What do you mean by “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind”?

clear is kind in the workplace

Dr. Brene Brown sat in a AA 12-step meeting listening to slogans and platitudes, brushing most of them off but, one seemed to stick in the back of her mind.

“Clear is kind, unclear is unkind”

“I saw the data about how most of us avoid clarity because we tell ourselves that we’re being kind, when what we’re actually doing is being unkind and unfair. Feeding people half-truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.” Says Dr. Brene Brown 

Brene realized that we often avoid clear and direct communication because we think it is kinder to ourselves and others to “soften the blow” but in reality, we are being unkind, unfair and often manipulative. 

As managers we can often struggle with this, with telling people the truth. 

We struggle to deliver consistent messaging and sugar coat feedback. We use “feedback sandwiches” and provide unclear expectations.

“Can they not read our minds” we say to ourselves.

No, our minds can not be read.

We need to look at how when we are unclear, how it can impact our work relationships negatively and when we communicate with clarity, even if it may uncomfortable at times, can often be the kindest approach to take. 

How is unclear unkind? 

As managers, we want to be liked. We want to please people, we want our team to enjoy working with us.

Yet what can happen is that we can be afraid to speak candidly in fear of stepping on toes. We give half-truths and sugar coatings instead of clarity.

Let’s look at where and why this happens.

Employees don’t know what is expected

50% of the workforce don’t fully know what is expected of them, often because they don’t know what ‘done’ looks like or are unsure of the strategy and mission of their product or company.

Saying exactly what we want and how we want it done seems too aggressive now. We are pandering to sensitivities that may not even exist because we don’t want to be too demanding or over burden. 

Unfortunately, the inability to communicate with clarity means your team may get misaligned. They don’t know what you want and can’t hope to deliver because you haven’t given them the tools to succeed.

When we are unclear in our expectations, we create a foundation for complacency and learned helplessness. 

“But, no one told me to do it that way!” Exactly.

Setting clear expectations is kind.

Performance cannot improve

How many times have you seen it? An enthusiastic employee who hasn’t gotten the hang of the job being left to continue as normal until they drift and realize, “oh wait, they don’t want to hear what I think after all”.

Very few people want to do a bad job and good intentions can only take us so far. We need to give people a framework to work within, so they know what success and failure look like. 

We need to give feedback to help street them to meet objectives and grow professionally. 

In fact, 65% of employees want more feedback. Feedback might be difficult and uncomfortable at times but it is necessary. Correcting poor performance is a major part of a manager’s job and unbridled honesty is what is needed to do so.

Softening your feedback and treating everyone too delicately only allows problems to persist and worsen.

Negative behaviors fester

It often doesn’t take much for undesirable behaviors to simmer and negatively influence team culture. Passive aggression, tardiness and gossip, for example, are individually insignificant. However, when your management team doesn’t directly address them, they can manifest into bigger problems.

A culture of disregarding instruction and or talking behind people’s backs can become pervasive quickly. Employees often feel like nobody is willing to speak up and correct the course which gives an impression of complicit acceptance. Psychological safety and confidence safety begins to wane and overtime, staff turnover results.

Trust gets diminished

Without a clear voice to set expectations and address poor performance or behavior, the trust in management dwindles. Employees don’t feel like they can progress their careers because they can’t get clear direction or leadership. Senior executives see an ineffective management team shirking their responsibilities. 

The truth is that avoiding the difficult conversations or giving clear direction to avoid overburdening is self-protection. We don’t want to be contrary and we don’t want to be disliked. But by not giving the clear guidance needed to pursue the correct actions, we are doing our teams a disservice. 

If you can’t stand up to me, how can I trust you’ll stand up for me?

How do we be more clear and kind?

You set your stall out (and leave your ego at the door)

Teams look to their managers for leadership and behavioral cues.

Lead by example. Do you encourage feedback about yourself? Do you have open office hours for employee Q&A?

Have you checked your ego at the door?

Frequent feedback will take care of most behavioral and performance problems so make the time and space to deliver it. Sit down and have the conversations and be willing to hear someone out.

Many times, employees will have reasons for performance dips or attitudes but you need to be clear and direct to find those out. 

Set articulate expectations

David Rock developed the SCARF model based on the 5 key domains that influence our behavior. Certainty is number 2 on the list. Employees demand certainty and want to know that their efforts are in leading to successful outcomes. 

Go to appropriate lengths to ensure your team has certainty in what your goals and expectations are. Everyone should know their roles because they deserve a fair chance at achieving success. If required, use the SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound). In addition, run regular 1:1s so that your team can always raise questions and get feedback. Small corrections avoid big mistakes in the long run. 

Set the tone and be clear on what is and is not tolerated. Set clear ground rules on what you accept from a standards and attitudes perspective. 

Stay mindful of your language

Leadership is about communicating the right message in the right way and language is your vehicle of delivery.

Everything learned in the marketing and sales worlds nowadays is about the user experience. Did the customer get exactly what they needed out of my product or service? Think of this in your language. Is the employee getting exactly what they need to be successful? Is my message clearly interpretable? 

Use direct language and avoid things like “Don’t, not and no”. These tend to fixate on what you don’t want rather than what you do. The clearer and more obvious your language, the better the result will be. 

Inform the employee when a tough conversation is required

Challenging conversations are part of the working world. It’s not having them or everyone coming into the conversation with their guards up that creates issues. 

To mitigate closed mindedness, Dr. Brown uses the term ‘rumble’ when a difficult conversation is required. She will invite the team member to have a rumble which could mean tough feedback or a direct and real conversation. 

The idea is to encourage both parties to lean into the honesty and vulnerability of problem solving. Management and employees show up to be open minded, listen actively and willing to work together on the path forward. A rumble focuses on collaborative problem solving rather than disciplinarian leadership. 


“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy.” – Brené Brown

Letting problems linger is complicitly unkind. Growth and progress are sacrificed for short term comfort. The hard truth is that management isn’t always easy. It is a challenge to be clear and often leaves you unpopular to some. That is not for everyone but in the long run, it is a necessity. 

Clear is kind to you, to the employee and the business as a whole because clear gets things done. It allows the team to achieve personal and professional goals together. It focuses your employees and paves the path to success. Clear prioritizes success and honest alignment rather than the comfort of shirking tough conversation. 

So if you remember one thing from today, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind”.