You Can’t Handle the Truth: The Importance of Honesty at Work

You may believe you both WANT and GET the truth from your team members, but do you really?

Your day-to-day operations probably don’t have life and death consequences like the plot of A Few Good Men. In the film, the lead character knows the truth and as others are trying to uncover it, he shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Well, can you handle the truth in your organization? More importantly, do you have a culture supporting truthful disclosures (good and bad) and encouraging identification of problems? Do you reward your team for doing the right thing? Good leadership encourages the truth.  The importance of honesty at work and in corporate culture is key. Reward systems and behavior modeled by leadership encourage robust discussions, leading to better decisions and greater success.

To take an example from today’s headlines – How many at NBC knew about the button in Matt Lauer’s office but didn’t question its function?  Someone approved the installation. Someone fostered, allowed and even modeled behavior leading to issue rearing up.  A press release and damage control aren’t necessary in a company that models the truth.

Do You Encourage Honesty in All Situations?

The truth is often painful. Frequently it points to places where “we should have known better.”  It takes a strong leader to accept the ultimate responsibility rests on his or her shoulders.  So, can you handle the truth in your organization? Are there subtle (and not-so-subtle) “hints” to the right answer?

In the Dale Carnegie-style Training of Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he identified 20 habits we develop as we climb the corporate ladder.  Most of these habits serve us well during our growth phase, but later become impediments to running an organization where the truth lives.

They fall into three categories:

  • Winning too much –do we argue because we believe our view is right or do we argue simply to win? Do we add the word “however” to stifle further discussion; or do we exhibit impatience as ideas are presented or discussed to show we’re way ahead of their thought process?
  • “I‘m better than you” – Do we fail to recognize the contributions of others; claim more credit than we earned; make excuses; or do we refuse to apologize (unlike “Gibbs’ rule” in NCIS: “sorry” isn’t a sign of weakness)? Do we refer to past glories at the expense of others; play favorites or always feel the need to “add value.”
  • Power plays – Are we constantly passing judgment, adding cutting remarks designed to undermine, speaking in anger to induce fear or withholding information? Do we add the “why it won’t work” addendum?

These behaviors are “all about ME” behaviors and stifle the development of new ideas.  These examples should get you thinking about the subtleties in your actions that discourage the truth. Which of your behaviors are sending the message the boss is always right?

Model the Importance of Honesty for Your Team

Do your best to emphasize the importance of truth and encourage your employees to use truth at work.As the CEO or President, the buck stops with you. Your team looks to your example as a leader. Do you encourage and embrace the truth in your interactions with your team? It’s not always easy to examine our own behavior, but it presents a powerful lesson. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When someone brings up a contrary opinion, do you explore it, or do you launch into a justification of your decision?
  • Do you listen as intently to the executive who supports your positions, as you do to the team member who raises counterpoints?
  • Do you seek out open-minded team members who are willing to experiment with new ideas to see how they may work in day-to-day operations?
  • Do you ever “shoot the messenger?”
  • Does your pet-project get all the funding while other ideas languish?
  • Do you go to lunch, the club, golfing or other activities with the select few team members who always parrot your ideas?
  • Do you make jokes at the expense of others, especially those that don’t agree with you?
  • Have you ever used sarcasm to teach someone a lesson?

Most importantly, does your culture support truthful disclosures (good and bad), encourage identification of problems, and reward your team for doing the right thing?

Many of the questions you should explore, revolve around leadership behavior.  Does leadership at ALL levels of the organization promote the seeking out of problems and resolving them before they become issues?

Can You Handle the Truth? Take a Hard Look

If these ideas have you wondering about the culture of truth in your office, the next questions identify your relationship with hard truths. Do you understand the importance of honesty in your leadership-style? If you answer “NO” to more than 3 of the following questions, you can presume that people believe “you can’t handle the truth,”

Can you handle the truth?

  • Can you handle the truth? Your employees should know the importance of truth at work. As a leader, always encourage truth among your team.

    Can any team member question a policy or leadership decision without direct, or worse indirect, repercussions?

  • Are questions immediately addressed as they arise, regardless of who brings them up? Are they only addressed with urgency if the “right” people bring them up?
  • With whom do you address issue? If a required change involves more than one department, are all who have a stake in the decision included in the analysis?
  • Do you have a process to resolve differences of opinion?
  • Whom do you promote? The person who agrees with you?
  • Do you assign a devil’s advocate position for any major decision? Similar to high school debate – what information supports the opposite position, especially for your pet-project.
  • Do you regularly talk to front-line staff, soliciting input without judgment?
  • Do you make decisions at the right level of the organization? No micro-managing?
  • Do team members have policies within which to operate? Are the values of the organization clear and does each team member know the values in relation to their role and actions?
  • Do you regularly form cross-functional teams to solve problems, including those not directly affected?
  • Do you seek information from multiple sources? Do you rely on one person’s interpretation subjecting yourself to his or her possible agenda?
  • Do you practice humility – pointing out individual contributions, admit when you are wrong, and apologize readily?

I am not promoting management by consensus, but rather pointing out the importance of raising and thoroughly discussing options and issues. Most importantly, be aware of the subtle signals you send as a leader… people notice!

These behaviors are not easy! I’ll admit to often failing at them myself when I had too much invested in the decision, was in a hurry to implement protocol…and sometimes just because.  Being aware is critical.

Corporate culture, reward systems and leadership behavior-modeling all play a role in robust discussions that lead to better decisions.

Modeling the truth is a top-down requirement.  The importance of honesty at work can’t be understated. Without cohesive policies and behavior followed at all levels of the organization, the truth will remain hidden until it becomes a headline.


Featured photo by Headway on Unsplash. Post photo by Antenna on Unsplash.

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