Why honesty might not always be the best policy at work

Delivering harsh feedback under the guise of “honesty” may actually undermine trust. Here are four considerations that can help you deliver better—and still honest—feedback.

Why honesty might not always be the best policy at work
[Photo: Charles/Unsplash]

The 24/7 news cycle, chants of “fake news,” and the spread of disinformation on social media had writer Judi Ketteler worried about the state of honesty in the world. Did it matter anymore? Then, came an interaction with a doctor she was interviewing for a project. He stated that his hospital did more of a particular procedure than any other in the region.


Ketteler pushed for quantification. Were there any studies or objective sources to back up that claim? “He hemmed and hawed a bit, and finally, he’s like, ‘Listen, if Donald Trump can get up there and say whatever he wants, we can say that we have the highest volume of ablation in the region,'” Ketteler recalls.

That exchange set Ketteler off on an exploration of honesty that she captures in her new book, Would I Lie To You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World that Lies. In it, Ketteler shares some important insights about honestly, as well as distinctions between being honest and sharing the unvarnished truth under any circumstances, regardless of the consequences.

While honesty is a highly valued trait in leaders, it’s usually not just one set of facts delivered without regard for the context or consequences, Ketteler says. In fact, that approach can backfire. “I have friends that I rely on to be brutally honest with me and vice versa. And it works, right? But most of the time in the workplace, I’m going to guess that that’s not a very good approach,” she says.

Being aware of the situation, timing, and individual can help you decide the ground rules for your honest evaluation and feedback. Here are some things that you should think about before you give “brutally honest” feedback in the workplace.

Time the response well

Let’s say an employee just gave a big presentation to the group and didn’t exactly nail it. You may have negative criticism to relay. However, now you have a decision to make: Is it best to share it immediately in front of the group or wait and share the feedback in private?


If you have a culture where sharing honest feedback in front of a room full of people is expected and encouraged, engaging in constructive criticism of the presentation may be the best way to be honest. However, if the individual is going to be humiliated after being criticized in front of a room full of peers or colleagues, you may ultimately undermine your relationship with them.

“We get very impatient with our honesty sometimes, instead of realizing there’s more than one chance and there can be a better way to facilitate something that isn’t going to demoralize,” Ketteler says.

Know your audience

Different people respond well to different types of feedback. A good manager communicates with team members to understand how they like to receive feedback and what helps them best. Some may prefer a short, just-the-facts evaluation while others may want to have longer conversations that include advice about how to improve. Both are honest, but delivering in the way that is most helpful for the employee is going to build a stronger relationship—and, likely, a more skilled employee.

“What happens in the workplace a lot of times is that people don’t really communicate very well with each other about what they need from each other,” she says. Understanding how to frame your feedback is important, too.

Be compassionate—to a Point

Ketteler says that kindness and compassion can help take the sting out of criticism or negative exchanges. However, you also need to be mindful that being kind or preserving the other person’s feelings doesn’t get in the way of delivering the information the other person needs to hear.


In one study she cites in her book, groups of people evaluated poorly written essays. Some were told a sad story about the writer’s background. Those who felt compassion for the writer tended to inflate the quality of the essay. While that may have made them feel like they were protecting the writer from being hurt over negative criticism, the result was that the writer didn’t get the feedback necessary to make the essay better and improve their skills overall.

“You don’t want to be honest because you don’t want to cause any more harm, but really withholding something that would be helpful for them to know is doing them more harm,” she says.

Consider the outcome you want

Sharing negative or hurtful feedback when there’s a reason to do so is one thing. But, before you do, consider the outcome you’re trying to achieve. Will it help the person become better at the job? Or does it not really matter?

As Shelley Osborne wrote in Fast Company in April 2019, “feedback focused solely on shortcomings isn’t effective. But I don’t think that the problem is feedback itself, but the way that managers frame and deliver it.”

Think about whether your employee will truly benefit from knowing everything they did wrong, Ketteler says. “That winds up demoralizing people far more than it helps,” she says.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites