The phrase “brutal honesty” makes a lot of people cringe.
It brings up memories of confronting someone about a difficult situation or perhaps being confronted about something that made us feel deeply uncomfortable. We think of films and TV shows in which a little bit of untimely brutal honesty gets a character fired or dumped.
We imagine making a fool of ourselves or listening to harsh feedback we really don’t want to hear. We imagine being called out or getting kicked when we’re already down.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s time to work through some of your fears and embrace the beauty of honesty.
In the entrepreneurial world, brutal honesty can be a powerful tool for taking your business to the next level. It is every bit as important as the “fail fast” startup mantra.
You can let yourself and loved ones live in a type of dream world, in which everyone smiles but nothing productive takes place, or you can get real and take monumental strides toward achieving your goals.
The difference comes down to your level of honesty.
In this article, we’ll investigate two business scenarios in which brutal honesty is critical to success. By the end, you’ll know why your business needs brutal honesty, and how to bring it into your workplace.
Two Directions of Brutal Honesty
There are many everyday situations that would be improved with a little more directness and honesty. But for the sake of providing actionable and specific advice in this article, we’ll only dive deep into two.
- The first form of brutal honesty is with yourself. How do you take some of the bias out of your daily decision making? Are you really spending your time and strengths where they matter?
- The second form of brutal honesty is with your audience or customers. The more transparent you can be with them, the more closely they can connect with your vision.
Neither is easy. But with enough patience and practice with applying brutal honesty professionally, you can transform the way you live and run your business.
Let’s dive into each form more thoroughly:
Being Honest With Yourself
We all know the moment in every drama film when a main character arrives at the conclusion that seemed painfully obvious to everyone else all along. I was wrong about ________ the whole time.
In the context of the film, the character usually has to go through some dark turn of events before they finally arrive at their moment of self-confrontation and self-realization.
In other words, life eventually forces the character to settle their score with the person in the mirror.
As an entrepreneur, it’s inefficient to wait for life to break before you’re jolted to awareness that there are problems to solve.
You should instead rely on checks and balances in your everyday that bring you to think honestly about situations, people, and decisions. It’s the difference between betting the future of your business on deliberate, clear thinking versus waiting for serendipity or luck.
Here are some of those checks and balances you can put in place so you remain brutally honest with yourself:
Trade Serendipity for Systems
Ray Dalio, famed investor and one of the wealthiest people in the world, has become known in the business and finance world for many reasons. Perhaps the most peculiar is the way in which he implements brutal honesty as a system in his business.
Among his many keys to success, Dalio established systems for “radical transparency” among employees at his firm. If you read or listen to some of the stories of this radical transparency in action, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for everyone involved in almost every story. The straightforwardness sounds painful.
And the process of learning how to foster such blunt interpersonal communication was not easy. People working at his firm, Bridgewater Associates, often got their feelings hurt. Morale sometimes shot down.
What did Dalio do? He took patient steps to meet with each member of his company to find out the best way to communicate with them. These conversations transformed brutal honesty from one-off experiences to ongoing conversations. It became a mechanism people could expect rather than an occasional blip they never knew to expect.
Now, should you implement the same level of radical transparency as Bridgewater Associates?
For most workplaces, I’d argue that Dalio’s are probably outlier practices. You can still have incredibly effective candor and straightforwardness without hurting feelings along the way.
Here’s a rule to remember about brutal honesty: Invite it for yourself before you dish it out to others.
It’s one thing to corner your employees one by one and say, “Let me tell you what I really think,” and then start spewing unfriendliness out of nowhere.
Instead, you should begin by inviting brutal honesty toward yourself. What does this look like?
Check-in With Yourself
First, you need to be honest with the person in the mirror. But how do you muster that level of self-awareness?
First, give yourself designated moments to check in. You can set a few alarms throughout the day. These will remind you to step back and consider what emotions are currently going on. Are you worried? Happy? Fearful? Angry?
Simply acknowledging the emotion gives you perspective for upcoming decisions. You’ll have better awareness of where you’re coming from in that moment. These can also interrupt projects and allow you to question whether you’re the right person—with the right time and skill—to be doing this work.
Be Aware of Below-the-Surface Issues
Sarabeth and I are married and we run a business together. When one or both of us get upset during a conversation, we try to step back.
We ask ourselves: Am I actually upset about the topic at hand, or am I just hungry? Have I had enough sleep? Basically: what lizard-brain needs aren’t being met?
