How organisations can thrive by focusing on truthfulness in an increasingly deceitful world
Politicians are discovering that when the real world does not appeal to voters, many will turn to people who tell them attractive lies. So political leaders feel encouraged to knowingly mislead people – telling them what they want to hear. It’s a comforting symbiosis. The politicians get to be in power and the electorate can carry on clinging to their illusions. With elections only every 4 or 5 years and experts in ‘spinning messages’ there’s plenty of time and opportunity to obscure the gap between rhetoric and reality. But what are the implications as post-truth practices start to influence other areas of our lives, especially the business and corporate sector?
Truth, you're fired!
Sometimes I grit my teeth and make myself watch ‘The Apprentice’. The candidates are almost all deluded about their capability. They represent themselves as exceptionally talented leaders and shrewd business people. They take it in turns to claim extraordinary skill and achievements derived from others’ contributions while using every means possible to deflect accountability for the failures stemming from their own decisions and behaviour. How can that be called ‘reality TV’? There’s not much that’s real about the whole process.
The only part I like is when the ‘finalists’ are examined in a series of interviews. Under close scrutiny from people who really do have some relevant experience, skill and expertise, the post truth qualities - the attempts at deception – of the candidates are exposed.
While some, once they are ‘found out’, are rejected, being found out as a liar does not lead to automatic and immediate exclusion. The candidate’s credibility as someone who can make money overrides their credibility as someone who can be trusted to tell the truth.
This shows how post-truth values are already embedded in our understanding of how business works.
The human cost of deceit
If organisations think they exist in a vacuum where this doesn’t matter they are wrong, and naïve. Trends like fake news and using emotions as a vehicle for judgement rather than facts have already started bleeding across into the business world and working environments. It’s corrosive.
It’s interesting that in some areas of business like banking, investment and insurance, there have been enormous efforts in building defences against dishonesty and deception. Stock market rules set exacting and comprehensive standards for disclosure, financial regulators demand onerous and detailed returns on every kind of activity and transaction. People still lie and deceive. The defences don’t always hold, as we have seen in recent scandals involving Libor manipulation or evading sanctions, but, in the ‘technical sphere’ in everything from an IPO to an annual company report at least there are attempts at maintaining security and credibility.
In the day to day discourse of organisational work there are many fewer restraints or controls. Yet an organisation that accommodates lies and bullshit leaves itself vulnerable to bad practice from people who seek individual advantage by exaggerating achievements, misrepresenting results and concealing poor performance.
How to thrive, truthfully
To function at their best organisations need to work with as much truth as the people in it can tolerate.
How do you insulate your organisation from the post truth trend? Here are four things to do:
1. Make explicit from the start and repeatedly that truthfulness matters.
How? It’s the way you introduce meetings, how you handle recruiting. In all these instances look for and focus on issues of truthfulness. You can say “It’s very important to me that I know what’s really going on, it would be a serious matter if you are not telling me what I might need to know”.
2. Call out those who you know are not being truthful.
Everyone knows what they are supposed to do, but compliance, especially when it is inconvenient, depends substantially on the risk of being held to account. If the risk is low or non-existent, even if they know what is expected, will do what they want. A good example is the new 20mph speed limit: the police have made it clear that they do not intend to enforce the new limit, so most people carry on driving faster.It’s the same with being truthful. Telling people they are expected to be truthful won’t make much difference if people who mislead, avoid and deceive are never directly held to account.This does not have to mean confronting people in public or demanding a confession. Just a 1:1 conversation ‘off-line’ with a bit of questioning to ensure you have understood the facts and a clear signal that you know the person was not as truthful as you expect will do the job for most people.
3. Be extremely open and truthful about yourself.
Being truthful, especially about yourself isn’t easy. It takes both skill, courage and judgement. Here are some things many people find it hard to be truthful about:
- Disliking or disagreeing with something or someone – especially if it could trigger a hostile or aggressive response or if it risks being isolated or marginalised
- Not knowing something you feel you should know, what to do or how to do something, (especially when others expect you to know)
- Mistakes and failures – the hardest of these are the ones you are most embarrassed about or ashamed of.
- Some less attractive intentions and motivations – even if you try, most of us fail from time to time to restrain ourselves from acting out of self-interest, competitiveness, vindictiveness or other unhelpful drives.
Being completely transparent is not always helpful. There are times when, as a leader, you will need to create purpose, energy and direction. That may not be a time to expose your sense of uncertainty and anxiety or to enumerate how often you have failed in the past!! The proposition is rather to act as a role model, to be willing to risk rejection, hostility or discomfort by being truthful.
4. Make it ‘safe’ for others to be truthful with you.
That means establishing a discipline of not making others feel bad about:
- Having to bring difficult news
- Saying they got it wrong
- Saying they disagree or have a criticism
- Raising an awkward topic
It is extremely hard to control emotions – a sense of disappointment or frustration – in the face of obstacles and setbacks and perhaps harder when you just want to get on with stuff and others are not committed or willing. While there may be rare occasions when you are better to brush aside resistance, it takes acute judgement and huge discipline to create a climate where your colleagues and team members know that they can be honest and straight about what has happened, what they want, what they believe and how they feel. Yet it is precisely these issues that determine their performance.
The post truth climate has already started to shroud the political landscape with a deceptive covering of mist and snow so that it is hard to make out any recognisable features that lie ahead. It’s time to make sure that our organisations are well equipped with accurate maps, a compass that works, lights that can penetrate the gloom and the willingness and skill to communicate fully and accurately.