On Leadership and Truth


I want to work for someone that never tells me the truth,” said no employee…ever”

Leaders are often put in precarious positions when it relates to truth.  They are expected to withhold sensitive information and be authentic, not disclose everything about direction and motivate.  It is dangerous balancing act that often times results a systemic mistrust of leaders and leadership by employees.

A recent study by Harvard Business Review showed that a 25% of employees didn’t believe what their employers/leaders were saying, 52% thought that their employers weren’t upfront.

That is almost 88%!  Essentially, that means employees believe less than 2/3 of what they are told.

Is there really any question why the rumor mill/grapevine talk is so powerful?

Given the nature of the social media, any slip of leaking information of a new product or potential merger could mean the difference between a blockbuster new initiative and an idea that is picked apart before it sees the light of day.

What is a leader to do?

Create a Culture of Truth

Creating an environment where truth is the standard must start far before there is any type of crisis that might demand it. If an organization, department, or team wants to have an open honest environment, then they have to create a culture of truth.

This is more than slipping “integrity” into the corporate values.

It can’t be something that is just talked about. It must be an active, conscious effort to enable truth to be set free all the time.

3 Steps to Creating That Culture

Leaders have to give honest feedback

Leaders need to give honest feedback for both good and bad. and they need to do it often. This means that when there is something awesome that happens, managers should tell their teams right away.  They should congratulate and celebrate accomplishments that move the organization forward.  This doesn’t mean throw a party for coming into work on time, that’s the price of entry.

It’s something substantial or “difference making”- shaving weeks off of a process, saving an irate customer from canceling an account, etc. It also means that when there is a problem, failure or screwup it has to be dealt with immediately.  It’s not about making people feel bad or to get good at yelling at people right after a mistake.

Instead, it’s about having courageous conversations that make a difference for the leader, the person, and the relationship.  These conversations should be occurring all the time.

Leaders should be soliciting honest feedback 

Leaders have to be able dish it out and take it.  It’s not enough to give honest feedback.  That is almost expected.  One of the most important paths to an open honest environment is when employees see that they can be honest too.

It is not about nitpicking or gripping.  It is a professional, measure delivery of feedback that includes a suggestion for correction.

Employees should be encouraged to give feedback to leaders in a constructive way without retribution.  This will show that this kind of straight talk is encouraged.  It sets the tone for peers to give each other that kind of feedback too.

Leaders should promote healthy conflict

“Advancement is only made through conflict.” It is impossible to have a functional, honest and productive relationship of any kind without conflict.  If team members do not know how to resolve issues between each other or come to compromise solutions then we have an environment like the American Congress.  This is the land where nothing gets done except to undermine or hurt the other side.

Healthy conflict can lead to increased camaraderie and higher engagement.  So don’t shy away from conflict.

Promote people resolving issues and creating awesome solutions through conversation.  Its powerful, that’s what Reagan and Gorbachev did to end the cold war…

Seriously Motivate People

Leaders know the folks on their team.  They really know the things that really underlie why they work. Having this information enables they to understand what motivates.

Ask yourself these types of questions about people that you lead:

  • Is it time off to take a trek?
  • Is it a little extra money or help coordinating a family trip?
  • Is it tickets to the new Avengers movie?

Leaders that have gained their team’s trust know.

Treat People Like Adults

Leaders aren’t afraid to share everything they can with the folks on their teams. When you work with people you trust its not a big deal to be honest.
If a leader is expected to to treat team members like adults, then there should be an expectation to reprimand those that don’t follow the rules.

Yes, some rules are stupid and don’t make sense, but they are the rules. Leaders can see when someone is undermining the organization, team or them.  Nothing eviscerate the productivity of a team more than a bad actor who gets away with acting bad.

Leaders should be expected to tell their team everything they possibly can and hold the team to an expectation of doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Address the Rumor Mill Head-On

Since most employees don’t trust their leaders, any lack of information will result in shreds of truth wrapped in lies being shared.  In order too cultivate a culture of trust, leaders have to deal with rumors head on.

Sometimes things said are hard to disprove, but every attempt must be made to debunk or acknowlege the trust in rumors.  There is really no way to stop rumors.  But just like any scary stories, the light makes all those hobgoblins disappear.

Don’t Double Talk

Leaders that engender trust, don’t sugar coat news. If the news is bad, they tell an employee the truth.  If it’s great news they are genuinely excited for the team. Nothing undermines trust and gets the dreaded eye-roll than saying something is good when it’s not or good when its great.  All people need to show more emotion and empathy than just saying “That was good” or “That was bad”.

Leaders, in particular, must be the catalyst for passion and enthusiasm to be unleashed.

Be an Adult

Here is a some advice: If you aren’t supposed to tell anyone, than don’t…not even that person that you really trust in the company.

Most good people don’t like secrets.  But they will respect leaders more if they don’t say things when they REALLY aren’t supposed to.  A trusting culture shares everything they can and understands that there are  aspects of that can’t be shared.

Creating a culture of truth can dramatically increase compliance, productivity and engagement! So give it a try! simply be the leader you’d want to work with.

What kind of leader are you? Does your team believe you? Do you know? What can you do today to make sure that you are building, maintaining, and fostering a culture of truth? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Anil Saxena is a President & Senior Consultant Cube 214 Consulting
He helps organizations create environments that generate repeatable superior results
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L2L Contributing Author