This just in: new research on the effects of being honest and what it means for you.

I’m constantly encouraging people to engage in the productive conflict that will move their team (and their organization) forward. The biggest stumbling block is people’s fear that being honest about what they think and feel will erode trust and weaken the relationship with their teammates. I was really excited to see some new research on how off-base these predictions really are.

In a multi-study, multi-year series of experiments, Emma Levine and Taya Cohen examined people’s expectations (beforehand) and also their experience (after the fact) of being honest. The research included both field and laboratory experiments and had participants who were being honest and participants on the receiving end of honesty. I was impressed by the quality of the research.

The punchline: honesty is a better policy than you think.

When asked to predict the outcomes of being honest, participants got it wrong. They expected that being honest would be less enjoyable (than being kind or being in the control group). In fact, that wasn’t the case. Being honest was no less enjoyable than being kind and was actually more enjoyable than being in the control group.

Not only did participants overestimate how aversive honesty would be, but they also underestimated how meaningful and honest conversation would be and the benefit it would have in strengthening the connection with the other party. It’s worth noting that this was the field research component where the conversations were with the participants’ friends, family, and coworkers.

While those findings were interesting, I was still dubious at that point. Sure, it feels good to be honest, but what about being on the receiving end!

In a second study, the researchers included the target of the honesty in the experiment. It turned out that even on the receiving end, participants found that honesty was more enjoyable, more meaningful, and better for their relationship than they would have predicted. In fact, in a follow-up a week after the experiment, those experiencing the honesty of their conversation partner reported that they appreciated the experience and would like to repeat it.

I understand completely the inclination to withhold truth when you think it will be hurtful to the other person or harmful to your relationship. Now you know that you’re probably overestimating the negative effects of honesty and underestimating the potential benefits. Maybe you can turn the honesty dial up a little higher.

I like to think about being honest a bit like going to the gym. While I always expect beforehand that it won’t be enjoyable, once it’s over, I realize it was better than I expected. And research shows that being honest might be even more like going to the gym than I thought… those who harbor lies have poorer health (including higher stress and higher blood pressure) than those who are transparent about their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Maybe I’ll skip the gym this morning and just try a truth workout!

Further Reading

How Honest Should I Be on a 360 Feedback

How to Cope with Backlash to Your Feedback

Maybe You Shouldn’t Give Feedback

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