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Truth-telling in organizations

Guest post by Jim Haudan and Rich Berens

Lack of truth-telling in organizations can take many forms. It could be information not reaching the boss because no one wants to pass on the bad news. It could be departments not sharing information because it might put them in a bad light with peers. Leaders need to know the truth to make intelligent business decisions. Workers at all levels need to know the truth to do their jobs effectively. And if truth telling is hard on a day-to-day basis, imagine how much harder it must be in the midst of a crisis.

The cost? Lack of truth-telling kills speed, collaboration, and quality-decision making. As truth-telling declines, costs, bureaucracy, redundancies, and lack of confidence in the future all rise.

Lack of truth-telling stems from the fact that leaders, consciously or subconsciously, have not created an environment where truth-telling is safe, appreciated, or rewarded. When you have an environment where at the top it does not feel safe to tell the truth, it tends to permeate throughout the entire organization.

So how can leaders create a culture where truth-telling is encouraged? By getting rid of fear.

Fear is the ultimate truth-killer. Leaders are afraid of hearing things they don’t want to hear. They are afraid of not having all the answers. They are afraid of being criticized. Employees fear having their work scrutinized. They fear indicting another colleague. They fear being branded as not being on board with the team.

Fear slows everything down and holds success back. It causes hesitation, induces stress, and keeps thousands of people from contributing what they are capable of at work.

Here are two ways leaders can help alleviate fear and make truth-telling safe.

1. Show vulnerability. Leaders often ooze confidence. It is an important attribute of good leaders. However, an even more important trait for leaders who want to make truth-telling a priority is getting comfortable with public vulnerability and seeing it as a sign of strong leadership. Being able to admit and share times of weakness and uncertainty and obvious examples of where you could have done a better job in a public setting is a way to earn trust from those you lead.

Another way leaders can be vulnerable and face the truth with success is to address it with a sense of humor and visualization. For example, cartoons of the situations or “truths we are frustrated with” can be a catalyst for breakthrough conversations, because they send the message that the whispers of the workplace are now okay to discuss in the open. They also visualize the way people think and feel and bring credibility to their perspective. As teams and leaders discuss the images, shared vulnerability and peer accountability emerge that are unique and many times game-changing.

2. Remove barriers to truth. Leaders have to assume that the natural forces of an organization work against a truth-telling environment. These natural forces can include favoritism, leaders seeing themselves as “above” the daily minutia, and the acceptance of people just going through the motions.

With that in mind, good leaders continually focus on removing truth-telling barriers and creating an environment where it feels safe for people to tell them what they really think and feel. Leaders can do this by opening up discussions where they aren’t afraid to discuss information and perspectives that aren’t always reinforcing, comforting, or good news. They give people permission to have the conversations that matter, even when it’s hard to do that. They convert criticism into co-thinking and co-owned actions for improvement. They embrace cynicism and use it to spark a belief that change and improvement are possible.

Leaders also can move barriers by listening and showing respect for other people’s feelings and opinions. Leaders need to convey that they understand an employee’s predicament before they have to tell you and make it safe to talk about the real issues on a strategic, cultural, and behavioral level. This willingness to engage with the truth is, in and of itself, a sign of being a strong and bold leader.

Jim Haudan, Co-Founder and Chairman of Root Inc., is the organizational change expert on helping companies create leadership alignment, execute strategies and change successfully, build employee engagement, and transform businesses. Rich Berens, CEO and Chief Client Fanatic of Root Inc., has helped align leaders at Global 2000 organizations to drive strategic and cultural change at scale. Jim and Rich are authors of What Are Your Blind Spots? Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back. The five “blind spots” Haudan and Berens unravel are based on research uncovered from quantitative and qualitative research conducted by Root Inc., and their experience working with leaders at these multi-billion-dollar companies.


Photo credit: Bigstock/mbernard | Importance of Truth-Telling for Your Organization’s Success
The Difference Between Mission Vision Purpose Strategy and Goals
Is Arrogance Killing Your Leadership Potential?

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