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. 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? rbrenWbuTYhAIQsPYdzezner@ChacXlkroqfnpqDxYfyhoCanyon.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:

A grailHoley Grails
How much of the time and energy you spend in meetings goes to finding the best way? or a better way? It's of questionable value unless you first agree on what you mean by "better" or "best."
Mars as seen by Hubble Space TelescopeWho Would You Take With You to Mars?
What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
What not to eat on the phone: Peanut butterVirtual Communications: III
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part III of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide wallsIn the Groove
Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthologyWhy Don't They Believe Me?
When we want people to believe us, and they don't, it just might be a result of our own actions or demeanor. How does this happen?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Srinivasa RamanujanComing August 2: Linear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.
A hot dog with mustard on a bunAnd on August 9: Counterproductive Knowledge Workplace Behavior: II
In knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior takes on forms that can be rare or unseen in other workplaces. Here's Part II of a growing catalog. Available here and by RSS on August 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenAlqLHeCgIEjiPZvLner@ChacvbKLKryQsvdoEFOfoCanyon.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.

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.