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Making radical honesty work: Top tips

HR magazine recently explored radical honesty in the workplace. Cath Kidston people director Alex Snelling offers his advice on the topic

Radical honesty can be a powerful tool for HR professionals – if used in a culture of trust and in an open manner. Often the role of HR is to help managers and teams have great conversations and many of those so-called 'lightbulb moments' are often people finally facing issues and communicating rather than papering over the cracks. But getting people to live up to this ambition isn’t easy – here are a few thoughts to help HR professionals build a culture of radical honesty.

Build radical honesty into your way of working and let people know this

The first thing to be honest about is being honest. Even if your company culture or values don’t have a focus on honesty or challenge, you can build a culture within HR teams and your personal practice around it and communicate clearly to your stakeholders and team that they can expect this from you and you’d appreciate feedback on the results. Without starting with your personal practice any attempt to install a more radically honest culture won’t work. It’s important to share that your personal commitment to honesty comes from a place of wanting to be very open to feedback and guidance – you are on a learning journey as much as your stakeholders.

Make it explicitly and implicitly safe to be honest

Explicit safety is around what you say – set ground rules for meetings, encourage honest feedback and debate, and solicit views from quieter team members to make sure everyone has a chance to challenge and contribute. However, explicit safety is not as important as implicit safety – what you do and how you respond to radical honesty. When someone challenges your pet project, tells you some unwelcome news or starts a debate what do you do and how do you show that this is welcome and safe? Careful work to show that even if you disagree you appreciate and encourage the challenge is important. If you say you want radical honesty but people who try it find out quickly that the results are painful then your initiative won’t stick.

Multiply and deepen your perspectives

If you are only looking at the world one way you can only generate one limited perspective. Radical honesty calls on you to work harder to find the truth – whether that is on the factory floor, talking to store teams, engaging with customers or attending commercial meetings where HR may not have a seat. Your own honest challenges and feedback are much more credible if grounded in a customer or commercial perspective that calls on you to make regular 'learning safaris' out into the jungle of your business.

Give people insight for development, not lectures

For development conversations radical honesty can be highly effective – however the most powerful development lever is enabling individuals to come to radically honest conclusions about themselves. So as well as giving your views more directly, consider how you could work with people to develop their perspective. Prompt, constructive feedback on experiences can build learning quickly and honesty is more effective when served fresh, hot and linked to a shared experience. Equally, encouraging people to gather their own feedback and use tools like 360 surveys to get a more honest insight into how they perform and where they can grow will bring the best results.

British radical honesty

As a culture with a very developed sense of polite behaviour sometimes what you think is radical honesty can be taken as a little rude. Encouraging the British to be more radically honest means presenting that honesty tactfully. The message can still be radical, but the presentation needs to be careful. Asking permission and gauging the moment is important to make sure someone is ready for the conversation. Avoiding having a radically honest exchange in front of an audience is important at first. As the business acclimatises to radical honesty these exchanges can become more public – but best to start off carefully. British managers may respond better to an approach that is presented as pragmatic and 'down to earth' rather than as being about challenge. Choosing an informal setting can clear the way for a good conversation – a cup of tea unlocks a lot of honesty.

Further reading

Being 'radically honest' in the workplace