The Honesty Continuum

Since you were a tyke, you’ve often heard the adage, “Honesty is the best policy.”

  • But then your best friend got mad after you told her the boy she had a crush on told you he didn’t like her.
  • You lost your first boyfriend after you told him he had bad breath.
  • You ended up in the principal’s office after telling your chemistry teacher he didn’t explain the experiment well, thus your blowing up the beaker.
  • You were shunned at work when you told your coworker she’d never get promoted since she kept messing up in her job.
  • You got fired because you told your boss his idea of not answering the phones so everyone could get more done would lose customers.

So, is honesty really the best policy?

Honesty Continuum


I believe there is an honesty continuum. On one end of the continuum is complete, unfiltered honesty, as illustrated in the examples above. On the other end of the spectrum is filtered honesty — this isn’t lying, but it’s not telling the unedited truth.

There are times editing the truth is the best decision for the situation — either the recipient isn’t ready/willing to hear the unvarnished truth, or the risk is too high for you to share completely. You are concerned telling the full truth will cost you your job or an important relationship.

In a perfect world, the raw truth could be told without creating hurt feelings or negative consequences. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where people have emotions, egos, and some feel compelled to retaliate against a perceived slight. Honesty — sharing your perspective of truth — can be considered a slight. Some people don’t want to hear anything but good about themselves.

How do you decide how much truth to tell and in what way? You have to decide where on the honesty continuum you feel is best for the situation. While people can manipulate the truth for their own gain, I think it best to think of both parties’ interests. Often thinking, “If it were me, would I want to know? If so, how would I like to hear the truth?” Some people don’t want to know. Others want to know but only if the information can be delivered sensitively.

In fact, if you decide to share your truth, I suggest you strive to do so with compassion, thinking through, “How can I deliver my message to cause no or as little pain as possible?” Unfortunately, most people don’t give a moment’s thought to how their communication might be negatively received, let alone do what they can to mitigate that reaction.

Haven’t you experienced people who’ve returned from a personal growth seminar and were told to be honest with everyone? I have. The challenge is they weren’t told how to be honest in a caring way, so the graduates of the program blurt out their truth without any consideration for how the recipient could best hear it. We need to be more compassionate and gentle as more people than you’d guess are sensitive to anything negative.

In my three decades working with business people, I’ve seen more damage come from not being honest than from being honest. When a staff member isn’t performing adequately and the boss doesn’t have the guts to tell her, she is understandably upset when her performance evaluation reflects this. “Why didn’t anyone tell me earlier so I could correct my performance?” she thinks or says angrily. No matter when you tell someone less-than-good news it will sting. Which is why you need to think through how and when you will deliver the message to be as kind as possible ensuring will be helpful rather than painful for the recipient.

But what if the stakes are too high to tell the whole truth? You can’t afford to lose your job or marriage. You withhold some of your truth because you’re afraid of the possible repercussions.

I learned this lesson the hard way. While in my fifth year serving on a board of directors, I was one of three board members running for president, elected by fellow board members, not the membership at large.

In the 5 years I’d served, I became friends with many of the board members. When we got together twice a year, the evening before our meeting began we went around the dinner table sharing something from our personal lives. Most people shared some family news — generally about kids or grandkids. Since I have neither, I shared something fun going on personally, often about my boyfriend-de-jour.

I was running for president for the second time. However, I lost again. I was taken aback, as I’d been on the board longer than the winner, had served in more leadership positions, and had a much longer leadership resume.

Why didn’t I win? After some sleuthing, I learned some board members felt my discussing my dating was unseemly, although I was careful to keep my comments G-rated. I thought I was among friends so could let my hair down.

They, however, were observing me as someone who could be the president of the organization. They saw my playfulness and candor as un-presidential.

The lesson is when among those who can help determine your future, don’t let your guard down. Be friendly and helpful, but still professional. You never know who is watching — even if they are a peer or subordinate, they could report to and influence those who are making the decision to promote or groom you for bigger things.

So before deciding from where on the Honesty Continuum you will share, be sure you are OK with whatever the ramifications are from your sharing. You may start out closer to the filtered end and once you see someone is open to hearing more of your perspective, slide a bit toward the unfiltered end.

Please don’t interpret the Honesty Continuum as permission to be dishonest and outright lie under the guise of being filtered. There are only rare circumstances where baldfaced lies are acceptable and they usually involve someone’s life being in danger.

Use the Honesty Continuum as a tool to help you think through how and how much to share the truth you see. Each circumstance may call for honesty from a different place on the continuum. Think through how your honesty could affect you and others. And work to be compassionate in your delivery.