Is honesty the best policy in business?

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On Thursday I came into the office wearing bright green trousers.

Now this particular pair isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (well in fact probably not anyone’s). However, I can guarantee if I’d asked anyone outright: “Do you like my trousers?” they would have given me an empathetic nod and lied through their teeth. And who can blame them? Nobody would particularly want to go out of their way to criticise some of my more sartorial choices.

But we all know honesty is the best policy. But how honest is too honest?

When companies such as Buffer are releasing their “salary formula” and devoting a whole website to their quest of “radical transparency”, should I be forwarding my P60 to everyone in my address book? Should I be telling my staff when we’ve lost money or should they be as blissfully unaware as a man who thinks everyone loves his trousers?

Transparency is the currency of trust and in a cynical age where we have all been lied to at some point by big business and their leaders, the question of transparency is something that every business must respect.

We have undergone monumental changes since I first started at Axonn, then DeHavilland, back in 2005. Ten years ago, YouTube was brand new, and Google had just decided to launch a maps function. Things were a little different in business too. DeHavilland was fairly stifled and corporate, with the message received from the top down being generally one of mistrust between teams. It felt like we were being told almost nothing until it had already happened. These days I fully appreciate how negative an environment can be when it doesn’t foster trust between teams. People absorb the culture around them, so if we’re not encouraging an environment where people feel safe to trust their teams, they simply won’t. And without trust, what do you have? On the other hand, if people feel they trust those around them - if they feel that they’re working together towards a common goal - they will feel connected, valued and ultimately more bought-in to whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Old habits die hard though. It was only last week I realised that just a select few people at Axonn were able to send out company-wide emails (a throwback from the old days when the fear of what people could send out was greater than the risk in trusting them).

So how have we fostered this?

In the last year we’ve faced some difficult decisions, and they continue. But, as they say, a problem shared is a problem halved, so we’ve been brutally honest early on with our team. The big upside to this has often been that they have been able to come up with better creative solutions that hadn’t crossed mine or Alan’s minds. By allowing people to help contribute to the solution, we have also helped them to feel more valued instead of like just a cog in the machine. It is our people who live the day-to-day decisions we make, so it’s vital they are a big part of them. Simple to say, less simple to do.

Every month either Alan or I talk to our three offices with an open Q & A at the end. We encourage people to write their questions down anonymously so we get the real questions rather than just the comfortable ones. This has been one of the most useful things we have done to get to the heart of things quickly.

As you would expect, it has not always been easy, with one member of staff recently asking me: "Is it a good idea to be so honest?" Alongside the company updates, we also open up major decisions that affect our people so they can discuss them. We are currently considering a company-wide bonus scheme for the first time in our history to recognise production as well as commercial staff. There are going to be some tough choices that we have to make, but they will be made in tandem with the rest of the company, giving them all the information they need so that together we come up with the best decision.  

My view is that unless there is a genuinely compelling reason not to be, you should default to an open approach. Yes, this puts you at risk of losing face or, worse, losing your people, but I believe it is the only way you can get them to feel invested in the future of your company.

When it comes to my green trousers though, I’ll take my truth slightly sugar-coated.

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