The word truth is loaded. Everyone has his own concept of what it means. The human experience is grounded in perception. There is telling the truth, as in not telling a lie.
There is telling the truth by articulating an opinion, even if there is a risk in doing so. Then there is the purest truth that is self truth. The essence of self-truth is knowing who you are, why you are here, and acting accordingly. To me truth is synonymous with accountability.
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to withhold the truth and avoid accountability with their own people. Even when there is no official communication, the need for information does not go away. Something will fill the vacuum. There will be huddles in the hallways, private conversations behind closed office doors, or e-mail flurries that never do the company any good.
There’s no way around it. People are always smarter than organisations give them credit for; they can smell a dead fish before management does. Even when it is not explicitly stated, your customers know the truth, your people in the organisation know the truth, and your suppliers and business partners know the truth.
Harold Geneen, the CEO of ITT who grew an $800-million company into a $28-billion global conglomerate, demanded real facts, not details disguised as facts, in order to keep on top of his far flung empire.
In explaining his obsession with the truth, he said he believes it is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises – but only performance is reality. Performance alone is the best measure of your confidence, competence, and courage. Only performance will give you the freedom to grow yourself.
If you are truthful and accountable to the truth, everyone around you knows. When faced with uncertainty, honesty and accountability trump everything else. Performance is the truth to measure your self by.
When Mr.L was in one of my first significant leadership jobs, it was his responsibility to orchestrate a round of layoffs. It was one of the toughest moments in relatively his young life as a manager, so you can just imagine how he felt when he heard that a member of the management team had accidentally left the list of people to be laid off on the copy machine. He sat down and thought to him self, and did not want to deal with this. So there he was with a knot in my stomach, struggling with how to handle the situation, when his assistant looked at Mr.L and said, “Howard, only the truth sounds like the truth.”
She was right. Even though ignoring the mistake and pretending it hadn’t happened would have seemed much easier, he realised that the only thing he could do with a clear conscience was to tell the truth. He called a full company meeting for the next morning. They sat down in a room filled with a couple hundred people and talked about the state of the business, the situation they faced and why they thought the layoffs were necessary. Why hide anything? We had everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Taking the nerve-racking but simple step of being honest with everyone in the company made a huge difference in the way people handled the difficult situation. What was the result of this honesty? Well one may be surprised for it was more honesty and more communication, and it made a difficult time a lot easier to deal with. Instead of people looking around for the bogeyman, they participated in the process.
The Manager committed to daily briefings and kept people updated along the way, which helped everyone deal with how they were feeling. People can handle more than we think. We want to know the truth, so we can make our own judgment about it. We still had to lay off those people, but they were lot more prepared for it because we had communicated with them honestly and openly throughout the process. One person’s big mistake turned out to be one of my most important business and life lessons.
In this era of ethics scandals, economic downturn and an environment of overall lack of trust in leadership, telling the truth and telling it with care becomes more important then ever. But too many times the care is missing. A leading electronics retailer, either afraid or unwilling to deal directly with the truth, made the wrong kind of headlines when they laid off several hundred employees via e-mail.
How could that possibly build trust in an organisation? Such lack of care affects not only the people who are let go but all the people who are still there, who have to wonder if they are going to be treated the same way.
The inability to deal with the truth in a straight-up way has ramifications beyond the immediate situation. A culture of caring and honesty is the backbone of an ethical and productive organisation. When that culture is eroded it can be a monumental task to rebuild it. The inescapable reality is that when a sense of caring ends, the sense of trust and shared purpose ends with it.