Truth-telling at work

Used with permission.

As I opened the door of a dry-cleaning store recently, I was stunned by a powerfully nasty odour. “Whoa!” I said to myself, “I don’t think dry-cleaning chemicals smell like this!” As I waited behind the customer who was being served at the counter, I looked around the store and then glanced at the floor. I did a double-take. Was that what I thought it was? When it was my turn to be served, I asked the clerk, “Did you just have a really big dog with really bad diarrhea in here?” She looked me straight in the eyes and said confidently and in complete denial of the obvious, “No.” What’s this? Was she daring me to be the first one to acknowledge the unpleasant situation? Ever game for a challenge, I tackled it head-on and replied, “Well then, take a look at that!” She leaned over the counter, looked at the floor, and quickly drew back in shock. “Ohhh,” she exclaimed. “I just thought the last customer smelled bad.”

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This really happened! I don’t know how the offending substance got there, but it reminded me of the old ‘elephant in the room‘ story. Everyone knows it is there but no one wants to talk about it, so they all all pretend it isn’t there and no one tells the truth.

Why people don’t tell the truth

At work, truth-telling falls by the wayside for a variety of reasons:

  • No one wants to tell ‘the boss’ bad news (this is CEO Disease)
  • No one wants conflict,
  • No one wants another problem to solve, and
  • No one wants to risk their career.

Types of sacred cows

In Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, the authors describe thirteen types of ‘sacred cows‘ (elephants) that can paralyze your organization and  that no one wants to acknowledge, everything from time-wasting meetings to high technology that hinders rather than helps, from bad ethics to cavalier attitudes. Cows that I don’t remember being covered in this book include such things as:

  • Strategies that have become outdated
  • Programs that are not getting the expected results
  • Basking in the afterglow of yesterday’s success while not accomplishing much today
  • Mistaking busyness for productivity
  • A host of others that you are probably thinking about right now!

As a leader, you must do everything you can to create an environment in which staff and volunteers feel safe enough to speak up and tell the truth from their perspective. I say “from their perspective” because their perspective isn’t necessarily truth any more than your perspective is. Everyone sincerely believes they are right, and therefore they think they know the truth about a situation, but sincerity on its own doesn’t make something true. Multiple perspectives develop naturally because:

  • People rarely have all the information, even in an open and communicative environment, and if they do, then they likely have different priorities that will lead them to make different conclusions; and
  • Everyone filters information through their personal lenses to interpret what it means. For example, some people are naturally pessimistic, and see the potential negatives in everything while others are naturally positive, and will see the bright side of everything.

Leaders need the truth!

In my post Pessimism in the workplace I made the case that most leaders are optimists. However, if you as an optimist really want to hear the truth, you have to ready yourself to hear about the problems too. There will always be the potential for bad news, no matter how good things are. First, not everything goes swimmingly well. As an optimist, you will have your hopes dashed from time to time as someone points out a problem. And second, even if things are going well, there are pessimists who will see potential negatives in anything. Sure it is going well now, but what about tomorrow! In fact, the better things are today, the more likely it is that things can only get worse! If you as the team leader react negatively to bad news, it is less likely that people will speak up in future, and that would shut down a major and very important information source.

Ways to get the truth out

Since it is important to hear all perspectives in order to determine what the truth about a situation might be, leaders must do all that they can to encourage truth-telling at work:

  1. Mask your own gut aversion to negative thinking and accept the (real or potential) bad news as something to be explored and seriously considered. Whether the news is truly bad or not is yet to be determined, but you shouldn’t ignore the news. Remember, it is quite likely that in your optimism you have underestimated or overlooked the difficulties. This is why pessimists can make a great contribution to the ministry. They readily explore all the risks and will point out lots of things the optimists may have missed. What you really want to end up with is a realistic assessment of the issue by applying your ‘can-do’ attitude to the pessimist’s evidence.
  2. You have to lead the way in ferreting out your own ‘sacred cows’ and tell the truth about them. The staff needs to see that the leader is willing to challenge the status quo. Tell the truth and then fix whatever needs fixing. Take the lead in hunting down the sacred cows.
  3. Reinforce the message at every opportunity that mission comes before every other activity and values are the foundation for everything you do. Nothing you do takes priority over the mission. And nothing is an excuse for transgressing a value in the way you do it. Your job as a leader is to guide the organization in a way that maximally accomplishes your mission while at the same time exemplifying the ministry’s values in everything it does. Every process, procedure, policy, habit, custom etc., etc., is open to scrutiny and challenge in light of the mission and values. Reward people who raise possible sacred cows. Thank them and then dig in to investigate whether it really is a sacred cow or not.
  4. Back in my commercial banking days a young man came in to see me about borrowing money to buy a new truck for his business. He and his dad spread liquid manure on farmers’ fields and boy, did he ever smell!!! Just like the dry cleaning store, it was powerful, but this time it was in my office! I’m sure he couldn’t smell it. He was too used to it. Like the woman who can’t smell her own perfume, we’ve been around some sacred cows for so long that they have become invisible to us. That is why it is good to bring in an outsider for a look-see and ask them to identify things that look like sacred cows. Ask your newer staff too, before they get indoctrinated in the way things are.
  5. Ask your team, “If we were designing this for the very first time, knowing what we know now, how would we design it? What gets in the way of accomplishing our mission the very best way possible?”
  6. Take all the versions of truth that you hear and then test them by doing objective evaluations. Test your assumptions with solid research. A well-done evaluation should automatically challenge any sacred cow that is near-by.

Now go get a hamburger!

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