Leaders: Stop Trying to Control the Truth

No Spin Zone

One of the most prevalent signs of Organizational Learned Helplessness (OLH) is the art of making any news sound good.  Better known as “spinning.”  Spinning takes its queue from George Orwell’s 1984:

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

Essentially, it is perpetually changing the story to make the company, country, person, etc. sound/look the best.  Companies do this constantly.  Although their intentions may be good, the end result is not.

In fact, the results can be tragic for the organization’s internal and external reputation.

3 Results of Controlling the Truth

Big Brother1. Investors (and therefore the public for most part) don’t believe when things are going well and over-correct when things are bad.

“Saying what’s so makes the bad less bad and the good better” ~ Jim Kramer

2. Consumers/customers stop trusting the organization and look for reasons to flee.

“Toyota lost more customers each time they came out with a statement about the brake issue. Had they just corrected it, the story would have been over in a week. They perpetuated it by trying to control the truth”

3. Employees stop listening to the “corporate communications,” begin to believe rumors, and actively undermine the organization (even unconsciously.) This is caused by lower trust and usually results in lower profit.

What Can a Leader Do?

Not constantly spinning goes against the “new normal,” but has been shown to reap huge benefits – look at Apple, Ford, etc. There are three fundamentals to gain and maintain trust:

1.Tell the whole truth earlier

In the age of the Internet and WikiLeaks, there is no doubt that the truth will come out eventually. In addition to the fact that it just plain the right thing to do, it is imperative that you tell the whole truth because you will get busted sooner or later.

This seems counterintuitive to the art of spinning.

But, employees, customers, and investors are likely not going to believe the spin. They will fill in the blanks on their own. They have been taught to do this by the constant masking of what is really so. If the truth is told early then you can get out in front of the issue and begin to correct it.

2. Instead of controlling a story, try solving the problem

This sounds deceptively simple, but it’s not. The focus should never be damage control, but solution creation. Once a mistake is made, it’s made. The real test is can the issue be resolved to become stronger. Tylenol did this beautifully. An issue with their product became a catapult to huge market share and public safety.

3. Accept blame and move on

Admittedly, this is the hardest one. In our litigious society it is difficult to accept blame because there could be larger ramifications. However, the quicker that blame can be assessed, the better that a solution can be provided. Now accepting blame or fault doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire situation was yours or the organization’s fault.

Really determining the issue and then working towards a solution will make everything resolved more quickly and more amicably.

The truth will always find a way out, always. Organizations that get out in front of problems and start to provide solutions can move past a problem and turn it into a win for the organization will be seen as far superior to their competition.  That is why we still talk about Tylenol’s outstanding reaction more than 25 years later.  My wife used to tell me something that still holds true today –

Spinning your clothes doesn’t get the stain out, it embeds the dirt deeper.

The truth can’t be controlled, so you might as well stop trying…ask the leaders at Toyota.

What do you think about controlling the truth?  What is the danger of telling too much truth?


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Anil Saxena
 is a President & Senior Consultant Cube 214 Consulting
He helps organizations create environments that generate repeatable superior results
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | (847) 212-0701

Image Sources:  rlv.zcache.com, prlog.org

3 responses to “Leaders: Stop Trying to Control the Truth

  1. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Owning up, making no excuses and taking immediate action to correct the mistake takes courage but in the end, is a stronger form of damage control than the spin. You’re right. The truth will always find a way out.


    • Thanks Laurie! You have to wonder why this happens so often. When the whole truth comes out it makes the situation even worse…


  2. This was a very well stated article. I shared with a colleague and they enjoyed it. as well. Thanks for sharing, Anil.


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