Is honesty the best policy?

In one of the comments on my first blog entry, reader “James” wrote something that struck a chord, because it is an idea I hear a lot: namely, that it is acceptable behavior to sharply criticize someone in some line of work and if that person does not take it constructively, it is their fault.

I am aware James probably meant something more nuanced, such as upon occasion the direct approach works, and I agree with that. But to those who spout honesty as the overall best policy, I cannot disguise my disgust and contempt for such an idea.

Let me say this about people who believe in just being honest and straightforward with criticism: their motives are generally not pure and honest at all. There is often an undercurrent of hostility directed at the target; they themselves feel insecure, or in need of asserting their power. A person who truly cares about expressing a criticism in a way that is constructive looks at the individual he or she is facing and decides, strategically, what will work, what will improve the target’s performance in the long run. Running someone down does not work, unless it is part of a plan to criticize and then build up–what I call strategic harshness and kindness. The sadistic editor I was facing was not being strategic.


To truly communicate with another person, sometimes you need to apply reverse psychology (works well on the stubborn), sometimes you need to disguise your criticism by starting with a bit of praise, like sneaking a pill inside a piece of candy. And sometimes a bit of directness can work, as a wake up call. But I think we can all sense, in retrospect, when someone was being strategically direct and waking us up, or simply being sadistic.

Some of you find this too touchy-feely, too sensitive? Fine. Be as brutally honest and direct with others as you like and see where it lands you in business, in personal relationships, etc. If my books are about anything, they are about having an effect on this world, not spouting out feelings just because that seems the easiest route to take.

We have all encountered this in relationships: that irritating person who believes it is okay to criticize us in as upfront a manner, telling us why we are such assholes, dissecting every bad thing we have ever done etc. We all know this doesn’t work, doesn’t make us suddenly repent and surrender. And it doesn’t work because we know that life is not black and white. I am not a terrible writer, I am not a hopelessly bad person. When people are so direct, the shades and nuances are missing. They are exaggerating. They are putting us down. They are making us feel bad. And they get to disguise it all with the superior pose of being honest and upfront.

Take one thing from my books and one thing alone: in communicating an idea, whether for power or seduction or war, you must consider the form in which you express it, not merely the content. The form is critical and must be strategic, designed to get through people’s defenses. Those who fail to understand this will fail to communicate and will deserve the deadends they find in life. Believe me, I know: I have seen many such “honest” types hit those power cul de sacs. Think before you talk, or criticize.

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21 Comments

  1. I don’t think the problem here is honesty. It’s harshness. You can be completely honest with someone and not be devestatingly blunt. I agree with your advice; if you really want to be constructive, put the pill in a piece of candy.

    However, I do not believe it’s appropriate to lie, even a little white lie. It certainly won’t help someone to be dishonest with them.

  2. Thanks for mentioning me, and yes I did mean something more nuanced. I would like to explaine exactly what I mean.

    People, Americans especially, have this thought of “self esteem” as some great motivational thing. It’s not. Once someone feels he’s good at something you’re really not, nintey percent of the time he’s just going to slack off.

    Of course, I’m aware that I don’t know what your editor was really like. He might really just be a sadist like you said. But as an example, when your editor told you that you were horrible at writing, what did you do? You wanted to prove to him that you were writer material, that you were better than him and that you’ll get farther than him. When my violin teacher told me I was garbage, it motivated me to work harder so I could avoid the weekly “you’re complete garbage” lecture. I was not the only person to get this treatment from him. Every single on of his students got thesame treatmeant from him. These were successful proffessionals and genius level kids. Many of them won prestigious awards in music, others scored perfect SAT scores ON THEIR FIRST TRY. His students were all bright, and they all got the same lecture I got. His students were the best in the nation. In fact, he’s actually a pretty well known violinist and teacher himself (I’m not going to give out his name here). Unlike what you said, he was VERY successful.

