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

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