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How Honesty Creates Adaptable, Authentic Leadership

By Jacquelyn Adams

“The ideal leadership style is not inspiring or authoritative or empowering. It’s adaptable.” – Adam Grant

The above quote is one of the many truth bombs that organizational psychologist and best-selling author Adam Grant was kind enough to drop on us during his keynote speech at the ATD23 conference earlier this year. However, unless we are already familiar with Grant’s work, we may not have given much thought to what it takes to be an adaptable leader.

Cultivate Honesty

For Grant, honesty is at the root of adaptability. Are you ready for another solid quote? “Honesty is the highest expression of loyalty.” Telling hard truths can feel more than a little risky, especially in the workplace. But Grant shared some wisdom on that matter that he had once heard from William McRaven, best known for his “Make the Bed” speech:

“If you see me about to make a mistake, it is your job to let me know. [McRaven went on to specifically cite his habit of collecting strays — people he doesn’t want to let go, even if they jeopardize the mission]. It is my job to solve problems, and I can’t do that if you don’t tell me what those problems are. I need you to protect me from myself.”

Because telling hard truths can be uncomfortable or even scary, how do we encourage the people around us to be truly honest with us? One simple step is to ask someone to rate your job on a specific task, such as a presentation, on a scale of 0-10. Grant says that 7-8 are a typical response, to which he often responds, “Really, I gave myself a 5? Here are some areas where I thought I could improve… What are your thoughts?” This gives the other person time and space to answer more thoughtfully and accurately. Grant referenced a business that includes constructively challenging the people above you as part of their performance reviews, if that sounds like a stretch. I am torn between intimidation and admiration of this take-no-prisoners approach to honesty in the workplace. Regardless of our approach, this wellspring of honesty will only dry up if we don’t properly maintain it.

Respond to Honesty

Depending on the “honesty” shared about our performance, we might have a variety of negative responses. Of course, a negative critique is the first that pops into our minds. What if we ask for that feedback, and instead of a 7, we are given a 3? That can provide a mortal wound to our pride. Grant says, instead, we should focus on our second score. What is the second score, you ask? (Yeah, so did I.) Let’s say my coworker, Jim Bob, gave me a 3 on my presentation. I can’t change that. That being said, I am about to get another score, the score for how I responded when I got that 3. Will I lash out, excuse, and earn another 3, or will I reflect, gather more info, and improve, earning an 8 or 9? I can’t change my first score, but I can try to get a better second score.

The other type of honesty that can be shot down is voicing problems. I am one of the many who have said at one time or another, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.” Grant, on the other hand, points out that with this mentality, the huge problems — the problems that it would take multiple people to solve — never get addressed. Employees need a psychologically safe place to voice issues, and then we can create the space for us to solve them together.

As you ask people to bring such problems to you, Grant says this vulnerability might be a bit difficult. It isn’t easy to own our shortcomings. However, to put our minds at ease, he reminds us that the people who work closely with us already know our weaknesses. We might as well get points for the self awareness to see it, and the integrity and humility to admit it.

Be a Scientist

Finally, as adaptable leaders who cultivate and embrace honesty, another vital aspect of this equation is to think like a scientist. While we are trying to bring people on board to this shift in mentality, the word change can be… unpleasant. Humans notoriously hate change. Contradictorily, we do love to be innovators, so using words like pilot or experiment can help us find a way in. Asking coworkers if they have considered any other hypothesis can be a great way to help them pivot. In this rapidly changing AI/post-COVID world, Grant shared that yesterday’s best practices can be tomorrow’s ruts. If we want to succeed, we must experiment and consider all of our options. Even simply considering three options, instead of two, can significantly impact our odds of success. We cannot be married to our ideas; instead, we need to be adaptable as leaders and businesses.

In the end, when asked, “What is your leadership style?” Grant says our answer should be, “Whatever best fits the demands of the situation.” This is our opportunity to grow beyond our style and comfort zone. Just like telling hard truths, it will feel risky and unpleasant. Still, as the terrain around us changes constantly, it becomes increasingly clear that adaptability is the path to a bright future.

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Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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