leadership development honesty communicationIs it just me, or have you seen a surge in the popularity of “telling it like it is?” Whether it’s a brash, in your face CEO — many of whom boast about their direct, no-nonsense, unvarnished telling of the truth — many leaders wear it like a badge of honor.

But when people learn more about their personalities, their communication preferences and their distress patterns, they progressively back off on their bluster about telling it like is. Why? Because they gain insight into some important, and sometimes uncomfortable, truths.

  • You can be direct without being honest.
  • Telling it like it is often reveals more about our own distress than anything else.
  • An “in-your-face” approach to leadership undermines effectiveness in the long run.
  • Being blunt often reveals lack of skill to use a more effective approach.
  • Healthy conflict with another person is a learned skill that few people acquire naturally.

So, where’s the confusion? The problem comes from failing to distinguish authentic emotions from cover-up emotions.

When people are in distress, they mask their authentic feelings with cover-up emotions. For instance, emotional displays can be deceptive and cunning, appearing legitimate, but they’re often just diverting attention from the real issue. Four cover-up emotions are closely associated with an attitude of telling it like it is.

Righteous arrogance: Righteous arrogance is often expressed through opinionated, judgmental pushing of beliefs. These people believe it’s okay to tell others what’s right and wrong, and push their pious beliefs. Statements like, “You should know better,” or “Clearly you lack the moral character to be a leader” cover up their own fear of not being up to the task. If these people were truly honest, they’d share their fear that they might not always be right and might not be able to perfectly live up to their responsibilities. This fear keeps them up at night wondering if they are worthy. Instead of owning it, they question everyone else’s worthiness, claiming they are just telling it like it is.

Strategies to combat righteous arrogance include:

  • Acknowledge your fear of not perfectly fulfilling your responsibilities or being able to protect everyone from harm.
  • Recognize that your righteous attitude pushes people further away, making it less likely you can be helpful
  • Accept that your opinions are only your truth. They are not the truth. Instead of telling it like it is, be honest about your feelings, be willing to help if asked, and be clear about your beliefs and boundaries. Then let go. That’s all you can do.

Frustrated anger: Frustration comes from feeling blocked and losing control, expressed through angry criticism of anyone or anything that gets in their way. These people believe that others are stupid and lazy, so it’s okay to attack them for their incompetence. You’ll hear them say things like, “You are wasting my time,” or “Why is everyone so ignorant?”

What are they covering up? The grief associated with loss; primarily loss of control and predictability. They stay up at night worrying about whether they are prepared, yet they can’t ultimately control others or the world around them. If they were honest they’d share their sadness around significant losses in their life, including plans that didn’t go their way. Instead of owning it, they question everyone else’s intelligence, claiming they are just telling it like it is.

Strategies to combat frustrated anger include:

  • Acknowledge your sadness over not being able to control people and events around you.
  • Recognize that when people are afraid of you or intimidated by you, they will withhold the information and solutions you desperately need to be successful.
  • Accept that you are capable and smart, and others can be as well, but only when you support them, listen to them and create a safe place where they can contribute.

Blaming and blameless: Blame is all about avoiding responsibility. These people never own up. They make excuses and shift blame to others. When they say things like, “I didn’t do it,” or “It wasn’t my fault,” they are likely covering up their discomfort with responsibility. They don’t like feeling bad when they make mistakes or let people down, so they’ll do anything to avoid it. They don’t want to be dependable or accountable because it cramps their style. Instead of being honest about it and stepping up to the plate, they bluntly cast blame with the excuse that they are just telling it like it is.

Strategies to combat blaming include:

  • Acknowledge your discomfort around expectations and responsibilities. It’s OK to dislike it.
  • Recognize the self-defeating nature of blaming. When you avoid responsibility, people actually try to control you more.
  • Accept that you are a creative problem-solver and can use this to your advantage to take ownership over your behaviors.

Jealousy: Some people can’t stand not being the center of attention. So much so that they manipulate and triangulate to keep the limelight on them, while shifting negative accountability to others. When things get too real or too close to home, they dodge and counter-attack to create smoke screens so they can escape intimacy.

Spending a lot of time with this cover-up emotion, routinely starting fires to divert attention away from real talk about their own behavior or motives, these are definitive leadership red flags. When the limelight starts to fade, these types create more drama. Whether it is in the form of accusations, wild claims about their skills or business prowess, the purpose is to cover up jealousy of someone else getting the attention. But it’s disguised as, “I’m just telling it like it is.”

Strategies to combat jealousy include:

  • Acknowledge your difficulty with intimacy and transparency.
  • Recognize that true leadership depends on trust, not power and manipulation.
  • Accept your positive strengths of charisma and charm. Use them wisely.

The more time we spend nurturing and acting on cover-up emotions, the more we develop our inauthentic self. Cover-up emotions move us further away from genuine relationships. The purpose of cover-up emotions is to avoid responsibility for the real stuff we are experiencing. So, in the long-run we become less effective, less satisfied and less fulfilled.

So, next time you defend your blunt candor as something noble, consider what you might be covering up and what it’s costing you in terms of trust, authenticity and integrity.

Nate Regier is the co-founding owner and chief executive officer of Next Element, a global advisory firm, and author of “Conflict Without Casualties.”


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