Sometimes having basic needs unmet impacts the conversations we have and the decisions we make.
Remember the “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign from Snickers? The punchline is so funny because we all know it’s true. Being aware of the emotions and the needs going on in your body can impact how you make decisions.
Making time for self reflection is important. But if you want to get the most out of these check-ins, you must be clear about what you’re reflecting on. If you just ask how you’re doing, in general, you’re going to get general answers.
Instead, determine what you should reflect on.
- How am I doing with project allocation?
- Am I pulling my weight?
- Are my business and time priorities where they should be?
Hire a Personal Coach
A little self reflection goes a long way. But if you want to take your analysis to another level, you can hire a coach or find an accountability partner.
A good coach offers several benefits:
- Accountability on hard decisions and habits
- Performance feedback
- Regular check-ins to make sure you stay focused on what’s important
Once you have the other elements in place, you can begin taking brutal honesty to work. Encourage employees to be brutally honest with you. You can do this by personally sitting down with each member of your team—like a kinder, gentler Ray Dalio—to tell them specifically the level of honesty you’re looking for from them.
Being Honest With Your Audience or Customers
Authenticity is powerful. People are drawn to it. Many of us can tell when someone is authentic or disingenuous. As humans, we have a knack for noticing when we’re being shown someone’s true self versus when they have an ulterior motive.
If you can be authentic—brutally honest—with your customers, they’ll notice the difference between you and your competitors.
Here’s how that can play out.
Listening as a Content Marketing Strategy
Content marketing has become a very popular method for driving customers to buy products and follow brands. One of the underlying keys to successful content marketing is giving away as much value as possible for free to the reader or viewer.
How do you know what is valuable to your ideal reader or customer? You ask them.
Many people fear asking their subscribers such questions. They worry that by asking what their followers want—or why they follow you to begin with—readers will begin to question these things themselves, and ultimately unsubscribe.
Of course, this is a possible response when you’re asking for brutal honesty. The honest truth might be that your brand doesn’t really give them much value, so they tell you by unsubscribing.
But the more likely response is that you’ll form a deeper connection with your reader. You’re turning a monologue (your newsletter or blog) into a two-way conversation.
That conversation allows your followers and customers to tell you what they actually want to see or hear from you. Do they want additional courses about new subjects? Do they wish you offered white labeling in your software dashboard? Do they want to know the tactics and secrets you used to build your own company?
Until you ask, you’ll never know what readers and customers want. But once you know, you can add exponentially more value to them.
Find Opportunities in Your Blindspots
Our natural tendency is to hide when we know something is wrong or when we’ve made a mistake. Asking for feedback after we’ve butchered something sounds like asking for further pain and punishment.
Yet often, the way out of mistakes is by proactively seeking feedback from others. Listening to others is how you choose your next direction.
Openness in Public Relations
One of the best examples of this type of communication came from Tylenol. In the 1980s, Tylenol ran into a public relations disaster. Someone had poisoned a few bottles of Tylenol in one city, resulting in multiple deaths.
Unsurprisingly, these deaths made national news. Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol’s parent company) could have tried to weather the storm until the attention passed. They could have tried to lay low and remain silent while the world around their brand panicked, as many companies choose to do.
Instead, they took the literal opposite approach. Johnson & Johnson applied ample resources toward communicating with and listening to the public. They gave frequent press briefings, stationed people every day on the street to gather feedback from the public, and took product off the shelves globally.
What they learned: People felt unsafe buying Tylenol. This feedback sent Johnson & Johnson to begin experimenting with higher safety measures. The result was the three-tiered safety seals that are standard on almost all medicine today.
By listening to the brutal honesty of their customers during a hard time, Tylenol became one of the most popular painkillers on the market. They bolstered their brand by listening carefully to customers, even when times were very hard.
Communication is Key
To understand why your business needs brutal honesty, all you need to do is flip the script. Ask yourself: How do the companies I love, and gladly buy from, keep me so interested in their products?
For most of us, it’s probably because these businesses make us feel understood, cared for, or listened to. These brands seem to go out of their way to improve our shopping or learning experience in ways that cater to our convenience and desires.
The secret is, these companies wouldn’t know how to improve your shopping experience in these ways until they first stopped to learn what experiences you care about. In other words, the companies we love tend to invite brutal honesty from their followers because they know how critical that feedback is to their success.
Are you as honest as you could be in your life or business? Ever been too honest? Let’s discuss in the comments.