Is Honesty The Best Policy?

Skewing facts often supports status quo and inferior results.

August 12, 2010
James Collins
James Collins is Credit Union Magazine's humor columnist.

Are you always honest with your employees? Really? Let's take a test.

Perhaps you’ve encountered these individuals:

• Employee A comes to work on time, is always energetic and kind, and his customer-service skills ensure he has plenty of dates. But his intellect is approximately equal to that of a pet rock. In fact, you often think he must have a day planner reminding him to “breathe,” or else he’d pass out by lunch. Do you mention his shortcomings?
• Employee B enjoys total command of her area, resulting in high efficiency and few errors. But she routinely comes in late, takes long lunches, and is renowned for having a demeanor that would make Genghis Khan weep. Do you talk to her about it?
• Employee C is a pleasant, intelligent, hard-working individual whose only issue is that he smells like something the cat dragged in, vomited on, and then buried for several months. Is this the human resource department’s issue or yours?

As managers, we’re taught to avoid direct confrontation, emphasize strengths, downplay weaknesses, and above all, don’t get the credit union sued. Basically sound advice.

That is, unless you want to succeed. If so, I propose you tell staff: “From tomorrow forward, we will now be honest. If your customer-service skills are akin to shoving the member in a shredder and turning it on, I will tell you. If you balance your teller drawer like the government manages the federal budget, I’ll tell you. And if you think doing something wrong can’t make another human’s life miserable, I’ll set you straight on that, too.”

I’ve been an increasing advocate of this honesty policy since I became a Canine Search and Rescue volunteer. A variation of this speech, presented by an experienced canine operations lead, was the highlight of my first day. At the time, I didn’t quite understand his point. But years (and many missions) later, the value of “full disclosure” is readily apparent.

Applying my canine lessons to the credit union, I found that we tend to innocently skew the facts for the sake of being supportive. But what we end up supporting is status quo and inferior results.

For example, have you heard (or told employees) these fibs?:

• “Your best is all we can ask for.” While doing one’s “best” is always an accomplishment, it may not result in an acceptable outcome. Naturally, a person’s best is constrained by a combination of ability, experience, and knowledge. Can the “best” be “better”?
• “Your strengths overcome your weaknesses.” A better approach: “If you have a strength, use it. If you have a weakness, fix it. There will be times, not of your own choosing, when all that lies between success and failure are your abilities.”
• “You’re a team player, so don’t criticize the actions of others.” Acknowledge that all parties share a common goal. The team is not, by definition, an adversarial environment. Opinions, and even criticisms, should call for inflection, not defense.
• “I value your opinion.” If it’s so valuable, do you ask for it, accept it, and deal with it?

What organizations can make this leap to full honesty? Those with management teams that can fess up to failures faster than Tiger Woods with a marriage counselor. As management acts, employees will follow.

And as long as both groups are sincere, organizations can begin to move beyond their limitations. Not because they’re told to do so; but because it fulfills a common purpose.

JAMES COLLINS is chief financial officer at O Bee CU, Tumwater, Wash. Contact him at 360-943-0740.