“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
– Flannery O’Connor
“It is better to disappoint people with the truth than to appease them with a lie.”
– Simon Sinek
“and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
– The Holy Bible
No one questions the value of the truth, but in our businesses we sure have a hard time nailing it down. Most of us have read Jim Collins exhortation to “confront the brutal facts,” but reaching consensus on what those facts are can be challenging. How can this be? How can something so vital be so elusive?
I’m afraid we engage in some dangerous “truth-hiding” behaviors –
- Have you ever told a subordinate, “Don’t bring me problems, only bring me solutions”? I understand what you were after – you want that employee to think for themselves and take responsibility for their work. Great, but you might be telling them that you don’t want bad news and if they don’t have an answer for a looming problem, you’d prefer not to hear it. You’ve just shielded yourself from a bit of the truth.
- Have you ever spotted a new competitor on the horizon, but because you knew the principals in the organization from sub-par work earlier in their career you dismissed the threat? Maybe that earlier sub-par work motivated them to pair up with new capable partners or maybe they learned from their earlier missteps and are now a formidable competitor. You’ve just dismissed some truth.
- Have you ever received a call or email from “that customer” – the one who is never happy – and dismissed the content of their communication as more sour grapes? What if this time they’re calling with a legitimate problem about your product or service or about a real misstep by one of your employees? You’ve just ignored some truth.
- Is there a problem that keeps resurfacing in your organization and someone (peer or subordinate) has had the nerve to suggest that part of the problem might be you (your style, your time management, your lack of planning – you fill in the blank)? You discounted their observation because you’ve successfully run your division for more than 10 years and only have this problem with one person. Maybe there’s some truth there that you’re unwilling to hear.
If some of these resonated with you, great. If not, create your own list of other behaviors that could be keeping you from getting to the truth in your organization. You can even share them at the end of this post.
So, what are some positive steps we can take to make sure we’re getting a steady diet of the truth in our organization?
- Make sure bad news can easily travel up and down in your organization. Make sure there are no reprisals for “truth tellers.” As a matter of fact, recognize their efforts in getting all the facts on the table.
- Proactively ask for feedback from employees, customers and suppliers. Make phone calls and send surveys. Take the totality of the feedback to make a balanced, accurate picture of what it’s like to work at your company, purchase products or services from your company or sell to your company.
- Engage the services of a third party who can bring a fresh perspective. Maybe a consultant, an advisory board or business-owner peer from a networking group.
- Engage in vigorous discussions. Build enough trust inside your team so that you can talk to each other about failures in execution, faulty plans and blown opportunities. Commit first and foremost to the purpose of the organization. That makes the momentary discomfort of discussing individual lapses subordinate to the importance of resolving nagging problems or the exploiting of looming opportunities.
- Squash every form of defensive behavior. When you hear things you’d rather not hear about your organization, your product or your people, resist the temptation to defend. Instead, figure out what you can learn from the feedback and teach your team to do the same.
I realize that what I’m advocating is difficult. It goes against our natural inclinations to defend our work and reputation. I also realize that taking feedback without defending could look like you’re being disloyal to the company, its products or its employees. There’s a great way to deal with that, but that’s another article for another day.
For now, let’s get back to the supremely important topic of truth telling. How can you develop your team if you don’t where they struggle? How can you retain clients if you don’t know where your current performance is deficient? How can you make an accurate strategic plan if it’s based on a flawed perception of today’s reality?
I saved perhaps the saddest “truth” quote for the end. In the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” Jack Nicholson’s character, during a military court proceeding, told his questioner, “You can’t handle the truth.” Whether we can’t handle it or don’t want to handle it, the result is the same. We continue to live in deluded bliss while our organization perpetually stumbles along on faulty information, never reaching its full potential.
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