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A Culture of Shameless Honesty

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In speaking and consulting with companies here in Indianapolis and beyond, a common theme is the question of honesty. An interview with one CEO discusses a fascinating approach to this element of organizational culture.

The executive in question is Simon Anderson, who heads up DreamHost. From the New York Times interview:

You can be sitting in a meeting and you can say, “I’m going to be shamelessly honest here.” Boom. Now there’s respect and it’s not rude honesty. It just gives us permission to have those hard conversations and get to a point where the elephant is not in the room. We don’t have elephants in the room for very long because someone’s going to call it out and say, “Look, I’m not getting this.”

When people talk about culture, they often think that culture is about the lunches and that sort of thing. We don’t really see culture like that. Culture’s a full-contact sport. You’re fighting for what you believe in. Culture is debate. It’s argument. It’s messy, and for culture to be strong, people have to be fighting and challenging each other.

Business Culture: Shameless Honesty in a Web Hosting Firm

© Flickr user torkildr

Not everyone agrees with Anderson, though. One blogger based in LA responded to the same piece:

I’m not sure about that – office democratization sounds great, but it requires maximum maturity and minimal ego. The workplace is simply not like that because people are not like that. Being brutally honest works with for some folks and can be utterly debilitating for others. Besides, making good decisions often comes down learning from the bad decisions you’ve made over the years, and that requires experience. It’s great that the workplace has become more flexible and open to different opinions and approaches, but good management will never be a team sport.

This feedback is curious, because it implies that an organization can’t have and shouldn’t want these qualities. But can’t these elements be a goal when building a company? For example:

  • Can companies choose to hire people who are mature, and encourage maturity in workplace interactions?
  • Can organizations select candidates who don’t have a big ego and who appreciate honesty?
  • Can good managers work with other people on the team, or do they have to be “above” everyone else?

Organizational culture is changing. This CEO and his fellow employees are doing something—trying to be honest—that doesn’t sound that radical. But on reflection, telling the truth at work and leaving your ego at home is a revolutionary concept indeed.

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