    You’re right of course. Being brutally honest is usually instrategic. My teacher had almost everyone hate his guts because he would go up to opera singers and tell them “that woman is a million times better than you, you’re not even in the same league” to their face. However, at certain times, brutall honesty, or even exxageration, is extremely strategic. Strategy isn’t following a set of rules like “do this here, do that there” (you mentioned it yourself), strategy is using different things at different times. Having a proffessor or editor tell you you’re complete garbage is much better than having someone tell you “your awesome, however…” etc. Of course, you’ll get people to hate you, but consider it. Why would an editor care how much a junior writer liked him or not? That stuff is irrelevant, all he needs is better quality writing. But guess what? Even though we all the violin teacher, we all came to respect him after a while, usually after we had left (to go to college, moved away etc). We respected him because he had skill and had successfully transfered some of his skill to us, and we forgave him for his lambashings.

    However, one of Machaivelli’s famous quotes is “it is better to be feared than loved.” (I know it’s taken out of context, but still) You want your underlings, employees, students etc to work well and efficiently. Having them in a state of slight fear is defintely beneficial to efficiency. Just be in any company where layoffs are imminent and employers are looking for people to fire. Also consider people in poor parts of the world, and how hard they work (take China for instance). They live in perpetual fear of returning back to poverty, and thus work extra hard and extra well.

  3. tribalwitchdoctor

    Modern neuroscience and teaches us that our extensive frontal lobe development (the neocortex – that anatomically and functionally seperates us from other mammals)has evolved to process symbolic information.

    The greatest incentive to evolve this capacity is to understand the complex networks and relationships that make up our social world. In essence to differentiate friend from foe and truth from deceit.

    Lying, manipulation and deceit are inherent in the human animal. We all smudge the truth. We do it with our words. We do it with our actions. Studies say, on average, we lie at least 6 times a day. Sometimes we’re not even aware of our lies.Our web of self deceit exists to protect us (like an invisible shield) from the malice or retribution of others. More so, it protects us from our own inevitable self-criticism.

    To the pragmatic, the need to master our presentation of “truth” is self-evident. To the idealistic (a.k.a. the blissfully self-deceiving)this is shameful. But, we all eventually find out the consequences of idealism and self-deception.

  4. MSquared

    This reminds me of something Malcolm Gladwell wrote recently, and found here: http://www.malcolmgladwell.com/2006/2006_04_10_a_why.html

    It echoes your sentiment that it’s not what you say, but how you say it that determines the effect it will have on the recipient. Honesty is the best policy, but being recklessly honest is not. There are many ways you can say something that will “cushion the blow.”

  5. Sanku

    Mr. Greene,

    I think your post, though a simplistic summation, may be condensed to one word – tact. Speaking the other person’s language (figuratively) is essential, IMHO.

    Some people respond to emotionally charged ‘raw’ honesty, some completely tune it out. Knowing your audience helps in this aspect. When you don’t know how someone will react, a neutral approach seems to work for me, atleast. How do you get the content of your critque communicated if the other person doesn’t even understand what you’re saying (because the tone/emotions displayed, scrambling the message)?

    As you have implied, they won’t. Tact and the truth aren’t mutually exclusive in my limited experience.

    Definition of Tact:

    # Acute sensitivity to what is proper and appropriate in dealing with others, including the ability to speak or act without offending.

    It’s interesting how the word tact has evolved into most minds as ‘being nice’. What is proper from one person to another seems to differ. Friend A would be insulted if I didn’t give a raw, expletive laden message. Friend B would be offended if I did, believing it didn’t add anything.

    But then again, most people aren’t delivering messages to teach/help/construct the situation or person.

    Awsome post. Thanks for getting on the web, and thank you Tucker for establishing this forum. I look forward to learning quite a bit.

  6. I’ve found that setting up a ‘straw man’, a made up third person, is effective in providing feedback to someone. Asking the person I want to provide feedback to their opinion of the behavior in question of some other non-existing person will quite often elicit subtle recognition of their own similar behavior or characteristic and frequently results in indirect acceptance of the offered feedback that came from me and themselves as well.

    Please add my thanks to you starting up your website as I’m a long-time fan and appreciate very much this opportunity to engage in dialogue with both you and your readers.

