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Trustworthy Leaders Learn the Art of Tactful Honesty

Diplomacy

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Leaders who practice tactful honesty are more likely to gain the trust of their followers than anyone who practices too much tact or too much honesty.

Effective communication in the workplace is a juggling act between the two. Honesty without tact may result in conflict and tension. Too much tact may come across as BS.

Integrity is an important trait in trustworthy managers. The concept is widespread in management literature. So inexperienced managers who read about it or hear about it at work sometimes are honest to the point of being blunt.

That’s a real-life description of many managers I have known in the early phase of their careers, including myself. They also may get quickly to the point without enough tact because of stress, tight deadlines, pressure from the boss or other reasons. The resulting bluntness can make a tough situation even worse.

Too Much Tact, Not Enough Honesty

But too much tact doesn’t help either. Excessive tact belongs to some leaders and managers who are so focused on saying the right thing and avoiding trouble that they lose the ability to say anything with substance.

The chief operating officer of a certain large corporation had a remarkable ability to say something and nothing at the same time. He had evolved his version of tact into a sophisticated form of corporate diplomacy. We often were left wondering what he really thought and what we were supposed to say or do in response. We were leaderless.

Tactful honesty is the realm of experienced leaders and managers who say the right thing in the right way. It is a skill that grows over time with practice and experience. Managers who learn to communicate this way give their employees the information they need and create the lowest level of conflict or tension in response. Their honesty is obvious enough that they earn the trust of their employees. Their tact also is obvious enough that they earn respect as well.

Quick Tips in Tact and Diplomacy

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Marty Lemko, PhD, offers a few tips in an article in Psychology Today. In brief, they include:

  • Listen more than talk.
  • Before speaking, ask yourself, “How would my feedback make the person feel?”
  • If you have to criticize, use face-saving terms.
  • Avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • If you want something, ask the other person if they think it’s worthy.

As an introverted manager early in my management career, I already had the ability to listen more than talk. But when I did talk, I did not give enough thought to suggestion № 2 or 3. It often led to № 4, which was unnecessary conflict.

When Tact Becomes Career-Advancing Diplomacy

Diplomacy is a close cousin of tact. Tact is conduct that helps maintain good relations and avoid offense with other people. Diplomacy is a more common term in governmental relations. But it applies to a work environment too, especially for managers. Think of tact as a skill for individuals and small groups and diplomacy as a skill for large groups.

Tact is foundational behavior that everyone can use effectively in a work environment including staff and management.

But diplomacy is more sophisticated and useful for managers who have to maintain good relations with multiple departments and operating units as well as with stockholders and major clients. While individual relations is the goal behind tact, the good relations of diplomacy serve broader purposes.

Just watch TV interviews with major CEOs

Leaders who learn this skill enhance their career opportunities. Those that don’t are likely to languish. If in doubt, just watch video or television interviews with major CEOs. They choose their words carefully. They rarely lie or deceive in a way that is likely to get them caught. They aren’t just promoting good relations. They are juggling multiple goals, priorities and audiences.

Their jobs require them to develop credibility with the public, stockholders and stock analysts in addition to their own employees. They use a highly developed form of diplomatic honesty.

Blunt Honesty Blowups

Temperamental employees are worth the hassle to managers if they bring enough value to the job to make it worthwhile to put up with them. Their temperamental behavior may come from:

  • An inflated ego
  • Low self esteem
  • Frequent bad moods
  • Problems at home
  • The inability to handle even constructive criticism

An inexperienced manager will soon find that simple honesty with a temperamental employee may trigger a blowup or blowback in the form of other behavior and performance problems. That manager will wonder, what just happened? What did I do wrong?

The answer often is, not much. But ironically, a focus only on honesty by itself has a potential risk.
Unfortunately, painful experiences with simple honesty can lead a manager in too far in the opposite direction. It leads to a naive form of shallow diplomacy.

When Tact Becomes Obsession With Image

She had an office that was designed entirely for maximum effect on people who visited her. She also was an extraordinary dresser, had high-profile roles on volunteer boards in the community and a resume that listed some of the biggest corporations in America.

In time, it became apparent that she also spoke for maximum effect and was totally focused on image. Her honesty was only apparent in one-on-one situations that involved information beneficial to her. Otherwise, no one was sure what she really thought. No one trusted her.

This composite of two actual executives — like the chief operating officer in the earlier example — show the danger of placing too much emphasis on diplomacy. After a while, it becomes an obsession with image.

From Bad Experiences to Useful Lessons

Managers with a learning mindset will find it helpful to look back on a conflict with a clear mind to figure out what went wrong.

Defensiveness and rationalization are common responses for fragile egos. But they have no place with leaders who want to become better leaders. They have to look at the experience with a clear, rational and objective mind to analyze why it went wrong.

Sometimes it’s the wrong word, wrong tone, wrong body language or wrong facial expression. Sometimes it’s nothing at all. It’s just an employee who handles the discussion badly.

Either way, these teaching experiences — and there are many throughout a long career — give leaders a chance to develop a critical job advancement skill.

Scott S. Bateman

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