influence and connection with staff. Honesty can feel very challenging. Knowing exactly how to thread the needle of keeping those around you informed and sharing too much.

Considerations like:

  • When is the best time to share information?

  • What information do you share?

  • How do you share it?

  • What supports might you need for difficult messages?

It can almost seem intuitive to withhold (potentially) hurtful information, avoid having a difficult conversation, or failing to clearly state a personal or business truth. We, as leaders, often do these things to protect ourselves (your energy, your vulnerability, fear) and perhaps to protect the feelings of others.

This is something that I struggle with, sometimes daily. I have a habit, that I am actively working through of trying to “be nice” and by doing so, avoid crunchy conversations. This can create situations where I fail to share my feelings and perspectives (respectfully and responsibly) early on in a process or project, until it has become a much bigger deal. This can then create a lot of internal angst for me, and result in behaviour that can feel impersonal or even combative.

Late last year, we were trying to form our brand. As an organization we were building our website, logos, values, colours, imagery and written content. I admittedly was uncomfortable during the process. Early in the development stage I had reviewed the various ideas for the brand and key messaging, but something was off to me, in my gut. I kept my hesitations and observations to myself. Rather than sharing, I was actively choosing to withhold my feelings and thoughts.

When our marketing team presented our first draft of the marketing collateral and products, something hit me. This was all going to be live. As I dug into the written content and the current trajectory, I had very strong reactions to the draft. I didn’t feel heard or seen in the material. I then took it upon myself to rewrite 98% of the online copy. When the changes were revealed to my team, there were feelings of frustration, incompetence, confusion, and disengagement.

When we debriefed on the experience as a team, it was hard. I had to own up to the responsibility I had in creating the frustration in the team, as well as sit in uncomfortable feedback. One of the key learnings was a quick comment made by a team member that had profound impact. “If you just would have just told me what you thought, I could have run with your ideas.” In an interesting way it made me realize that the power I hold in the company has significant reach. It is critical to continually seek ways to communicate, early, honestly, and with clarity. I trusted deeply in the team around me and wanted to amplify their voice, and ensure they felt seen within the brand and content. I was scared because I didn’t want to be a leader that was overbearing and controlling. In the end, the results of me choosing to avoid and withhold fostered the exact emotions and reactions I was trying so hard to protect myself and the team from.

I am sure many of you may have had similar experiences. It is such a funny thing for leaders. At times we can get so focused on protecting the needs of the people around us by suppressing our honest experience, that we can begin to create a story that we are disempowered. This will create more personal fear and concern, build larger emotions and eventually when they become too big, it is likely we will likely behave in ways that are incongruent to how we want to. This cycle will result in lasting consequences to our people, the work we do and the effectiveness of your team. I hope by sharing this story, it encourages you to be honest with yourself and others. I hope you accept your own imperfections while also taking ownership of your errors when they impact others negatively. Below are some tangible actions you can consider when facing similar situations:

1. Take time to explore and reflect before the conversation

The place to start is understanding yourself, take a moment to explore why uncomfortable feelings may come up, what you do when they occur and how it impacts those around you.

  • Be aware of what uncomfortable feelings you may tend to get.

  • Have compassion for yourself, and your experience. There are no perfect humans, it is likely some or even several our behaviours may not connect with our intentions

  • Be mindful of the language and timing you are using

  • Provide context for the conversation with those interested parties

2. Be present and aware during the conversation

  • Be honest with yourself and with others

  • Remember that you want to be kind not nice. Niceness seeks personal comfort over anything else. Kindness is considerate, respectful and clear, when it comes to expectations, deliverables and responsibilities

  • Resist the urge to fix it

  • Share your boundaries and expectations going forward

  • Discuss your needs, and what support you may require in the future

  • If the conversation starts to feel too charged, or you are beginning to feel overwhelmed take a moment to step away. Everything does not need to be solved right away, take a few minutes to a day or two to reset. Ensure you set clear timelines for the next time you will chat, otherwise it can be easy to fall into avoidance

3. Follow up after the conversation

  • Follow up with the team or interested party and examine additional concerns or outstanding issues

  • Check-in on how you feel about the conversation

  • Create regular space for honest conversations with the whole team and individuals

Honesty is something that requires a personal commitment and focus that can come with a great deal of risk, consideration of delivery and vulnerability. Being honest with yourself, your team and in your leadership, practice builds trust, collaboration, and character.


Stoke Session Live

Ember Experience will be hosting a Stoke Session Live in September. Registration will be open soon. Follow us on social media and on our website to stay up to date with Ember.

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