If I’m Being Radically Honest…

4 minute read 

Recently, I watched Tony Gonzalez’s inspiring acceptance speech as he was enshrined into the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame. During his remarks, he thanked his mother for her “radical honesty,” noting that she always “tells it like it is, she never sugar-coats it.”

For Gonzalez, her willingness to be frank with him was a gift, one that helped push him to be a better, stronger competitor and a better, stronger person. This idea of ‘radical’ honesty, as opposed to the everyday sort of honesty, brought to mind the continuing controversy in American culture of what it means to be direct and blunt (i.e. radically honest), versus offensive and disrespectful. Are these two categories one and the same? Is it possible to be one and not the other?

We often hear about how important it is to be transparent with colleagues, supervisees, and superiors—that complete honesty is necessary for optimally functioning organizations and internal processes, as well as to build trust with both internal and external stakeholders. Dispensing with obfuscation and “walking on eggshells” saves time, energy, and miscommunication in the workplace.

I’ve known plenty of people who wear it as their badge of courage: that you’ll always know where they stand, that they’ll be radically honest and to the point. They claim it’s a more efficient style, and sometimes it can be in the short-term, as the message gets sent without “beating around the bush.” It would appear that this style of ‘telling it like it is’ works for them. Perhaps it makes their lives easier, happier, and more successful—perhaps better all around.

But what impact does it have on their relationship with the person on the receiving end of that radical honesty? Our success in relationships within hierarchical organizations depends on the balance in our political capital ‘bank account,’ which is strongly influenced by our relationships with others.

Maybe the person with whom we’re blunt values efficiency and clarity more than respect, collaboration, and support, and our directness gains us a deposit into our political capital bank account with them. But my personal and professional experiences say that’s rarely the case. In fact, it’s been my experience that so-called radical honesty—the kind of honesty that requires the modifier of ‘radical’—far more often than not alienates others, and maybe even more importantly, it tells others that a) the speaker lacks the skills to convey their ideas in a manner that simultaneously carries clarity and emphasis, and b) the speaker lacks the patience necessary to spend time minimizing the risks associated with their need to communicate bluntly in service of their strong opinions.

In other words, those whose battle cry is, “I don’t have time to beat around the bush,” don’t have the critical 21st Century Leadership skill of emotional intelligence, and eventually they come to find they don’t have much political capital, either.

It’s true that sometimes leaders don’t have time for lots of explanation and discussion, especially during an emergent situation: “Cameron, I need you to do this NOW, and please don’t ask questions.”

But those instances are truly rare. And I have seen very few instances when this kind of barking, ‘radical honesty’ is practiced when speaking with a superior, which to me is a tell-tale sign that the practice is…selectively implemented. Whether our brave, blunt colleagues want to admit it or not, on some level, they know that kind of bluntness is not appropriate—such that they don’t engage in it when it could negatively impact themselves. Which, in turn, belies the all-too-frequent true motive of bluntness, a.k.a. radical honesty: stroking one’s own ego via power and control.

As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed senior citizens’ directness has become (or perhaps has always been?) ‘a thing.’ Grandpa gets a pass when he says whatever he thinks, no matter how outrageously offensive or hurtful it may be to others. I can see how an older person’s lot at that point in their life causes them to not care what anyone else thinks about their opinions, but the expression of these unfiltered thoughts still frequently causes conflict and stress among family and friends. And I think THAT is offensive. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I’ve even told my kids, don’t let me be THAT GUY! I hope to always value the people I’m with enough to thoughtfully engage my critical thinking and emotional intelligence skills, if for no other reason than to demonstrate my basic respect for others and my desire for good working and social relationships.

For next week: Consider which is more important to YOU: is our need for unfiltered self-expression more important than how our words make someone else feel? And, which better serves making our lives easier? Happier? More successful? At what point does honesty stop being constructive, and become destructive? Ultimately, it may help if we all examine our practice of radical honesty by considering what makes the communication so radical in the first place. Is it radical because it’s communicating something that could make the SPEAKER uncomfortable (e.g. something hard to admit or bring up), or is it radical because it’s something that could make the RECIPIENT uncomfortable (e.g. something that will shame, embarrass, or denigrate the recipient and make the speaker feel superior)?