Mayvin_unlock thruthfulness

Should leaders be more like psychotherapists?

What psychotherapy can teach organisations and senior managers about creating a safe space for truthfulness. 


I recently had the chance to talk to a group of around 25 psychotherapists and counsellors about truthfulness in organisations. I was particularly interested to hear what they had to say, from their perspective, about the conditions that enable people to tell the truth. After all, that’s what they do. These are highly trained experts that specialise in creating a climate in which people are willing to explore deeply and honestly who they are.

But how much of their approach could be migrated into an organisation setting?

Here is what they said they work on to ‘create the safe space’:

The individual needs to know that:

  • They will be heard; what they want to say matters; you (the listener) will make an effort to understand
  • They will not be shamed –in this safe space, judgement will be set aside
  • They can trust that there will be no retaliation or bad consequences
  • You (the listener) are willing to show vulnerability
  • There are clear boundaries and rules of engagement – to manage issues of power, procedure, confidentiality.


When you go to see a counsellor or therapist, that’s what you would hope for and expect. It is what makes talking to a therapist worth paying for.

So how about at work? Is it realistic to expect to an organisation to create situations or circumstances that create the right conditions? Are there people who are willing to engage with you on those terms and are they capable of doing it in practice?

My experience is that there are colleagues and bosses who are willing and able in the right circumstances to create that vital safe space, but they are a pretty rare breed.

We already know from our research on truthfulness in organisations that being able to speak the truth really matters to people, it motivates and energises them. Equally, working more truthfully means organisations would avoid some problems and solve others more quickly.

More truth means better results.

The implication is that leaders in organisations do need to learn how to create the conditions for people to tell them the truth. The problem is most leaders believe the skills they need are the exact opposite of what makes people feel willing to tell them the truth.

They believe (and they have a point) leadership is more about:

  • Getting others to understand
  • Making judgements and decisions
  • Removing or overcoming resistance
  • Staying confident and hiding vulnerability
  • Generating and using power


So here is a paradox: organisations need leaders with vision and drive – people who know what is needed and will push for results – especially when things get difficult. At the same time, organisations need to create the conditions where people will be truthful.

The clear implication is that these same leaders – ones with the vision, confidence, drive and determination to make things happen need to be able to switch modes and make it safe for others to be truthful.

We need to work out how to get someone who is successful, confident, purposeful, perhaps driven, to acquire the skills needed to encourage truthfulness. In a recent blog I suggested some ways organisations and people can do that, but this remains a serious challenge for those involved in leadership and organisation development.