April 22, 2022
By Tracy Bannon, Senior Principal, MITRE
What is Proactive Honesty?
Proactive honesty is being bold enough to tell the truth about a situation. Whether it is about people, process, technology, or culture – it doesn’t matter. It’s about stepping up before it’s too late, while there’s still an opportunity to take action on it before the mistakes happen, even when it’s really difficult.
Is Proactive Honesty the Same as Reactive Honesty?
Reactive honesty, in contrast, means that you let it happen. Let’s compare proactive versus reactive honesty with an example. Sometimes, I might tell my husband that I’d like to go and do something – take a cooking class, attend a party or go shopping. My husband might forget about it, and I don’t bring it up either. If I’m being proactive, I’d say, “Hey, sweetheart, we’re gonna miss that opportunity. This is something that I wanted to do, and I don’t want to be let down.”
Reactive honesty is waiting until the day after and saying, “We could have gone out to do XYZ yesterday, but you forgot.” So reactive honesty is bringing up the issue after all is said and done.
You really have to question why waste time with reactive honesty. Proactive honesty is looking ahead and understanding where to have executive courage and acknowledging where to be bold to help steer the things that are going on and take an active role.
Listen to the Humans of DevOps Podcast – Proactive Honesty: The Art of Telling the Truth
Why is Proactive Honesty Difficult?
One of the reasons we don’t like proactive honesty is that we’re afraid of it. It’s difficult to be honest because we are concerned that we’re going to put ourselves out there just to be rejected. Another reason may be that there’s not that psychological safety to say what needs to be said. It’s also sometimes hard to differentiate between a culture where you can share your opinions and ideas freely versus not being filtered. You don’t want to be hurtful. Proactive honesty entails being vulnerable, so it’s difficult to be proactively honest.
Some people are worried because we’re getting into a culture of experimentation, of successes and failures. It’s hard to put yourself out when failure is a possible outcome, but proactive honesty is also about being more authentic.
Proactive Honesty in IT
Software-intensive systems and being able to solve problems with software, one must feel comfortable and confident enough to share input about people, process, technology or whatever it may be. For example, let’s say there’s a new feature coming out for my design. I realize I don’t think I’ve done it the right way. I realize halfway into it that I’ve made a mistake. I can see if I can cobble it up just enough to get it through, and it may have some defects, but it’s going to be okay. However, it’s not scalable. So, doing this will run me into some problems. However, to be proactive, I would sit down and say, “team, this is not going to be finished by the end of the sprint, here’s what I need to get this back on track.”
Another example is if I see that my team member is heads down, and the things that they’re pulling off the backlog are bigger than they can take on, I could mind my own business and let them do the late-night hours, maybe make some mistakes and hurt their well-being. That would not be practical or proactive. The practical thing to do would be to talk to them, or I can talk to the scrum master or the team and ask what we can do to raise this person.
If you’re the team member in this scenario taking on too much, you should be honest with yourself and others that you think you’re taking on too much. In a safe environment, you’re not going to be shut down.
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Honestly, why are you being honest?
Honestly, why are you being honest? I jokingly say this, but there’s truth to it. How often have you thought to yourself, “should I say this? I think I’m going to keep myself on mute right now.” And sometimes, you’re glad you did. And sometimes, you’re upset that you kept yourself on mute.
You can ask yourself, why am I choosing to be honest right now? What could the outcomes be? We are no longer unfiltered five-year-olds that spout off our unfiltered observations like that man has a big belly or that lady has an ugly dress. So ask yourself, why are you being honest? What are you seeking to gain and is it self-motivated?
Who Should Practice Proactive Honesty?
Everyone should embrace and practice proactive honesty. From a leadership perspective, it means stepping up to say; I don’t necessarily understand this technology that the team is talking about; I don’t understand this acquisition pattern that’s being discussed; I don’t have the additional funds to do this initiative. Proactive honesty at a senior level means allowing yourself to be vulnerable to your peers. It also means being more open with the people who work with you and that report to you to better understand where things are. I don’t think there’s anyone that shouldn’t practice proactive honesty.
A Culture of Psychological Safety is Important
It’s part of the cornerstone as a leader to create an environment of psychological safety. They must put themselves out there as a role model and be vulnerable. As individuals of an organization that want to have psychological safety, team members seek out those things as well. They figure out who are the allies that can help with an uncomfortable situation. There are many folks who are shy about expressing themselves, so they may need to have an ally that they can talk to. If you’re helping to create a culture of psychological safety, you must actively listen and care.
Transparency is the first step to creating a culture of psychological safety. This may include celebrating failures openly or rather celebrating our experiences. Also, be mindful about reacting to the honesty of others. That’s an important part. If someone is straight-talking with you and you feel defensive, it’s okay to say I’m feeling a little bit defensive about this. Let’s pause and come back to this a bit later.
The goal is to create an environment where change can happen and where there’s constant innovation and reinvention of both the technical aspects and the human elements. So prep yourself for change, and get comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable.
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