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A Culture of Truth-Telling

Making a safe culture for truth-telling is one of the wisest things a leader can do. Samuel Goldwyn once said, "I don't want any yes-men around me. Tell me the truth, even if it costs you your job." What an impossibility! Punishing truth-telling drives truth underground.What actions can you take to encourage people in your organization to tell the truth?

  • Appreciate risk-taking. 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 manipulative tactics. By creating a sense of powerlessness, manipulative tactics can obliterate the sense of safety which is essential to truth telling. Don’t “kill the messenger” or blame individuals for group failure.

  • Create a sense of safety. Reduce staff as a true last resort—after spending cuts, after reducing management compensation, and after reducing employee compensation, and make sure everyone knows that is the process.

  • Make truth-telling a part of everyone's job. Never allow withholding truth to be seen as loyalty. Encourage people to support each other in uncomfortable truth-telling by sharing responsibility. Group responsibility makes truth-telling easier.

  • Prepare yourself as the leader. Henry David Thoreau said, "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, no matter how difficult, when we receive it.

Much necessary truth-telling is disruptive. At this time in history, we are surrounded by systems that we now recognize do not respect people or honor life. Disruptive truth-telling is not intended to create chaos or conflict simply for the sake of it. It means persevering through the discomfort to break up dysfunction and take things to a higher level.Women understand the need for this more and more. Through the #metoo# movement, women are speaking up. As little girls, many were taught to distrust our observations and intuition. Growing up, telling the truth may have led to punishment, humiliation, withdrawal, or physical violence. Bethany Webster says, “Telling the truth may trigger a visceral fear of stepping up and using our voice as a force for change. Our painful histories may have conditioned us to avoid conflict and try to create ‘peace’ at all costs, as a way to keep that fear at bay. It is through addressing those childhood fears that we can dissolve the paralysis we may feel in the face of so many current challenges. I believe that the women who become skilled at initiating difficult conversations will be the most effective and transformative leaders of our time.”I agree with Ms. Webster, and also feel that many male leaders and particularly anyone in a minority position can benefit from her insight. Any of us who find ourselves reluctant to have necessary but disruptive conversation must learn detachment in two areas:1. Detach from a need for "peace" at all costs.Many leaders experienced turbulent, conflict-ridden homes as children and as a way to stay safe, made a vow to never create or contribute to conflict. That vow may have kept us safe as children, but left unexamined it becomes a barrier to our full power and leadership. Being able to tolerate a lack of peace in order to move things forward demands a person to rely on a source of stability within ourselves. Leadership requires a source of inner stability when the world is in motion.2. Detach from the need for being liked, understood, and approved.Of course we enjoy belonging, being liked, and being approved. But to "need" it in order to feel okay is a form of giving our power away. We have to develop the primary source of approval within ourselves. When we have it, we can take risks in being real, telling the truth, and have the joy and respect that comes from knowing we are living in truth. There is a wonderful freedom when you can live with what is real.In order to tell difficult truth, we have to realize that telling the truth actually is helpful for other people, even if in the moment they react negatively. Knowing the truth is the only way anyone’s life can truly get better and healthier.When you take the first risks of telling disruptive truth, it may strengthen you to know that speaking truth in one area can make it easier to do so in other areas. Finding and using your voice raises the quality of life all around you. Anywhere truth is spoken supports truth everywhere.The vast majority of the evil in our world comes from the deliberate silencing of people who deserve to be valued and their truth heard. Those of us who are leaders are people of privilege, and we must take truth-telling seriously, and give opportunity for those who are oppressed to speak and be heard.As others learn to tell their truth and accept truth from others, I need to . . .

  • Engage emotionally. Show your concern and be aware of your tone and body language.

  • Validate the other person’s point of view. Once you understand why another person believes what he believes, it’s important to acknowledge it. This can be very affirming. It doesn’t mean it has to be YOUR point of view, but the other person must feel respected in having his/her point of view.

  • Give people permission to offer ideas and to express doubts. It improves morale and increases employee loyalty.

  • Listen to what’s really being said. Listen to the entire message the other person is trying to communicate through words, body language, and tone.

  • Don’t make “bad news” sound like “good news.” An upfront warning may be necessary. “I have something important that I need to share with you that may be difficult to hear.” That upfront warning is often a good way to soften the blow. Let them ask questions.

  • Learn to always tell the truth, even when it is easier to remain silent.

Showing up and telling the truth is not easy. It is certainly not common. If you choose to do so, you will stand out in a good way. You will ultimately be respected. And you will become a leader that people respect and grow under.

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