Afraid to Tell the Truth

We are afraid to tell each other the truth.

It’s a freaking cultural norm.   And it’s ruining our relationships and our organizations.

A client of mine is under intense and public fire, accused of offenses he did not commit.  There are those in his organization who have the capacity to tell the truth to the accuser about the havoc that individual is wreaking on the organization.  And they don’t do so.

Why?  We are afraid, in our culture, to tell each other the truth.

I have seen my client’s situation mirrored in so many organizations — nonprofits, for-profits, government agencies, educational institutions — and at so many levels of leadership.  It’s epidemic.  Somebody’s screwing up, and nobody has the cojones to confront the perp and say, “You’re screwing up, and it must stop.”

(Clearly that’s a problematic strategy when the individual is your boss … or even your peer.  But if s/he’s your direct report, there’s no excuse.  In the interest of being “nice,” of avoiding awkwardness, how long will you allow hell to reign in the team?)

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m a nice guy.  Nobody would accuse me of being a hard-ass.  In this blog space, I focus on building harmonious relationships, cultivating compassion, and taking the perspective of the other.  And:

  1. often, a higher level of compassion demands delivering difficult news, certain to cause distress and conflict … and then supporting the other in making necessary changes.  Do that, and you give them the opportunity to learn a vital lesson they won’t otherwise learn.  You give them the chance to become a better person.  The lesson will not be easy; oh, well.  The most important ones never are.
  2. individuals’ short-term feelings are simply less important than the overall health of the team.  If you’re not clear about this value priority, you’ll never have that difficult conversation.  And your team will never be what it could be.

Of course, there are constructive and destructive ways to deliver challenging news.  I’ll take that up in my next blog post (two weeks from today).  And there are strategies to deliver challenging news to people who can hurt you.  (That’ll be four weeks from today.)  Meanwhile …

YOUR PATH FORWARD:  Take three minutes to reflect on these questions:

  • What critical truths are you not telling to a member of your team or organization?
  • Why is it important for that individual to hear that truth?  What will happen if they never do?
  • What’s keeping you silent?
  • What would you need to know or do in order to speak your truth?
  • What steps could you take — today — toward speaking that truth?

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

4 thoughts on "Afraid to Tell the Truth"

  1. Consider the differences among cowardice, corruption and caution. I worked for a company where the leadership encouraged corruption by relentlessly driving individuals toward unattainable goals. When a handful of us worked behind the scenes to sniff out what appeared to be false sales reports, we acted with caution; rather than telling our immediate area supervisor whose incentives were tied to the results, we contacted the corporate lawyers. Kudos to our company for having set up an information and report channel for situations such as ours. During that process, one of our team left the organization. We were disappointed to learn that in the exit interview he gave false feedback on the job he was leaving so he wouldn’t undermine his references by leaving a bad impression. Doing so left the supervisor without a clue as to the behaviors that were driving people to seek jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately, self-interest is often behind silence and self-sacrifice is regarded as foolish. Setting up paths for communication that permit honesty is always a good policy.

    1. Steve Motenko says:

      Totally agree, Celeste. The phenomenon you allude to, about people being dishonest about why they’re leaving a company, is more common than we might think, Jim and I agree. Thus the company loses the chance, time and time again, to understand the damage its bad managers are doing. Your solution — “paths for communication that permit honesty” (I’d say encourage honesty) — is critical and, unfortunately, rare. Why rare? Because too many leaders don’t have the courage or the self-awareness to ask, “How am I doing?” of the people whose lives they impact.

  2. Brooke says:

    Hey Steve,
    I think it’s a cultural thing. I’ve/we’ve noticed that people out west, Seattle in particular, are afraid to tell people the truth for fear of doing harm and getting people upset.

    I say, as long as you say what needs to be said constructively, it avoids long-term problems. Difficult news can be delivered non-confrontationally, and while it involves immediate minor discomfort, I generally find it eliminates the big blow-ups months later.

    1. Steve Motenko says:

      Couldn’t agree more, Brooke!

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