How to be Open Without Shutting People Down

November 1, 2017

How to be Open Without Shutting People Down

Openness is so important to leadership that maybe we should stop calling people “leaders” and rename the most effective ones “openers.” Leaders open up or shut down opportunities in direct proportion to how open or shut down they are to themselves and to others.

We worked with a senior executive a while ago who sincerely believed in openness. What he didn’t realize was that his way of being direct and frank with people was actually shutting them down. He believed in openness and authenticity, but his approach was creating the opposite effect. It was a total mystery to him. He even rationalized it by saying that other people in his organization just weren’t as open. What was missing was openness to himself. He could be open and direct when it came to driving people to results or expressing criticism, but he could not be open about his fears, limitations, inadequacies, or vulnerabilities. As a result, his embodiment of “openness” was very limited.

Once he gained the inner strength and confidence to be more open about his real concerns and feelings, it came as a great surprise to him how other people opened up to him. He told me, “It was startling to me that people opened up and supported me as I opened up and shared my vulnerabilities. I built my career by being invulnerable. I was very open about the work, but very fearful about revealing myself. I didn’t understand that I was distancing people in the process. I now understand that more openness in the organization begins with me.”

Authentic influence is about straight talk that creates value.

Openness is about authentic influence, which is the true voice of the leader. We speak it from our character, and it creates trust, synergy, and connection with everyone around us. Authentic influence is not simply refining our presentation style—it’s deeper than that. Some of the most authentic leaders I know stumble around a bit in their delivery, but the words come right from their hearts and experiences. You can feel it. You feel their conviction and the integral connection of who they are and what they say. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.”

Authentic influence is about straight talk that creates value. It’s not about hurting people with bluntness or insensitivity. Expressing yourself authentically is sharing your real thoughts and feelings in a manner that opens up possibilities. It’s not about delivering only positive messages and avoiding the negatives—sometimes the most difficult messages can open up the most possibilities if shared in a thoughtful, compassionate manner.

Influencing authentically is what one CEO I know calls “caring confrontation”—the unique blending of straight talk with a genuine concern for people. Like many leaders, my CEO friend had been uncomfortable with such interaction for years. As his career progressed, he realized, “Real caring involves giving people the tough feedback they need to grow.” Another very self-aware CEO put it this way: “A leader’s ability to be appropriately tough is directly proportional to the depth and quality of his or her relationships.” Carl Jung said it this way: “To confront a person in his shadow is to show him his light.”

Start observing how authentically you are expressing yourself. Fernando Flores, communications expert and Founder of Business Design Associates and Pluralistic Networks, boiled down his powerful communication paradigm to this: “A human society operates through the expression of requests and promises.” Are you authentically expressing your requests? Are you authentically fulfilling your promises? Are you authentically reiterating a request or a promise when needed? Use this model as a guide to authentic influence; it is very transformative.

The Authors: 

Kevin Cashman is Global Leader of CEO & Executive Development at Korn Ferry. He is the author of LEADERSHIP FROM THE INSIDE OUT: Becoming a Leader for Life, Third Edition (Berrett-Koehler; October 30, 2017).