We Can’t Handle the Truth

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I spent the last few days at a National Association of Corporate Directors leadership conference. I had the great privilege of sharing the “innovation stage” in their Social Media Lab with none other than our very own Ted Coiné, as each of us gave a 20 minute talk about how social media is deeply changing our organizations.

In addition to working the social media lab, I was able to attend sessions, including a rather amazing keynote by Michael Woodford, the former CEO of Olympus, who was forced out for blowing the whistle on $1.7 billion in internal fraud. It’s a fascinating story, that I can’t fully recount here (but he does have a book out), but by the end of the scandal, the entire Olympus Board of Directors was forced to resign (a very rare thing in Japan).

And, of course, Woodford was speaking directly to people who sit on Boards of Directors. In the beginning of his talk he did make clear that while some of his story was wrapped up in the particulars of the Japanese culture, he thought the main lessons were applicable to any Board. And one of those lessons, from my perspective, is quite important:

We can’t handle the truth.

That Board had many opportunities to confront the wrong-doings and have the tough conversations that were needed, but they didn’t. They decided that a difficult truth is simply better left undiscussed. They just couldn’t handle the truth, and that, it turns out, is a recipe for disaster. Avoiding the truth allows the problems to grow larger. Avoiding the truth makes you look bad when the truth finally comes out (which makes you want to avoid the truth even more). Avoiding the truth allows issues to expand to a greater number of people and groups (making it harder to deal with). There is very little upside to avoiding the truth, yet we do it all the time.

We need people to speak truth that enables the system to grow and develop.

And this doesn’t happen only in these (hopefully rare) cases of huge scandal. Even a healthy and ethical company will frequently need to make the conscious choice to tackle the tough conversations at the top, and I wonder if Boards of Directors are really up to the task. Do they confront the truth when they’ve got Board members who are not providing value, but are good friends of the CEO? Do they ever challenge their assumptions about executive compensation? Do they have honest conversations about lack of diversity?

I am sure some do, but I am concerned that too many of them don’t. The truth is simply not valued enough in our organizations. Certainly we don’t want people lying, but setting the bar for truth as “not lying” is setting it way too low. We need people to raise issues, even when they make others uncomfortable. We need people to speak truth that enables the system to grow and develop. In Humanize, we identified “truth” as one of the 12 principles needed to create a truly human organization, and interestingly we placed it at the level of process.

The truth is simply not valued enough in our organizations.

The opportunities for bringing out more truth in our system lie not in hiring more “honest” people (since when would we accept dishonest employees?). They lie in creating processes that do a better job in allowing more truth to be spoken. Take a look at the generic staff meeting, for example. The boss sets the agenda, which typically involves the next level of the hierarchy going around the table reporting on what’s going on, followed perhaps by a discussion of “issues.” It’s in the “issue” discussion where we need the hard truth to come out, but notice we put that at the end of the meeting, usually at the time when everyone in the room has started to get annoyed about how long this meeting is taking and wants to get back to doing “real” work. It is no surprise that the real issues get skirted or delayed in these meetings.

What if we could develop a habit where most of the “here’s what’s going on this week” information was shared electronically, and that allowed us to start the staff meeting with a quick review from everyone of the specific issues that needed our attention? Then the bulk of the meeting could be on working through the specific issues—based on need, not on who brought them up? If you want the truth, then give truth the priority.

This is just one process shift that would enable more truth to be spoken. It’s up to you to find some more in your organization. But don’t put it off. The more you delay, the harder it will be.

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Image credit- mihtiander / 123RF Stock Photo

Jamie Notter is a consultant, speaker, and author who helps organizations perform better by strengthening their culture. Jamie brings twenty years of experience in conflict resolution, generations, diversity, social media, and leadership to his consulting work. An accomplished blogger (link to www.jamienotter.com), author, and speaker, Jamie has written three books, including his most recent hardcover (with Maddie Grant), Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.

  • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

    Brilliant, inspirational post, Jamie. Let me point out two points among many that really stand out for me:

    First, “since when would we accept dishonest employees?” – I guarantee you, few leaders think of that when commissioning an ethics program at their company. Instead of a program to get your employees to lie and cheat less, folks, how about crafting and then defending a culture where good people don’t feel the pressure to lie and cheat in order to keep their jobs or get a favorable review? Avoiding a negative is not sufficient, as you so eloquently put it.

    The second point from your post that I’d like to emphasize: “If you want the truth, then give truth the priority.” Absolutely! Your process-fix is perfect in this age of collaboration technology. Your description of the vibe of meetings – that describes at least 90% of the meetings I’ve ever attended. And your prescription? Man, I hope some leaders – at any level of an organization – take notes while they read!

    Bravo, my friend. I can’t wait to share your in-person episode of Switch and Shift TV one Monday soon. It’s must-see TV, without any question!!

  • Beth M. Wood

    Jamie, you make a great point here about truth being more than just “not lying.” There are many ways in which we are “less than truthful” not only with others, but with ourselves. Creating a culture that rewards truth – even (especially) when it’s difficult to hear or admit – would help to lower the incidences of lying. It is a top-down process, I think, where the leader’s character is equally important as his or her intelligence and success. There is a real problem in many business environments where leaders wax on about truth, honesty, and high ethics, but their actions belie their words. It is not what a person says that speaks to their true character, but what he does when no one is looking. A great post – thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.inpowerwomen.com/about/dana-theus-founder-inpower-women/ Dana Theus

    Jamie

    I love this post. You’re 100% right. One idea I think needs more discussion, however, is what we mean by “truth”. In our culture, “truth” carries a connotation of right/wrong. Many people (on boards and in other places) can’t handle the truth because they’re caught up on being seen as “wrong.” Cultures that CAN handle the truth talk less in terms of right and wrong and more in terms of efficacy, values, and complex definitions of success. I wonder how many more organizations would welcome the truth if they’re leaders got out of a right/wronga paradigm and into a “what matters?” paradigm? Thanks for provoking such good ideas!

  • http://idolbuster.com/ Greg Marcus

    Jamie – Great post on many levels.

    For example, the truth is “not valued enough.” Exactly right. If you ask if truth is important, most people in these businesses would say yes. However, if they had to make a real time decision that prioritized the truth vs making the quarterly number, most of these same people would rationalize a way to make the number.

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