In reading a recent article about coaching, I came across a phrase I’ve always hated. People who use it seem to think that it makes them look tough-minded, such as this quote by Bill Parcells: “You have to be honest with people — brutally honest.”
I could not disagree more.
Parcells says that if you want people to change, you have to be absolutely clear about their performance, and I agree with that. But there’s a huge difference between clarity and brutal honesty. Clarity is about identifying and effectively communicating the gap between actual and desired performance. Brutality is about being savage, cruel, or inhuman, according to my dictionary. Is this what you want to be when giving feedback to others?
If you are brutally honest, what does that make you?
When the feedback you give people is personal, that’s brutally honest, as in this story I was told about a sales VP who fired an underperforming rep by telling him: “When I hired you, I thought you were a tiger, but you’ve turned out to be nothing but a pile of cat shit.” That’s brutal. Maybe the rep deserved to lose his job, but did he deserve to be humiliated as well?
When the feedback is more about making the people delivering it feel good about themselves, as bullies do, that’s brutally honest. We’ve all met people who confuse bluntness with brutality; somehow they never seem to welcome honesty when it’s applied to them. As Canadian humorist Richard Needham said: “The person who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality quite as much as the honesty. Possibly more.”
When the feedback is clumsy because the person delivering it never bothered to learn how to give feedback effectively, it can cross the line into brutality—at least as perceived by the receiver.
Maybe I’m overreacting. After all, it’s just a cliché. In fairness to Parcells, he may not have meant it exactly the way it came across. (But if he meant it differently, why wasn’t he clearer?) No one would seriously want to be brutal, would they? Maybe not, but when phrases like this desensitize us to the actual meaning of the words, do they make it easier for some to cross that line? And when your name and reputation carries a lot of weight, you have to be especially careful about how you word advice to others, because there are plenty of people who may just take you at your word.
Do these people think being brutally honest actually works? Look at it this way, if you cross the line into brutal honesty, and the person you’re trying to coach doesn’t quit on the spot or jack your jaw, maybe you’ve hired the kind of people you deserve.