  7. Smitty

    I am reminded of the various characterizations of General George S. Patton, including that of George C. Scott. He was indeed an effective strategist and tactician, but his lack of tact led to his eventual fade into nothingness. This is especially true amongst the officer corps, where tact and delivery within the essentially political appointments that are Generals is paramount to advancement. Bluntness (among other things) proved fatal for him.

    Thanks for the blog, and the books.

  8. Jay Gatsby

    In other words, it’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it? Communication is an art. Every word must be carefully chosen so that both the meaning and the subtext of the communication are understood by the listener in the same way as the speaker intended. Anything less creates a miscommunication, thereby leading to upredictable results. The point of a communication is to transmit information clearly and succinctly, not create confusion.

  9. Chris

    Subbordinating methodology to effectiveness is probably one of the most important lessons that you can learn. I think that people that are honest are indulging themselves to too much of a degree, and deflecting attention from themselves–which is where it should be.

    It gives you the upper hand–generally–when someone doesn’t know your opnion of them. If you play it close to the vest–even when you’re intentions are benign–you will have people showing you deferrence that they wouldn’t, trying to win your confidence, and trusting you at the same time.

    Little can be gained by sharing your opinion of someone, except for the relief of tension.

  10. Sir,

    Among the things that I have learned to survive is that a) you do in fact draw more flies with honey than vinegar; and b) very few people will freely admit when they have become ineffective. The tendency in the later is to blame other factors, to justify it in their own mind, to find solace in the fault of something, anything else.

    As with any tool in the leadership toolbox, it takes an experienced mind to understand when the rod is appropriate, and when the soft touch is needed. To categorically state that bluntness is unwarranted is to restrict one’s own ability to handle certain critical situations. When time allows, taking the calm and reasoned approach is undoubtedly the way to go in certain situations. But with effective leadership comes trust, and when a trusted leader, in a critical situation, looks up and says “This is what I want. Do it. Now,” the subordinate will, in most cases, do so with the understanding that explanations will com later.

    Being an understanding and caring leader allows one to be blunt when bluntness is needed. Knowing which situations are appropriate for such behavior is honed through trial and error, over many years and conflicts.

    Cordially,

    Unclean

  11. Jordan

    I currently work in the world of educational administration, as an administrator at a public school. Public school personnel are often the worst combination of stubborn and sensitive, due to the public and often fragile nature of their positions.

    When I first attempted to lead these individuals I tried to use the power strategies I had learned in college, primarily through direct, honest conversation. This quickly put me on the fringe of the school dynamic and minimized my ability to have a positive influence on the educational goals of the institution.

    I have learned the hard way that when you identify a weakness in another, you can only manipulate it once with overt power (you can only use, “I’m the principal and that is how it is going to be” one time). Identifying those weaknesses can become essential in leadership, but subtle coercion is much more useful in the long term.

    I will begin in a new leadership position next month, and I look forward to experimenting with this strategy with a different set of parameters.

  12. Philip

    Robert probably meant was something more nuanced, such as some people are assholes.

    Of the many different leadership styles out there the Brute Force method you described is one of the least desireable. I wouldn’t work for this person.

    Motivating people requires you to adapt to each individual. You can have a specific leadership style but you have to morph somewhat to take into account the person your trying to leads, individual wants, needs and situation. If you have a relationship with your people you will already be armed with this information.

    It is not about what you say to them. It is about asking the right questions. You want them to tell you what behavior of theirs needs to change or what it is they need to do for you. Then you use the personal knowledge to tie it to whats it it for them so that they have a personal stake in doing whatever it is you need done.

  13. Martin

    In my book, honesty is not the same as being harsh. When critizising, i tell them whats wrong up front. That usually gets rid of all the bad feelings inside me, and then a compliment comes out automatically.

    Could be like this: “Nope, i think your dress is horrible. Yeah. No really, i don’t like it. You looked so good in that dress you were wearing yesterday, why don’t you put that back on?”

  14. The truth is, we don’t know what the truth is.

    And the lie is that any one of us truly cares.

