Truth-telling in organizations


In our last post, I argued that organizational storytelling is a valuable leadership skill that can be used to engage the hearts and minds of employees. And it is – but it does need to done within a culture of rigorous truth-telling for it to work. “Telling the truth” here doesn’t just mean the act of saying true things versus false things, but also being willing to see and say hard things. Organizations need to embrace it, teams are built on it, and individuals transact it. Truth and trust go hand in hand.

I think it is safe to say that most of us prefer to see ourselves as honest, upstanding people. I talk to our kids about the two “gates” that determine what should come out of their mouths: Is it true? Is it kind? The same criteria should operate in adult human actions as well. It gets a little tricky though, doesn’t it? Things are rarely black and white, and what may seem clear, cut and dried, and objective truth may actually be a shade of gray that depends on your vantage point. And there are often pressures to look sideways at a situation, because sometimes something is mostly true, or true from a certain angle, and if you try to corner that truthiness, maybe you get resources for your department, avoid offending your coworker, or win a new deal.

And sometimes what feels like an unkindness in the short-term may be beneficial in the long-term. Jane has a habit of coming off like a blunt object in leadership team meetings and is offending people, and she needs that tough-love feedback or she is going to fail. Isn’t it better to tell the emperor he is naked before he parades around the empire in the buff? But what if part of the truth is that you just personally don’t like Jane’s style and, in fact, the team needs the sledgehammer she brings to encourage them to avoid groupthink? In practice, it can sometimes feel hard to know what the truth is, really. And chances are, if you are absolutely convinced of your ability to tell the 100% truth 100% of the time, you are probably failing to appreciate those pesky shades of gray.

So, we first need to examine our communications in the cold, hard light of day, keeping in mind that communications aren’t isolated packets of information, they bob in a rich sea of context. They need to be anchored in good intentions and aligned with our actions. It’s like docking a boat – you want the boat to slide in gently right next to the dock, not slam into it or be too far away so that it takes a leap to get from one to the other. And if you don’t anchor it properly, even if you steer it in perfectly, it will just float out to sea. If people think you have ulterior motives for conveying some information, they may question its veracity – they aren’t going to take that leap. If people believe you have their best interests at heart, however, they are going to be more willing to keep an open mind. And if you don’t “walk your talk” and your actions undercut your words, your credibility will suffer, and your “boat” will float out to sea.

At the team level, truth-telling is the first and most important ingredient for creating trust, which is the foundation for everything a team must accomplish together. Without honest communication, there is no trust; without trust, conflict corrodes, and accountability and results suffer. To be part of an effective team, people need to be willing to say true things, even if they are hard. What does this actually look like? It means not saying what you think your colleagues wants to hear, even if it is uncomfortable to do so – whether you are about to pass on a delay toward deadline, need to articulate a disagreement of opinion, or when there are interpersonal dynamics that are harming the group’s process.

At the organization level, we can probably think of several infamous examples of dishonesty in corporations leading to explosive endings. But truth-telling at the organizational level goes beyond operating ethically. Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote a book several years back called Confronting Reality which anchors their business advice in this mindset. They argue, in essence, that unless you build your business in a way that forces you to see the reality that exists “out there” in the external environment as well as internally, you won’t be able to respond in time to seize opportunities and respond to threats. The active habit of “truth finding” at the organizational level is as important as “truth telling” and should be embedded in the organization’s culture.

This notion of truth-telling as an active process of uncovering truth is really at the core of the issue. As individuals, teams, and organizations, we need to be courageous enough to discover the truth, share it with each other, and be willing to expand our own perspectives to arrive at a fuller picture of reality. Because only with a robust understanding of where we are now, can we begin to weave a new story to take us to the future we want to achieve.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” –Oscar Wilde

“A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” –William Blake

“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.” –Lao Tzu

“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.” –Maya Angelou