Leadership and Straight Talk

This post is from June, 2011


I happened across a movie the other day called Straight Talk.  It’s about a young woman who was accidently hired by a radio station to be an Agony Aunt.  This young woman, (played by Dolly Parton), was delightfully guileless and dished out her unadorned advice with clarity and good humour.   For example, her counsel to one caller who was obviously playing the martyrdom card went something like this: “Get down off the cross honey, somebody needs the wood!

It made me smile.  And, it also made me think about how important straight talk is in leadership.

Straight talk in organizations, when delivered with sincerity, tends to achieve understanding quickly. It brings clarity to confusion.  It allows for quicker problem solving. It values truth.  It builds trust. It grows integrity.

And yet, in so many organizations, we are incredibly bad at it.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this.  I suspect most of them have something to do with internal politics, bureaucracy, or perhaps a belief that the more complicated or obscure the language, the more important the message.

Whatever the reason, to me, creating an environment that values candid and respectful discussion is a leadership imperative and a key to building sustainable organizations.

So how might we go about establishing this straight talk environment?  Well, it could begin with establishing some principles, not unlike these:

Principle # 1: Talk to the Organ Grinder, not the Monkey

When we talk to the wrong person (or people) about something, we often do it to gain support or sympathy for our position.  It doesn’t usually solve anything and can create ill feeling and unnecessary speculation.

Principle #2: This organization is a jargon-free zone

I’m a fan of simple language. Business jargon (or any kind of jargon for that matter), may sound more intelligent or important but it has this tendency to get in the way of understanding.

Principle #3: Feedback goes stale. Serve while fresh. The longer we take to share information with each other, the less value it will have for us.  Ask permission… then deliver it when it’s fresh.  For one thing, it’ll be easier to remember and that usually makes it more useful.

Principle #4: People are not punished for speaking their minds

Often people are reticent to speak up for fear of ridicule or some other subtle form of punishment.  Taking the hammer out of the communication toolbox allows for more open and meaningful conversation.

Principle #5: Everyone has something important to say.

Adherence to this principle makes a promise to those who may be reticent to speak up, that their opinions count.

Principle #6: Listen first…talk later.

Listening is part of having respectful and candid conversations.  It allows for good questions.  Good questions invite thoughtful answers, which in turn, increase the quality of conversations.

Principle #7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T in this organization is an important noun and verb

This principle (otherwise known as the Aretha Franklin principle) pretty much speaks for itself.  Without it, the chances of establishing a culture of straight talk are pretty dim.

What do you think?  What would principles would you add?  How do you achieve straight talk in your organization?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture

12 responses to “Leadership and Straight Talk

  1. The Edge

    Reblogged this on The Edge and commented:
    Straight talk in organizations, when delivered with sincerity, tends to achieve understanding quickly. It brings clarity to confusion. It allows for quicker problem solving. It values truth. It builds trust. It grows integrity.

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  4. I agree with all the principles in your post, Gwyn. I might add one extra: No sacred cows. When an organization makes a topic “off limits” or allows a problem to exist unchallenged, it’s hard to promote the kind of transparency that builds confidence.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan ~ Great addition. In my experience, sacred cows are among those things that, when put to closer examination, have long since outgrown their usefulness anyway. Thanks for that!

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  7. Great post, Gwyn! I especially liked Principle #4. How the leader responds to difficult feedback or tough topics speeds through the organization. A positive response and the door opens to more honest dialogue a defensive response and people take cover.

  8. Pingback: Leadership and Straight Talk | coaching | Scoop.it

  9. Thank you for this post, Gwen. I think perhaps the greatest gift a leader can give an organization is the confidence to be “real” – to experience the tensions and challenges natural to any human institution in a way that builds a feeling of collective purpose rather than be something people want to avoid. Total agreement on everyone’s behalf isn’t the goal – hearing all voices contribute to the vision is!

    I would add two additional ideas: avoid the passive voice (Principle 2b perhaps!), as it too often is a semantic vehicle for avoidance (“Decisions were made…” rather than “I decided that…”). Lastly, seek out conflict – don’t avoid it. Conflict can be scary, and leaders are flesh and blood too! Often people just want to be heard – and a listening leader instills a feeling of humanity in the cogs of the organization. A sports analogy might be in order – running 10 miles is hard if you never train, but if you do training runs over hill and dale for 13 miles, then 10 miles isn’t too bad! The more leaders use the different “muscles” your post describes, the more natural and un-scary they become. Cheers – Eric.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Eric ~Thank you for adding your thoughts to this post. It is much better because of it. The notion of avoiding the use of the passive voice is an important one and I believe it deserves to stand on its own as a ‘straight-talk’ principle. As well, if I may be allowed to generalize, seeking out conflict is not something most people engage in for the reasons you state. Building tolerance for it with a view to engaging people in meaningful conversation is, I think, worth the pain of getting there. Although I expect there are many who might question its wisdom at the time 🙂
      Cheers to you too – Gwyn

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