How honest is too honest for a business leader? One executive weighs in. 

By Heather Zynczak (CMO, Domo)

I can still remember my first parent-teacher conference. A teacher sweetly told me my oldest son was “just so curious.” I went home thinking he was exceptionally intelligent, only to realize that meant he was into everything – especially things he shouldn’t be. Then, my second son was described as “having a tendency to communicate with his body.” Apparently he was pushing other children to get to his favorite toys. By the time my third son was described as “adept at expressing himself,” I understood what this meant – he screams his head off until he gets what he wants.

Are such positive descriptions helpful or harmful? In my experience, sugarcoating the truth may set a pleasant tone for subsequent conversations, but it can also take much longer to understand what’s really going on.

This tendency to make personal circumstances appear more appealing often spills into the business world as well. I’m reminded of several examples from my own experience:

  • A friend of mine once described his new company as a “turn around situation.”

In reality: To date, the company’s performance was horrific.

  • A recruiter called me about a company with “real growth opportunity.”

In reality: This was a small startup with no real market share.

  • A friend in the retail industry mentioned her company sales had “way outperformed the market.”

In reality: Her company’s sales were significantly down from last year.

In some ways, I applaud these leaders for choosing to see what their companies could become. If they don’t believe in the potential, who will?

Talking With Flowers

Yet, sometimes we sugarcoat to the point of misrepresentation, confusion or even annoyance. I worked at SAP for six years, where a German colleague complained at length about how Americans constantly talk with “flowers” – something was lost in translation, but I understood what he meant. He was frustrated at our tendency to hide the negative and be overly upbeat.

Personally, I’ve found that sugarcoating conversations ultimately does more harm than good. Throughout my career, I’ve unfortunately had to terminate several underperforming employees during my time in leadership positions. One thing was a constant across the board: These conversations only went smoothly when the employee wasn’t caught by surprise.

I spoke with these employees many times leading up to that point, in clear terms, about their poor performance. When the situation did escalate to termination, at least the employee saw it coming. In any situation, these discussions should be straightforward but not demoralizing, as the goal isn’t to demotivate employees who have potential to succeed. Most employees, if dealt with honestly, will improve their results or find a new position.

Sugarcoating Doesn’t Equal Inspiration

Ultimately, part of being a leader means helping people see the bigger picture in order to turn that vision into a reality. But sugarcoating doesn’t equal inspiration, and overly emphasizing the positive doesn’t make the negative disappear – in fact, you’re bound to sabotage the necessary solutions. In this way, a misleading parent-teacher conference isn’t much different than business conversations composed of unclear, partial or distorted information.

Striking the right balance requires a concerted effort to be candid without being demotivating, critical without being offensive, and optimistic without being ambiguous. Leaders who focus on developing a sincere, confident and constructive demeanor will be able to truly motivate the people around them in a way that helps garner individual, as well as collective, success.

Are you striking the right balance between optimistic and ambiguous?

About the guest blogger: Heather Zynczak is Chief Marketing Officer at Domo. She has held executive positions at SAP, most recently as global VP of marketing, and Oracle as senior director of product strategy. Heather also led product marketing at two startups and served as a consultant for top firms, including Accenture, The Boston Consulting Group and Booz Allen Hamilton.