When company values are not being lived, more often than not the culprit is total honesty. Without honesty, true accountability remains largely a theory. The fear, however, is that total honesty—that is honest feedback—will hurt feelings, damage relationships and alienate people, which leads to disharmony and disengagement.

Harmony and honesty

Leaders typically feel a tug-of-war between the conflicting values of harmony and honesty. Those who value harmony may tend to avoid tough conversations. Those who hold honesty in high regard may be unkind in their feedback.

Unfortunately, polarising on either end of this spectrum leads to weak leadership. But being honest doesn’t mean being unkind, and to be kind doesn’t mean beating around the bush. An outstanding leader from a global tech company explains that leading well requires you to be ‘a Viking with a mother's heart’.

This tug-of-war between honesty and harmony, she explains, often comes with the best of intentions. Like many managers she struggles with the paradox of honesty and harmony. To this end, it can be hard to deliver the tough messages even when they are necessary.

Honest feedback without hurting feelings

The problem comes down to this: how to get people to change their behaviour using honest feedback that doesn't disengage them or damage harmony. Being able to point to observable behavioural standards around your values is an important start. In addition, you want to be mindful about how you offer feedback.

Offering mindful feedback

Keep in mind that honesty is not opinion. It is observable fact. When people stray from your values, don’t shame them with judgments or evaluations. Don’t make them feel like bad people for what they’ve done. Simply detail the observed behaviour that is in question.

Words like bully, disrespectful, arrogant or mean are not observations; they are evaluations that are loaded with shame. When we share evaluations we associate the behaviour with the person, rather than loving the person and dealing with the behaviour.

Once you have identified the observable facts the behavioural change required usually becomes clear. This is the magic of a clear observable request framed in the positive—what you want. It assists in the resolution of the dilemma between harmony and honesty—the hallmarks of a great culture and great relationships.

This process creates a container for clear accountability and greater ease in ‘calling’ people on behaviours that are out of alignment with company values. At the same time, it prevents a culture of shame or fear and allows honest feedback without hurting feelings.