Honesty and openness in the workplace matters

Rob MacDonald
Dec 10, 2018 · 6 min read
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I’ll admit, I’m disorganised. Plus I have a terrible memory. Sometimes I forget that I’ve told someone about ‘that thing’ already. Without my calendar, I wouldn’t have a clue where I’m supposed to be. Often I forget that I’ve told someone ‘that thing’ already.

Being open about your perceived weaknesses is hard. Being completely honest is hard. Being honest about your weaknesses and ‘failings’ at work is even harder. In my experience, it takes time to trust your colleagues enough to be completely honest with them.

How often have you been in a meeting where someone has mentioned an acronym or term that you haven’t heard before, but you don’t ask for clarification? That would make you look bad, right? Most of us are inherently wary of doing anything that will show us up in front of our peers, especially at work.

When we are among friends; maybe. We have the phrase “To drop your guard”, to me this phrase speaks volumes and sums up why honesty and transparency in the workplace are vital for a team to succeed. How can we get the most out of people, and support our teams where it’s needed most, if we don’t know our weaknesses?

Why are we all trying to portray an image of ourselves which isn’t 100% honest? Maybe we’re nervous about being called out for not knowing something we should? Maybe we are afraid of being questioned too deeply. Maybe we don’t want to tackle a conflict head-on. All perfectly understandable reasons.

One of my first jobs was worked at a marketing agency. When I started they had a CMS project they wanted me to work on. I was a new starter, this was my first big project, I was keen to impress. “Right Rob, here’s our CMS codebase, what do you think? Here are the new features we need.”. I took a look at the code. It was all in Perl. Perl! I’d never used Perl in my life. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for, in the interview they’d said they used PHP!

So, what did I do? I said fine, head-down, no problem. I didn’t want to give my manager a problem, did I? He was happy, he thought I was happy. I bought every Perl book I could lay my hands on (O’Reilly to the rescue) and began learning. But I was stressed. Learning a new language wasn’t a problem, I loved that, but it was that I was being asked to work on a project that was expected to already be an expert in, and I was expected to be delivering value right now. So here’s me, having a nightmare, feeling stressed, frantically learning, and spending my evenings with a llama.


Whilst all the time my boss thought everything was fine.

It doesn’t, and shouldn’t ever have to be like this. I should have been able to say this was new to me, maybe my boss would have had some advice, been able to provide some support? By not saying anything I’d closed the door on getting any help.

For some people, it never is like this. Some people will be reading this and be thinking “Ridiculous if I don’t know something I’ll just say so”. True, some people are like that, but many aren’t.

The more quiet, warier, must be made to feel comfortable to hold their hands up and say “Sorry, I don’t know that”. Sometimes it takes guts to be able to do that; especially when you’re fairly new in your career. I find that being able to be honest about your feelings often comes with age and experience.

Why honesty matters

To build a team that works well together there needs to exist a culture of trust. Trust can only exist when people are genuine with each other.

need to be able to take risks, and to take risks a team need to feel safe, and not fear reprisals. A team needs to be willing to . This won’t happen with a team who aren’t comfortable being truly honest. Individuals need to be free to contribute ideas and to speak up when mistakes are made, and issues uncovered.

Successful teams don’t have the overhead of being afraid of what others in the team will think when they suggest an idea. You can rely on people you trust to give honest opinions, meaning the team can consider options and move faster.

What can you do to encourage honesty?

A leader’s role is to encourage honesty, be clear that everyone has weaknesses; be open about their own, and be clear when you don’t know all the answers. Ensure the beliefs of the team are explicit and clearly defined, so everyone is clear on the team culture and are encouraged to be transparent.

I am a big fan of using the for focusing teams around business goals. One thing I really encourage is for individuals to be open and transparent with their own objectives — enabling others to see and help them achieve their goals. I know this won’t suit all teams.

Building a culture of is key. One of the four guiding principles of the growing is “Make Safety a Prerequisite”, something I really agree with.

Our skills matrix retro output

An exercise I ran recently was a version of the team . I chose to run this to help us evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, a secondary goal for this meeting was to encourage honesty within the team and to give everyone the safety and time to assess themselves openly, within the group. I aim to write more about how I facilitated this session soon.

When interviewing, one of the questions I usually ask is “What would you say are your main weaknesses, and what are you doing to strengthen them?” or “What would you like to improve about yourself?”. I’ve been asked this type of question myself in interviews. If nothing else, it’s a great test of honesty and authenticity.

Final thoughts

One of the most valuable pieces of feedback I ever received, and it’s something that has stayed with me, is from a colleague when I worked for BBC Sport back in 2011. She said, in my 360 degrees feedback, that “Rob is a solid software engineer who isn’t afraid to say what he doesn’t know.”. This made a big impression on me, it made me realise that people actually value honesty above just saying yes; a team of yes-men is a team doomed to fail.

In an to he sums up the sentiment of this article far more elegantly than I ever could.

Because I was the boss, in my own mind, I thought I had to know all the answers. And if I didn’t, I thought I had to pretend that I did. That’s stupid.

If I pretend to know everything it diminishes the value of all the great ideas and great intelligence around me.

The biggest lesson I learnt was to say ‘I don’t know’, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I need help’. At any level. About any subject.

Amazingly, I was surrounded by people who wanted to help, or who knew answers, but they’d never offered to help, or offer the answers, because they didn’t know I needed it… because I kept pretending I knew it all.

That’s when things really started to move, because we were now a team, we were actually working together.

Being open about weaknesses and concerns can be hard, but liberating at the same time. Being honest opens up opportunities to move forward. Once a team understands each other’s strengths and weaknesses they can begin to put real plans in place to help everyone learn and develop.

DAZN Engineering

Revolutionising the sport industry

Rob MacDonald

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One time software engineering, lover of clean code, simplicity, team-work, agile, JavaScript, and Oxford commas.

DAZN Engineering

Revolutionising the sport industry