Honesty is a treasure we all value deeply. It’s that spark of authenticity that we seek in the people around us, preferring the company of those whose essence is marked by sincerity, rather than those who stray from the truth.

In our personal lives, it’s more or less clear to all of us that this is an admirable quality. But what about organisational culture? Is honesty at work something that works in our favour?

What will I read about in this article?

 

Honesty at work as a competitive advantage

The word honesty has its roots in the Latin term “honestitas”, which translates into the ability to always act with the truth as a standard. To be honest is to be transparent, to try to show your true self to the world without distortion, as Plato said, and to distance yourself from rhetoric or artifice.

However, it is important to differentiate between honesty and integrity, even though they are closely intertwined. While the former focuses on being true to the reality we perceive from the outside, the latter goes one step further: it’s about being true to our inner reality, to those principles and values that define who we are at our core. Therefore, we can say that honesty is the pillar on which the structure of integrity is built.

Although it is sometimes seen as a disadvantage in the workplace— as it involves acknowledging one’s mistakes, apologising and, in the end, being more vulnerable than one would prefer to appear—, more and more organisations are promoting honesty as a core value in their people and leadership models, not just as an aspiration but as a necessity.

Honesty in organisations facilitates ethical decision-making and encourages diversity by giving space to different voices, fostering a positive, non-toxic culture.

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In this sense, some theorists speak of the Chief Truth Officer, a leader understood as a person who communicates accurate and truthful information, both internally and externally. In the end, honesty is a competitive advantage that translates into a strong organisation that can be trusted.

 

An empirical study on the idea of honesty in the workplace

Being honest goes beyond simply telling the truth. According to a recent study, being honest does not always mean telling everything we know. Sometimes withholding information can also be a form of honesty.

To better understand what it means to be honest at work, a team of researchers conducted a literature review on this topic. Their research came to the following conclusions:

* Honest content: this is about telling the truth rather than a falsehood or distorted truth. According to the authors, the concept of honest content refers to the accuracy of the content that the communicator shares with the recipient about results, performances and behaviours.

* Honest disclosure. Unlike honest content, honest disclosure is a more complex concept. Sometimes withholding information can be an act of honesty. In the private sphere, for example, withholding confidential information that a friend has entrusted to us represents an act of honesty towards that person, as it respects his or her trust, intimacy and privacy. The same is true in the workplace. In situations of confidentiality, such as the development of a new product or service, or possible acquisitions, mergers, or sales, withholding information from customers, competitors or friends is an act of honesty towards the organisation.

* Honest delivery: Honest delivery refers to the way in which the communicator shares the message to the recipient, ensuring that the recipient fully understands the information provided. The manner in which information is delivered can alter the recipient’s understanding. It is crucial to deliver the message in an appropriate manner, considering the place, space, time and speed required.

* Intellectual honesty: unlike the previous dimensions that affect the recipient (content, dissemination and delivery), intellectual honesty focuses on the communicator him/herself. It involves the active search for information to evaluate and update what needs to be communicated. It’s an interpersonal exercise.

 

estatua sobre la honestidad laboral

Honesty at work and the nuances of communication

The authors show that being honest is more than telling the truth. It means sharing information accurately and completely, explaining it correctly so that everyone understands it, and thinking carefully about what we are saying.

And they offer us 4 reflections that we can make in order to discern the concept of honesty:

  • Am I telling the whole truth? We need to make sure that what we share is real.
  • Am I telling everything important? It’s not just about telling the truth, it’s about sharing the whole story.
  • Am I explaining it well? It is advisable to check that what we say is well understood and to share it at the right time and in the right way,
  • Have I thought about what I am going to say? Before you speak or write that email, it’s a good idea to stop and think about whether what you’re going to say is correct and whether you’re sure about it.

And at the organisational level?

* Encourage a code of conduct that integrates honesty: Organisations can encourage or revise a code of conduct that sets clear expectations for honesty in the workplace, addressing the dimensions of honest content, honest disclosure, honest delivery and intellectual honesty.

* Incorporate honesty criteria into selection processes: this could help ensure that people who value and practice honesty are recruited.

* Offer specific training and development programmes: Organisations interested in promoting honesty among their employees could also offer specific training, mentoring or coaching programmes to help their employees develop the four proposed dimensions of honesty. These initiatives would not only improve organisational culture, but also the personal and professional growth of their employees.

In conclusion, far from being a disadvantage, sincerity and transparency at work strengthen the bonds between colleagues, foster an atmosphere of mutual trust and promote effective communication in the organisation. Honesty at work not only plays in our favour, but also stands as an invaluable treasure that enriches our professional and personal lives, projecting us towards a more promising and authentic future.

 

References:

  • T. E. Becker, “Integrity in Organizations: Beyond Honesty and Conscientiousness,” Academy of Management Review, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 154–161, Jan. 1998, doi: 10.2307/259104.
  • S. E. Cha et al., “Being your true self at work: Integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations,” Academy of Management Annals, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 633–671, 2019, doi: 10.5465/annals.2016.0108.
  • J. P. Bouilloud, G. Deslandes, and G. Mercier, “The Leader as Chief Truth Officer: The Ethical Responsibility of ‘Managing the Truth’ in Organizations,” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 157, no. 1, pp. 1–13, Jun. 2019, doi: 10.1007/s10551-017-3678-0.
  • B. Cooper, T. R. Cohen, E. Huppert, E. E. Levine, and W. Fleeson, “Honest Behavior: Truth-Seeking, Belief-Speaking, and Fostering Understanding of the Trutth in Others,” Academy of Management Annals, pp. 1–88, 2023.