How Honest Should You Be at Work?

how honest should you be at work

Recently, on a trip home, I found a newly framed note in my Dad’s study.

It read:

I know it was apparent I didn’t like hearing it, but I needed to. Thanks for saying it.

When I asked him about it – he told me this story from 35 years ago in his career. He was vice president and ended up in a team meeting with the president. As the president was polling the room for agreement with his recent decision (and getting it), my Dad spoke up. He told the president that while the president was right, it could be a career-ending decision and wasn’t wise given the circumstances.

The president froze, and then walked out of the meeting. That afternoon, the note above was hand-delivered to my Dad by the president’s secretary (it was before the age of executive admins).

Hearing that story made me wonder how many people would have also done that? Would you have felt it was your moral duty to speak up? Would you have worried about your job, taking care of your family, not wanting to be disliked or making waves?

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 as they say – but in that moment, you wouldn’t know if you were standing up for what needed to be said or handicapping yourself for the future.

There are always heroic whistle-blowers, people who put their careers and livelihoods at risk to protect others. But most of the time you’re not asked to call out illegal behavior, merely stand up against what you see as an incorrect decision or direction. And it can be hard. . .

First of all – how do you know you are right, especially if you are disagreeing with the majority? Secondly, is it really your job to call attention to every unwise choice your boss is championing – shouldn’t you choose your battles? Lastly, do you want to build your reputation as the naysayer? That can be challenging territory to occupy.

Any given situation can be a toss-up. It could work for you, as it did for my Dad. Or it can make you a persona non grata for a while.

This type of challenge really calls for some longer-term perspectives:

Perspective #1: Agree to Disagree

Dissension guarantees generally better-thought-out decisions. It can be your responsibility to search out and/or create workplace cultures that encourage conflict, healthy discussion, and speaking your truth – even if you are overruled. Whether your group makes the best choice at any given time is hard to know, but creating the space for dissension guarantees generally better-thought-out decisions.

One work group I worked with recently decided to have a rotating “devil’s advocate” for their meetings. They wanted to make sure they were building a culture of weighing pros and cons as opposed to one of “group-think.” What I loved most about this solution was the creativity they used to create their own solution to a common problem for agreeable groups that like each other.

I attached the quote below by Peter Drucker – because I agree. When you create a culture of open dissent, you are making it more likely you can truly get people on the same page to move your company strategies forward.

(Want further research on this topic? My friends CrisMarie and Susan gave a great Ted talk about how to build healthier teams with conflict).

Perspective #2: Increase Your Influence

The reality is that sometimes you will find yourself in more delicate situations. There will be times when you might be unwisely challenging someone’s authority or expertise if you speak up. Definitely awkward – likely ill-advised.

To prepare ahead of time for these situations, it’s important to cultivate your influence and diplomacy. How can you speak up by injecting curiosity and provoking more discussion rather than fomenting negativity?

It is an art to question someone’s assumptions without questioning the wisdom of that person himself or herself; one that takes time to practice and master.

Are you practicing it?

Start small with your kids and your friends. (Yes, moving on to your spouse or partner doestake more finesse!)

Try playing with these:

“Walk me through your reasoning. I want to make sure I’m fully understanding your thought process here.”


“Ok. Let me make sure I fully understand the situation. I’m assuming you want to do ABC because of XYZ – is that correct?”

The better you get at questioning to understand rather than to make your point, the more you’ll increase your influence – I guarantee it.

People won’t trust you if they don’t believe you are on their side – truly trying to understand where they are coming from. I believe my Dad succeeded because he was an incredibly loyal employee who built his reputation as a questioner, not a contrarian.


I’d love to hear from you now – comment below and tell me about a time you spoke out and what happened. Or alternatively – was there a time someone questioned your judgment? How did you react and why?

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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