Hieronymus Bosch’s — The Garden of Earthly Delights — detail

Honesty is hell

Honesty is a key ingredient in building better relationships, more innovative organizations and most endeavours that involve humans. Yet most of us would probably run a mile to avoid any environment where we were expected to speak and listen to the truth.

Humans have a painful relationship with honesty. We spend lots of time telling our children that they should be honest, demanding that politicians stop lying and lamenting all the falseness around us — while completely hiding our real thoughts from our family, happily sucking up to the boss and desperately avoiding accepting our own flaws. Being honest is so utterly simple, and so impossibly out of reach.

Growing up, I realised that most people’s vision of heaven is a place essentially devoid of honesty and freedom. To so many, heaven was a place where you never had to think for yourself and everyone just told you what you wanted to hear. The idea of a place where everyone told you what they actually thought, and expected you to live a life of your own choosing is close to hell.

I find this paradox completely fascinating. I have also realised that I don’t really know what honesty really is. Is being honest saying what is on my mind? What am I allowed to actually say? What are the thoughts worth sharing, how do I share them, when could I share them? Are these feelings just momentary frustration, or do they deserve to be expressed? The ability to listen to your own truth, and the capability to share it well need to be cultivated and developed over time.

I’ve begun a really slow personal journey to become honest, but every step of the way I learn so much. There is so much incredible power in the simple act of being honest — but have I ever met anyone who has been truly honest? Would I recognise it? Is this Buddhism’s idea of seeing the world “as it is”?

So, I have a little problem. I have decided to change my career. After two decades of building software, I have stepped sideways to learn how to build better, more collaborative, more curious organizations. I just really want to learn what it takes to create environments where people can really work together to make each other’s lives better. The problem I have found is that, after a year or two of diving into the real practices involved in deep collaboration, I have come to the conclusion that there is one really key ingredient: honesty.

Shit.

Humans have a painful relationship with honesty. But every great journey starts with the first, small step. And then the next….

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