Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 47;   November 19, 2003: Encourage Truth Telling

Encourage Truth Telling

by

Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.

That last sentence brought silence to the room, partly because of the darkness of the news, and partly as an honor to Jack for having been brave enough to have reported it with Eileen sitting right there. As if in anticipation of an explosion, everyone turned to look at Eileen.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau in 1856. Photo of a daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, available at the U.S. U.S. National Portrait Gallery.

"First I want to commend you, Jack, for telling us so early, while we still have options," Eileen began. "Takes courage. And what do you think we ought to do now?"

Eileen has just taken two steps that will encourage people in her organization to report the truth. She has publicly recognized Jack for telling the truth, and she has rewarded him by asking for his guidance in responding to its implications.

Samuel Goldwyn once said, "I don't want any yes-men around me. Tell me the truth, even if it costs you your job." The laughable impossibility of his preference is at the core of the problem of getting to the truth. Punishing truth telling drives Truth underground.

What actions can you take to encourage people in your organization to tell the Truth?

Appreciate risk-taking
Telling the truth can entail revealing failure. If you punish failure, or even if you recognize only success, you train people to conceal failure.
Recognize people who take reasonable risks, even if they aren't successful. Recognize failures — not all failures, but at least those that result in valuable learning.
Avoid heavy-handed or coercive tactics
Some tactics that managers use are coercive. By creating a sense of powerlessness, coercive tactics can erode the sense of safety so essential to truth telling.
Avoid killing the messenger, cold-shouldering the messenger, and blaming individuals for group failures.
Create a sense of safety
Punishing truth telling
drives Truth underground
One great illusion about layoffs is our denial of their long-term costs — they reduce our sense of security. The certainty that someday layoffs will happen again can cause many to withhold, spin, or varnish the truth.
Reduce staff as a true last resort — after spending cuts, after reducing management compensation, and after reducing employee compensation.
Make truth telling a part of everyone's job
In some organizational cultures, withholding truth is seen as loyalty. People who disclose bad news are sometimes seen as "ratting" on peers.
Train people in disclosure. Encourage people to support each other in uncomfortable disclosure by sharing responsibility. Group responsibility makes truth telling easier.

None of this is enough, though, unless you prepare yourself. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, "It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak and another to hear." To get to the truth of anything, we must take responsibility for accepting the truth — even a difficult truth — when we find it. And that might be the most uncomfortable Truth about getting to the Truth. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Power Attends the Meeting  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenVfLaVKHYWBjJoipUner@ChacgVkBJAcvVlSSSnZKoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Why phones are noisyThe True Costs of Cubicles
Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings compared with walled offices, they do so at the price of product development delays and increased product development costs. Decisions of facilities planners can have dramatic project schedule impact.
Thumbs downRecalcitrant Collaborators
Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
A spider plant, chlorophytum comosum.What Enough to Do Is Like
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sJust Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both.
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchHow to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I
When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Coming February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of JournalistsAnd on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenyQyltbCyKdjfYprmner@ChacvoHNXIanijxwpYWdoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.