How Spicy Do You Want It?


Imagine you are sitting in a conference room, it is a big boardroom table surrounded by leaders. At the head of the table is the Executive. It might be the CEO or VP, a decision maker in your organization. This person can make or break your career in an instant.

There is some back and forth dialog, but really, people are telling the leader what they want to hear. Everyone in the room is playing it safe. However, here’s the thing. This leader has a blind spot. They don’t see it, and nobody is willing to risk their job to point it out.

Do you say something or let it go?

One side of you is self-preservation.

Why say anything? They are an adult, a leader, and they know what they are doing. Right?

But you feel compelled to say something. To be bold and point out the blind spot to the leader.

Ever been there?

Becoming Comfortable with Straight Talk

When I was an intern, I assumed that I didn’t know enough to speak up and challenge a leader. When I was an experienced VP, I had worked too hard and had too much to lose to risk it on any one decision or weak leader with a severe case of the blind spots.

Fast forward to today -- I teach straight talk at nearly every strategy, culture or leadership session I lead. I do so because it’s often the barrier between good and great teams!

Straight Talk Defined: Be honest. Tell the truth. Let people know where you stand. Use simple language. Call things what they are. Demonstrate integrity. Don’t manipulate people or distort facts. Don’t spin the truth. Don’t leave false impressions.

It makes sense, right?

Believing it in the principle is easy.

Practicing it is another thing.

Most leaders believe in it but fail to practice.

How much heat can you handle? 

The thing about straight talk is it requires a tremendous amount of bravery and grace to do it.

It’s like ordering dinner at a Thai Restaurant, when the wait staff asks you, “How spicy do you want it?”

Level 1 is safe and easy, but Level 10?  That’s as the spiciest you can get. It includes a warning label that reads “caution you might EXPLODE.”

That’s how you might be feeling when you're torn between staying silent and speaking up. 

Level 1 is like being in a meeting with watching someone struggle. Not saying something – and maybe even thinking,  "Thank God that’s not me."

I experience Level 1 or 2 when I'm not sure that speaking up or providing straight talk will yield the results I am looking for. Then again, this could be a story that I'm convincing myself to believe.

I will never forget...there was a time where I was in a role where much of the leadership team above me didn’t model the leadership behaviors the organization was driving. The CHRO was grooming me for the next role which included joining this leadership team. The CHRO had also been a mentor and valuable coach for the past five years. The story I was telling myself at the time was that he knew what was going on and didn’t see any issues with it.

That story I told myself pushed me to look for a role outside of an organization, even though I loved being a part of it. When it came time to give my resignation, he was shocked and just plain angry.

Looking back, I don’t blame him one bit.

As I sat in his office with my direct boss/leader, I still couldn’t summon the bravery or grace to share what needed to be shared. A missed opportunity -- one I learned a great deal from.

Level 10 might feel like your career is on the line. Survival mentality. “Better to live to fight another day!”

I have seen Level 10 in action many times throughout my career.

It’s the one where I often hear something like “I told it like it like it was,” you know the blunt and direct type who believe every moment deserves a Level 10 of straight talk. They aren’t even aware of the dead bodies it leaves behind.

The best straight talk requires a happy medium.

The best level of straight talk is somewhere in the middle, a level 4-6 depending on the situation. When I think about defaulting to a 2-3, I challenge myself to move to a 4-5. For me to be ready for a level 4 or 5, I have to get my butterflies in a formation and lean in.

One of my favorite questions to ask is: Can I share an observation that might be a little uncomfortable for both of us?

When working with teams on alignment we focus on rhythms, rules and routines.

What always emerges?

Some sort of discussion around the concept of straight talk. It’s not called that, it emerges in a variety of ways, but it is a critical conversation to have as a team. Teams who invest in the concept can create great momentum. 

Next time you get the opportunity to practice straight talk, think which level of straight talk gives you the best chance to make a difference in your organization.


Straight talk is merely one of the aspects of being a strategic leader. But if you want to dive in deeper, check out this guide that shares 9 steps to becoming more strategic! 

Nicole Bianchi