She was 50-years-old. Three kids. Great husband. We fell in love.
Her message hit my inbox. The world reverberated when it landed. My heart started beating out of my chest. We were going back and forth on the design of a new landing page. I sent a long list of subtle changes. Most people would have called me bossy. Not this angel.
“Tell me if you hate it. Don’t hold back. Be ruthless. I don’t get offended or take it personally.”
A masterpiece is born. A highly convertible landing page that makes readers say “OMG, this is amazeballs” is created. A joint effort. A love affair defined by code and strengthened by brutal honesty.
These are the people you want to surround yourself with. Here’s why.
The world moves faster
The corporate world rots my soul. Everything takes forever. Nobody can make a decision.
One senior leader I worked with was always everybody’s best friend. He wanted us to all agree. As soon as someone didn’t, he tried to smooth it over.
So under his leadership we ended up with a software product that was built over a decade ago and couldn’t handle our clients’ needs anymore. Every morning our biggest customer would call us and say, “you were down for two hours again last night. Which one of you wants to have a call with the trillion-dollar company down the road that is furious with your services?”
I always copped the verbal torture chamber of abuse.
No matter how frank we were about the problem, this senior leader did a slow dance out of every confrontation. He could not muster up the courage to tell IT “this junk is broken. Fix it.” He would send nicely written sorries to the customer like clockwork.
When we speak too gently about a huge problem and don’t tell the brutal truth, life slows to snail speed. It’s why many companies like Kodak and Blockbuster died. They were run by snails.
It’s why I hate those fluffy company cultures that say “we are family.” They’re full of fake snails patting each other on the back for mediocre work that achieves zero progress.
Brutal honesty allows feedback to pour out of people and enables transparency of a problem. Everything else is a time suck.
People are petrified to speak up
When you ask for feedback you rarely get it. Even if you do, it’s usually wrapped in a soft cotton quilt, therefore, useless.
We’re afraid to speak up because we fear there will be consequences or we may offend someone. Damaging relationships is a red flag in our brain. Our mind’s computer code can’t process a command like that.
If you tell people it’s okay to be brutally honest everything changes. Especially if you repeat it several times. I have learned to do it more. Brutal feedback is honest feedback. Honest feedback solves problems and creates progress.
Honesty sells 10X more value
He was older than me. Short brown hair, army cut, slim navy blue suit, brown leather satchel, a smile revealing nice white teeth, and an unlikely tattoo on his forearm that you could only see when he took off his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt.
When I joined the team he could tell I was a lost soul. Too much schmoozing. Too many impossible promises. A lot of fluff and not enough substance. He sat me down at lunch.
“Come out with me on the road.”
So I did. One customer we saw sold high-end women’s shoes. They were a pain-in-the-ass and had just been assigned to his territory. We got there right after lunch. The grumpy owner kept us waiting to show power over us. We waited patiently and played with our phones.
Finally he came out.
“I thought I told the last idiot that I’m switching providers?”
He listed off every problem he’d ever had with our employer. He could barely remember the names of his kids — but he could remember every single detail of our company’s failures. The words just flowed out of his mouth.
His assistant came out halfway through to offer a selection of cakes. The angry man took a few and then told his assistant to leave the room. We didn’t get a chance to eat a thing. The fat man stuffed his face while looking out of the window of his office at his oversized Mercedes Benz.
My face went red. I signaled to my colleague we should leave. It became clear he wasn’t going anywhere. At the end of the angry man’s speech my colleague got up.
“Is it okay if I speak now?”
“There’s no point. But go ahead,” the angry man said.
“You know, every time we come out you act like a d*ck. It’s getting you nowhere. You’ve been threatening to switch providers for years and never done it.
It’s because you can’t get lower rates, and there’s no chump willing to come out and be bashed around. I’m not here to disappoint you again. I’m here to work things out with you. But I can’t do that if you treat me like a piece of crap and won’t at least show me a tiny bit of respect.
Maybe the sales in your business are going down because of your attitude, not our services.”
I expected fireworks. I thought the customer would call our boss and we’d be fired. I pictured the repo man coming to take away my piece of crap GM Holden because I couldn’t make the repayments.
Something different happened.
The customer’s face changed from angry to neutral.
“You know, nobody’s ever said that to me before. I like the guts you just showed. It’s rare. So what do you propose we do then?”
For the next few hours we sat there and went through each issue. We had the customer support team on loudspeaker. Every issue except one small problem got resolved. The customer and my colleague became inseparable.
And the customer’s business finally got a website they could sell their shoes on, which drastically increased their sales, and protected them through the lockdowns of 2020.
Lasting relationships are built on brutal honesty. Value is created, too, with brutal honesty.
Say what nobody else dares say.
Brutal honesty can blow up in your face
Wait, what? Yep, brutal honesty is only a superpower if you use it the right way. There’s a fine line between honesty and a**holeness/rudeness.
Follow this cheat sheet:
- Start with what they did well. It shows you respect the person.
- Try not to make the feedback about them. That way you remove egos from the equation.
- State your intent. Tell them you care and want them to win. That way they understand your motives and will see the feedback differently. Feedback can be helpful or offensive. Your intent signals which one it is. State it clearly so there are no blurred lines.
- Emailed feedback can easily sound blunt so it’s best to dish out feedback in person. That way you can always hit the escape button if the other person’s ego refuses to hear the feedback. But emails are for eternity. They are public record that can accidentally get you in trouble and be misconstrued.
The key pillar of brutal honesty is to communicate that nothing is set in stone. Brutal honesty is really just open-mindedness in disguise. It’s the ability to take various different inputs — ones you agree and disagree with — and use them to create outcomes.
The opposite of brutal honesty is a slow death that drowns you in fakery and halts progress. Stay clear of that.
The best question that positively shapes your future is, “can I brutally honest?” Then when you have permission, proceed with respect and focus on the problem you’re trying to solve.
Once you have brutal honesty in your tool belt people will think (like I did in the story above) that you have a gift from a higher power. Use it wisely.