The Risk and Reward of Telling Truth to Power

Truth May Set you Free, but at Many Corporations it may Set You Free to Find Another Job.

It is tough enough for a leader to make the right decisions, but virtually impossible to do so when information regarding the options available are withheld or whitewashed with a veneer of half-truths. It’s logical to assume that because of this, leaders would not only encourage, but demand that truth be told; but you would be wrong.

The truth is that many business and government environments create an atmosphere that discourages subordinates from “telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth” to their bosses. This type of environment not only can stifle the telling of truth, but also punish those who come forward to offer it. As a result, many bad decisions are made, not because of the information provided to the leader, but because of information withheld, for fear of retribution.

Fear of the truth usually emerges when the leader has an “arrogance of knowledge” or conversely, when an incompetent leader dreads exposure of this deficiency. Another fertile ground for suppression of truth is in the catacombs of any business or government bureaucracy. The natural strata of a bureaucracy often appear designed to entomb truth from percolating to the top or for a leader to be able to drill down to it. Those below with knowledge of, or seeking to expose the truth, are faced with layer upon layer of resistance with no assurance the truth will go beyond even the lowliest of levels. For the leader at the top there is often no way to verify that what they are hearing is the truth or simply what others want to be heard.

The reality is that both business and government are less efficient and prone to poor decisions when truth is systematically kept from power. But, there is another side to the story, and that is when the truth is known by leaders who then seek to have it suppressed. In such cases, the avoidance of truth becomes a matter of ethics. Not surprisingly, the type of environment designed to hide the truth causes more damage than the failure to learn the truth.

Telling truth to power has two sides: the truth as to how the organization is functioning and exposing illegal or inappropriate activities of the organization; often referred to as “whistle blowing.” There is fertile ground for discussion of both sides of the issue of “telling truth to power,” but for here the subject is limited to the responsibility to find or tell the truth as to how the organization is functioning.

Organizational Transparency is the Key

To be an effective and ethical leader, one must seek to create a totally transparent environment that allows the truth – no matter how helpful or painful it may be – to flow easily up and down and organization. That is easier said than done.

To start, leaders must have enough confidence in their own abilities and judgment to accept information from below – even if it may differ from their own conclusions – and not be intimidated or threatened by it. This requires a confidence of leadership that allows one to admit that despite their experience and position, they do not have all the answers. There are far too many leaders who see and act as though this attitude is a sign of weakness. As a result, others learn that the way to be in the good graces of such leaders is to keep the truth from them. This leads to making decisions based on inadequate or colored information that lessens the chance of making the right decision.

Also, the natural command and control structure of organizations – especially larger ones – are designed to systematize activities and the flow of information. This is not necessarily bad, because activities and information that flow on a haphazard basis can be just as damaging as the lack of action and information. The key is to strike a balance between the need to know the truth and the need for structure. The leader must be sensitive not to intrude on the authority and responsibility of those below by circumventing the structure of the organization. Inefficiency and even chaos can emerge if those at lower levels of the organization are allowed to bypass the chain of command.

There is another side to this issue that is not often discussed. For truth to be told to power not only requires an ethical leader who is willing to hear the truth, but equally as important is an employee who is ethical enough to tell the truth to power.

Those in the trenches of an organization are most often the first to know what is working and what is not. After all, they are hired (or should be) because of their ability to implement the plans and actions of the organization. When an employee knows the truth is different from what the leader may perceive it to be, it us just as unethical for that employee to withhold the truth as is the leader who does not want to know the truth.

In organizations that systematically recriminate against those who tell truth to power, it is understandable that employees will be reticent to sacrifice their job or future on the altar of truth, but it does not absolve them of the ethical requirement to do so. Those who withhold a known truth from power not only must accept that they have sold their soul for a paycheck, but that they, in all likelihood, are in an organization that will fail.

Building an Environment where Truth Prevails

The answer to these challenges – for both the leader and the follower – is simple. It is open, consistent and honest communication that will build a bond of trust.

Like life-giving blood that must flow freely in our veins – and not be blocked – so too must truth flow freely in an organization – and not be blocked – for a leader to be able to make sound decisions.

This can be accomplished by the leader – without destroying the command and control structure of the organization – by being constantly visible, leading open meetings, encouraging the formation of work-groups that explore and examine the operations of the organization, consistently meeting with different groups of employees to outline plans and receive input and, most important of all, creating an environment that encourages members of the organization to ask questions and express their viewpoints, without fear of recrimination.

Only then can truth be told to power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Truth will set you free, but only if you know it. The fear of truth does not change it, but ignorance of truth does condemn a leader to making bad decisions. Telling truth to power requires the cooperation of two parties: The true ethical leader who will seek truth at all costs and the true ethical employee will offer truth at all costs.

Only in such an environment can truth be told to power and in doing so it offers the organization – including the leader and the members – the best chance for success. And, that’s the truth!

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