It's nothing more than corporate bullying. That's my observation and experience anyway.

But where did the term and practice come from?

A Tale of Brutal Honesty

In my mind I've imagined that once upon a time, some bristly CEO started causing a nightmare for their HR team.

You see, this CEO was smart, and everyone knew it. But you didn't dare think or act different than the CEO, because if you did, you felt it.

"Let me be brutally honest," the CEO would begin. What would then follow was ruthless criticism, sparing no feelings. Brutal truth, the CEO thought, was the intelligent way of motivation.

Now, the HR team was also smart. They knew they could not change the CEO's behavior. So to head off employee complaints and actions, they branded the CEO as being "brutally honest".

They tried to make the CEO's brutal honesty seem cool. They tried to make their brutally honest culture seem desirable (it wasn't). They tried to make it seem like all the cool CEOs and companies were doing it (they weren't).

What they were really doing was creating an escape hatch to cover the abrasive nature of their CEO and leadership team. After all, brutal honesty always flows down the food chain, never up.

Constructive vs. Destructive Honesty

Clearly, this is not how brutal honesty started. But if you've ever lived or worked in a brutally honest environment, you know that life often imitates art. I'm probably not far off.

Feedback and honesty is important. It should be constructive, not destructive. Brutal honesty is not constructive, it's destructive. And if that's the case, what's the point?

What then, is the best way to provide honest, yet constructive feedback?

Provide Feedback Based on the Person (Not Your Agenda)

The best way to provide feedback with honesty is to base it on the individual, and where that individual is at.

Seem complicated? It's not.

There are only two scenarios you need to worry about, according to research conducted by Stacey Finkelstein (@DrStaceyF) and Ayelet Fishbach (Tell Me What I Did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback).

1. When People Are Learning, Provide Positive Feedback

As individuals start anything new, there is lots to learn. Often it is frustrating. Often they want to give up.

It is at this point that feedback keeps a person going. It lets them know that while they may be doing many things wrong, they are doing many things right.

They are seeking feedback for the motivation to keep going. Emphasize the good.

2. When People are Expert, Provide Improvement Feedback

As individuals get better and more expert, their motivation for feedback changes.

No longer are they seeking feedback to keep going. They are seeking feedback to get better. It is only here where you start two work on the things that need improvement.


I'm really not sure how we got way off kilter with the concept of brutal honesty. Brutal is savage, cruel, and vicious. It has no place in our business or personal lives.

Your role as a mentor, a friend, a leader is to make people better - not worse. Adjust your approach based on the individual, and impact someone's life forever.