Honesty in business: when are you being too forthcoming?
As a business, our values can be summed up as “Be honest. Be kind. Be bold.” It is something that I really pride myself on and which every piece of content we put out into the world is aligned with. Why? Because I do not believe that businesses can (or should) stand back and sit quietly on important social issues.
The days of businesses just chugging along and being opaque on the values they stand on, on how they aim to impact their communities are gone. This is because as each generation becomes more aware of what their dollars are going towards (see: Chik-fil-a donating to anti-LGBTQ+ groups), they will want to make sure that it aligns with what’s important to them. They’ll demand to know even. In fact, a 2018 McKinsey survey found that 70% of Gen-Z’ers will go out of their way to purchase from companies they view as ethical.
There are instances in which we might be a bit too forthcoming with our audience.
One example, the disastrous Aaron Sorkin interview in which he admitted that he didn’t think I Love Lucy is funny anymore.
Which one, he couldn’t be more wrong since physical comedy doesn’t have an expiration date. Two, it makes me question if the story of one of the funniest couples to grace our screens (who albeit, had a tumultuous relationship) will be a humorless bore.
Comments like that seed doubt in an audience’s mind and when an audience isn’t clear what you’re offering, you’re likely to flop.
Recently, I received an email from a fellow entrepreneur who is also a big ol’ geek for systems and automation.
I joined her list to keep up to date with what she’s got going on in her business. Part competitor research, sure. But mostly because I love discovering different automation techniques.
What was in this email was… confounding.
Be careful what you share with your audience
In it, she went into detail of just how burnt out she was by her business. So much so that she decided to shut down one of her primary offerings in order to regain energy.
That itself wasn’t so shocking. This year, I’ve received several emails from some successful entrepreneurs who admitted to needing time away due to burnout. No doubt the isolation and stress from the pandemic has made it easier for us to become overwhelmed. If your anxiety is at a 4 on the daily, every little unexpected fire that you need to put out, just compounds.
What was shocking was that in the same email she went into selling her systemization “over stress” program.
In one fell swoop, she went from detailing how much she had been struggling, how her stress made making decisions nearly impossible, how burnt out she was, to then trying to sell a program that is supposed to help me prevent becoming burnt out by my business?
I had lost trust in her business and her expertise.
My initial thought was, “If you’re trying to sell me something that is supposed to ease burnout and stress in my business, don’t tell me you are burnt out by your own business.”
I went from admiring a peer to feeling as though what she was selling doesn’t actually… work.
A digital snake oil salesman who did the mistake (favor?) of admitting the truth to their targets.
Honesty is still valuable and necessary in business.
Millennials and Gen-Z’ers expect a level of transparency.
With our generations embracing mental health and vulnerability thanks to the conversation becoming less stigmatized and certain TED talks (shoutout to Brené Brown), we appreciate when someone admits they are struggling.
After all, most of us are in some form or another. Plus, Instagram-perfection has been done to death. We’re over it.
Where is the line between honesty and self-sabotage?
The short answer: when it makes your audience question your competency.
Like Aaron Sorkin who didn’t do himself any favors in selling the reason why audiences should purchase tickets to Being the Ricardos, how are you positioning your work?
If you’re a service-based entrepreneur who created a business to help others who are struggling with a problem you faced in the past yourself, your audience wants to know how you overcame it.
Your audience is not interested in being guided by someone who is currently in no better position than themselves.
What positive transparency vs. reputation-damaging transparency looks like
Positive transparency is transparency that reveals your values or story in a way that not only compliments your business but it serves as a beacon to your ideal audience.
Think: linking a manifesto on how your business is dedicated to Diversity and Inclusion on your homepage. Or maybe explaining how you overcame near financial ruin and homelessness to paying off your student loan debt in 5 years.
It looks like a pivot you decided to make and share with your audience that gets them nodding their head in recognition. Recognition in which they themselves understand the pull to align your career with the growth you’ve experienced as a human.
Reputation-damaging transparency is the quarterback who admitted his truth after having misled the press, his team, and fans. It’s the marriage counselor who announces they’re leaving their spouse and immediately shacks up with a different partner. Or the systems expert who emails their list to tell them they’re burnt out by their business.
In short, positive transparency is complementary to our brand or business. Whereas, Reputation-damaging transparency is contradictory to it.
If you would like to get real with your audience, there are questions you can ask yourself to get clear on whether the urge to reveal what’s been going on in your life or business would be beneficial. They are…
- What do I want my audience to take away from this? Is it inspirational? A stark reminder?
- Is this more likely to attract or repel my ideal audience?
- Could this possibly leave my audience confused about my intentions or offerings?
- Is this aligned with my business and/or personal values?
- Am I being self-serving or can this provide a genuine connection with my audience?
- If I didn’t share this, would my business be worse off?
- Ex. If you didn’t share how you struggled with financial ineptitude and then took the power back into your own hands thus, resulting in your current financial freedom I think it’s safe to say that your business would be worse off. Your audience will likely find that kind of story both inspirational and aspirational.
This isn’t to say that, as an entrepreneur, you need to twist the truth or mislead your audience. Aaron Rogers probably would have been better off sharing his vaccine hesitancy but being committed to weekly tests. Instead, and rightfully so, people now question his dedication to his team and his trustworthiness.
This is to say, that sometimes airing your dirty laundry can do more harm than good. Sadly, sometimes… ignorance is bliss.
If you’re wondering whether you are being too forthcoming, try asking a friend for their impartial take of what you are thinking of sharing. Before sharing it, of course.
Have you experienced a loss of trust with an entrepreneur or professional who contradicted your perception of them and/or their work?
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