  15. frank

    The unintentional comedy of the comments on this blog alone make it worth the read. “I am a deeply intelligent, professional, good looking blah blah. Your analysis reminds me of the time I was reading Kantorowicz a couple of years ago during my impressive career at a Good School. While your central point remains valid I believe the application is incorrect. I know this based on my many Life Lessons and High Self-Opinion. In conclusion I think I am as smart as you but I will be somewhat deferential because I am Unpretentious.”

  16. Creed

    I had an ex-girlfriend criticized me yesterday about not reaching my full potential, telling me Im too intellignet to be lazy, I have no stability in my life and that the world has more to offer me If I just stop thinking the universe revolves around my ideas and my sexual performance! And Im thinking hey, I owe all the things I have in life to my ideas and my sexual performance. Then she put her clothes on, left my apartment and went home to her boyfriend who works on Wall St. Drives a SUV and gives caters too her every whim! Is it me, or did her criticism reflect the reasons why she comes over bi-weekly for me to fix her love bucket?

  17. Creed

    I got a question, I fair pretty well with the ladies and I always manage to get the ones that all the other guys go for that don’t get; i.e. strippers, actresses, flight attendants, waitresses etc. etc.

    I wanna pull a Gladwell/Freakonomics on myself and see how do I do it? I don’t think of myself any different then the next guy but obviously there’s something there! I made the mistake to fall in love with one of the two flight attendants (that I was dating simutaneously)and although I didn’t lose both; one is within arms reach and the other has moved on (until I call of course). I dunno, ‘m a young guy and I’m having fun but guilt from giving them lack of attention is starting to creep in…fellas, throw me a line here!

  18. Dom

    I would have to say honesty certainly is NOT the best policy the majority of the time its used. Whether honesty is being shared with a co-worker, friend, or even a family member, for the life of me I can’t really recall any truly positive outcomes that came from telling it. We as your fanbase learned some time ago how anti-seductive a simple spoken truth can be. Furthermore, even when people say they need to hear the truth, the bottom line is they really don’t. Human nature is a very proud and arrogant species much of the time, but also a sensitive and emotional one to boot. I believe the world as we know it prefers their truth (and their bullshit) in easy to swallow candy-coated coverings as you previously mentioned.

    I think the truth can actually be told, but if its to be done, it has to be at a far lesser degree. Someone mentioned earlier its not honesty that is the problem but harshness. Well, that is kind of an oxymoron in respect to honesty IS harshness. It all comes down to how it’s delivered. If I really couldn’t care less as to what someone thought of me and knew there was nothing from a power perspective that they could actually do to me, I would tell them the truth until I’m blue in the face. However if I have a close friend who is coming to me for advice and is also asking for an honest opinion I realized some time ago that I have to sugar-coat things to a degree or the friendship itself could dissolve.

    Sometimes we as people need to dissolve certain friendships with our peers. This being the case, sometimes there’s no better weapon in one’s arsenal than that of telling the truth.

  19. 2LTHooper

    Sir,

    I thank you for posting these interesting and informative blog articles. After reading this material, I have decided to purchase your “War” book.

    I am Second Lieutenant Gray Hooper of the US Army. I am very interested in your perspective of the current growing conflict in the Middle East. From a pragmatic military standpoint (half Machiavelli, half Trotzsky), I see this as an opportunity for Israel to permanently excise a dangerous, destabilizing force–Hezbollah–from the region, while at the same time ruining the credibilities of Syria and Iran. On the other hand, if Syria and Iran are *not* bluffing, we have on our hands a much larger war and the probability that Iran could seriously undermine our efforts in Iraq.

    What say you?

  20. 2LTHooper

    My apologies, I neglected to paste in the final portion of my comment:

    Neither Israel nor its antagonists seem to have the tact necessary to negotiate a ceasefire. This is especially true of Israel due to Olmert’s “new guy” syndrome that makes him feel it necessary to prove himself through force.

    Sadly, truth in this regard will never prevail. Neither side is willing to become transparent enough to ease the paranoia of the other. The solution may indeed rest with lies and deniability with constant third-party moderation…”get under your desk to survive a nuclear attack mentality.”

  21. Pat

    But when does keeping your mouth shut, in itself become lying?

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