I’m Telling You the Truth, Honestly!

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

Feedback is an integral component of leadership.  Feedback lets others know what they do well and what they need to improve on.  Feedback can motivate or demotivate, depending on how it’s delivered.  Feedback aids in developing others—or not–again, depending on how it’s delivered.  Honest feedback is therefore critical to a leader’s relationship with others.  Leadership is about relationships and honesty is key to any relationship.  Honesty instills trust between individuals.  Without honesty, trust quickly erodes.  But what is honesty?

Like many important words, honesty has a variety of definitions.  Ask a group of 30 people to write down a definition of honesty and you’ll get 30 different definitions.


A joint study was conducted recently by researchers at the University of Montana and the University of California.  They looked at two types of honesty:  discretionary honesty and obligatory honesty.  Discretionary honesty is when a person is honest with another, yet they choose to omit certain aspects of the message.  Obligatory honesty is when a person tells the entire uncensored truth.  Interestingly, the researchers found than men utilized discretionary honesty more often and women utilized obligatory honesty more often, yet most assumed that men and women defined honesty the same!

The concepts of discretionary honesty and obligatory honesty are essential aspects of honesty that leaders need to understand, particularly when leading men and women.  A female leader utilizing obligatory honesty while providing feedback to a male subordinate might not go over very well.  Conversely, a male leader providing feedback utilizing discretionary honesty to a female subordinate likewise, might not go very well.  Outside observers, both male and female, might be confused by the unspoken differences in honesty.  While honesty may be the best policy, an understanding of exactly what honesty is and how feedback will be understood by the receiver and others may be even more important to a leader.

I found the result of this study to be of no surprise.  As a man, I believe in discretionary honesty like everyone else.  What about you? Please leave an honest comment below.


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