Thursday 14 June 2018

Why is truth-telling so hard?

I was at a meeting recently with a couple of very senior people (Let's call them A & B) and an HR person (let's call him X).

X had convened the meeting to discuss a proposal I'd written at X's invitation for a piece of work in the organisation, which A & B would need both to approve and be actively involved in developing and delivering.

Early on, I asked A & B if they had had a copy of my proposal - I didn't want to go over the whole thing again if they had, but I have learned to take nothing for granted.  They both said that they hadn't and X said he would send it through to them after our meeting.

As we left the meeting, X told me that he had indeed sent the proposal through to A & B before the meeting, but had thought it better not to mention that.

And so the truth was not told.

And I get that - I am sure that I have done similar in similar situations, and may well do so again.  But I have been ruminating on it ever since and a few things strike me.

One is that X's silence is easily understood: X did not want to embarrass A & B, especially in front of an outsider; and may have been wary of the consequences had he done so.

A second is that X may have been right. I don't know the organisational culture, or A or B as individuals, and it may be that X would have been victimised for pointing out that the document was in fact in both of their in-boxes.

And what harm was done, after all? Just a white lie, to save face for busy senior people.

But actually, I think harm was done.

For example, A & B may think X is less competent than he is - he should have sent the paper in advance.  Or they may discover it in their in-boxes and realise that he had sent it - and then judge him for not saying so. They have also been denied a learning opportunity: how was it that their systems had not flagged that there was a paper they should have read for this meeting? And X's behaviour suggests, and colludes with, a culture where the truth is not spoken to senior people, which is very unhealthy.

All of which reminds me of Patrick Lencioni on trust (and the associated need for vulnerability), and also later on telling the truth (with regard to accountability) and how easy it is to excuse ourselves from doing so.

Of course, it is easier for me as an outsider, to tell the truth: I can walk away more easily if it goes wrong.  And of course, that gives me a graver obligation to do so.

And that reflection makes me think of the organisations where I am not an outsider: a couple of charities with which I work. In one, I have some leadership responsibilities, and in the other I am a pawn on the ground, as it were. But in both cases there are issues about which I am having to think carefully about telling the truth.  

And the reason in both cases is that I have raised issues or queries quite openly and with little forethought, and then found that I have been met with a very strong, negative reaction from senior people.  Which brings me back to my question: why is truth-telling so hard?  And in the organisational context, it is frequently because of the (fear of) potentially negative responses of those with power.

Yet organisations need the truth to be told; leaders need people to be able to speak honestly and openly to them; or else they are leading without complete information, and possibly without insight.  And the led (including me) need to find the courage to speak our truth, and also the wisdom to do that in a way that reduces the likelihood of a defensive response - but we need not let the fear of such a response stop us from speaking all together, or we collude with the dysfunctionality of the organisation.

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