"You raise an interesting issue..." How not to tell the whole truth at work

03 January 2020 -

Business meetingWe talk you through how to manage the circumstances where you can’t be entirely forthcoming

Stephanie Butler

There will be situations in your professional life when you don’t want to – or simply can’t – say everything you know. Here are some common scenarios, and how to navigate the requirement to tell a half-truth.

Scenario one: when you’re bound by commercial confidentiality

Your organisation has won (or lost) a major contract. The effects could be transformational. At that delicate stage just before heads of terms are agreed, the whole situation could be thrown into jeopardy if news leaked out.

At the same time, rumours are growing. You may well get grilled for information at the water cooler (AKA the kitchen) – but be warned! Any slip of the tongue could land you, your colleagues and the whole organisation in deep trouble. You could jeopardise revenues; there could be legal issues at stake. This is not – repeat not – a time for loose talk.

So how can you avoid giving the game away without telling bareface porkies? If you’re unsure how to answer a direct question, just respond with a simple answer: “I don’t know.” It is best not to give anything away than try to temporarily appease your colleagues. And watch your body language for any meta-communication cues that show you’re hiding something.

Scenario two: strategic people issues

There are many situations at work where you’ll have to hold your tongue and couch your words carefully. As with commercial confidentiality, there could well be legal constraints on what you can say. You could be aware of a team member leaving; someone’s coming in and will be promoted over the head of another; one of your colleagues is on a final warning or a role is coming up for redundancy. HR professionals in particular understand the importance of confidentiality in these situations, but really anyone in a management position will need to understand the constraints on what you can say. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and ask your own line manager what is appropriate to say.

Scenario three: everyday people issues

Perhaps a personal spat has seeped its way into the office, or someone has asked you about your political stance. These ones are tricky: sharing too much workplace-unrelated information may add unnecessary tension. You see these people a lot, so it’s probably best not to blurt out the full unvarnished truth. Then again, as the saying goes, the best organisations allow you to “bring your whole self” to work.

How to spin the truth

Tact is required when you can’t tell the whole truth. Tweak your answers, and be delicate: 

  • Redirect the conversation to something work-related that you feel more comfortable discussing.
  • Try not to be defensive in what you say or your body language.
  • If you’re yet to work out a strategy for how to handle some news, then (within reason) briefly explain that you’re not yet in a position to give away more information. There are some stock phrases that you can use if you feel cornered: “The situation is fluid”; “I should be in a position to share more in a few days”; “Right now there’s a lot going on that I’m not in a position to talk about”.
  • Show that you appreciate the concern or the question. Even when you’re not in a position to explain a situation in full, you can still show that you value transparency.

When you really should speak the truth

Generally, it’s better to be completely transparent. CMI’s Professional Standards encourage transparency in managers and leaders. If employees detect deceitfulness, they’re likely to lose trust in you, lack motivation and perform poorly – not to mention think it’s okay to lie to you, too.

In larger organisations there are rules around workforce consultation, which generally mean that significant changes must be communicated in a formal manner. There’s an excellent CMI checklist (number 270 - Managing Internal Communications, available to CMI members via ManagementDirect) that outlines the legal responsibilities around communicating such changes.

There’s a trend in management towards openness; Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor encourages people to ‘Care Personally’ and ‘Challenge Directly’. Radical candor is more than ‘brutal honesty’ – which, in most cases, is an excuse for being blunt and rude – in the sense that you are encouraging your colleagues to think and speak candidly with you in a safe space about difficult subjects.

What are the instances you must always be honest with your colleagues?

False promises. Misleading someone into thinking they’re heading towards a promotion is a big no-no, and going back on your word will only tell them that their future hard work will go unrewarded.

Claiming ideas as your own, or letting others take your blame. No-one will respect you if they know the truth!

If you don’t think they deserve something. Be brave and tell individuals why they’re not ready for that pay rise or if they’ve not passed their probation period. Provide actionable advice and deliver the message with sensitivity.

Struggling to know how to communicate some tough news? Wondering how to communicate the truth about change? Read our article on common difficult conversations and how to handle them.

Image: Shutterstock

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