To be honest

If you knew you could improve someone’s performance by having a difficult conversation, you would have that conversation, wouldn’t you? Easy. How about if that person was the company Chairman? More difficult, perhaps. Would it be easier if you knew that the Chairman craved honest feedback, and was desperate to hear from you?

So what’s stopping you?


Apart from the understandable apprehension of discussing performance issues with a board member, perhaps one of the biggest reasons is that you probably can’t be sure s/he wants any feedback. You might expect that someone in that position doesn’t need it.

A few years ago I worked as a freelance tutor for a personal leadership training organisation. We delivered week-long experiential training courses in the wilds of Warwickshire. They were residential and although a significant proportion was outdoors, they weren’t the sort of course which was designed to physically “break” delegates.

Even though I say it myself, the training was excellent. In many cases it was genuinely life-changing, but at the very least it was thought-provoking, thoroughly engaging and eye-opening. It was the sort of experience where there was nowhere to hide. Individual and team performance was objectively measured, and there were plenty of opportunities to improve throughout the week. Indeed, the entire course was based on the principle of self-realisation and continuous improvement. I had originally attended as a delegate myself and I was immediately hooked.

Honesty, openness and personal accountability were important themes of the course. Each week ended with a personal feedback session, during which every delegate was invited to receive feedback from every other delegate. Although by the end of the course delegates had known each other for only one week, the course had a way of bringing people together, and by the end of the week strong and meaningful bonds had invariably formed. Needless to say, the feedback session could often be intense and was frequently moving.

One particular course is indelibly etched on my mind, and after having share it countless times verbally over the years, I want to share it here. I’m not breaking any confidences in doing so. No delegate is named, and the main player encouraged me to share his story in the hope that it would inspire others to change their behaviour.

On this particularly memorable course, one of the delegates was a company Chairman, retiring at the end of a long and successful career. Over a period of several years, every member of his board had attended the training and having enjoyed it so much, they decided he should experience it himself. It was a retirement gift. It was quite normal for such senior people to attend the course, but as a retirement gift it was unusual.

He was a thoroughly decent and likeable guy. Diffident and retiring (pun not intended), he was a good listener and clearly competent. Absolutely the sort of person you’d want in your team. It was evident throughout the week that fellow delegates had a lot of time for him. They respected him; they listened to him and they enjoyed the wisdom he imparted. He was, in most respects, a typical delegate. He fitted in well; he engaged well; and critically, as he responded to the challenges of the course his performance improved accordingly.

In the final session, the feedback he received was clear. Delegates wanted him to be more direct. They urged him to speak his mind; to be more demanding – even to the point of being unreasonable. They needed him to push them harder in order to find their limits. They appreciated what he brought to the party – and they wanted to see more of it.

After the session had ended, I innocently asked him what he thought about the feedback, and whether he considered it valuable. Choking back the tears he said “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me this before? Oh how I wish I’d known all this years ago. It’s too late for me to change now. Just think what I could have achieved if I’d known this before. Please encourage everyone to have these conversations – even if they might be difficult. Whether it’s through upwards, sideways or downwards feedback – everyone deserves to hear what others are thinking about you“.

Back at work he had felt lonely, surrounded by competent people he had hired himself. He felt comfortable seeing the way they worked. He was happy with what they were doing and the way they worked. He felt he was demanding but not unreasonably so. And he had enjoyed a successful career. But the honesty of his team members during the week of the course had helped him improve his own performance. It had exposed a different side of him – to both others and himself.

He concluded by saying “It’s lonely at the top of an organisation. The further you progress up the ladder, the fewer the peers you have and the less likely people are to tell you what you need to hear. I could have been so much more, and achieved so much more if only people had been honest with me“.

Many people hadn’t felt able to offer him any feedback. Perhaps they were nervous. Perhaps they had assumed he didn’t want to know. In fact it was quite the opposite. And as a result, his performance never reached the level it otherwise could.

If you ever find yourself wondering whether you can help someone improve their performance, imagine them asking you the following questions:

  1. What makes you think I don’t want to know about this?
  2. Who are you to deny me the opportunity to change, to improve?

Don’t we owe it to each other to share our feelings about performance? Organisational hierarchy shouldn’t be a constraining factor. And when you experience the benefit from sharing valuable feedback, you will wonder what had been stopping you before.


Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
Inixiti – Improving graduate employability.


2 thoughts on “To be honest

  1. That’s an interesting story. It’s a tricky one though isn’t it, a lot of people really don’t appreciate unsolicited advice, wherever it’s coming from. That particular guy you mentioned might well have welcomed the feedback if it had come to him sooner, and within his work environment, but there are many who I don’t think would. You really have to have good diplomatic skills to approach this with someone hierachically more senior. There are ways of course, but you have to pick your moment. The environment you described is set up to facilitate those types of dicussions and so people are likely to be very receptive to feedback if they have properly engaged with the programme, but outside of that, eek, I don’t know! I agree with the principle I’m just not sure in practice how often it would work well!

    • Hi Vanessa – always good to hear from you! You’re absolutely right – I can think of plenty of people I’d be terrified to offer such advice to, and I’d steer well clear of doing such a thing. Maybe the thing is that we should try to create the environment which makes it easier for others to give us advice. So it’s more about being receptive and open.

      Just thinking about your comment made me recall a post from a while ago “Friends. How well do they really know you?” which was all about how we often don’t let others get to know us. Perhaps there is some similarity between these two things? I think the endpoint is clear though. If only we could better know what others could tell us, we might be capable of more. The trick is to make that happen.

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