Leadership Follies: Telling the Truth or Just Lie?

Truth or Lies

Why is telling the truth so hard?  What is it about being honest about results of a survey or project that makes organizations want to run for the hills?  

There is a tendency in many organizations to shade or soften bad news so that “people don’t feel bad” about it.

Shading the Truth

Over and over again, smart and dedicated people purposely alter how they communicate data to make very bad survey results seem positive, or at least “not that bad.”  They alter results on Employee Engagement, Customer Satisfaction, Exit Interview, etc. This is very bad because it skews reality and creates an atmosphere of distrust.

Being unable to relate results honestly is yet another symptom of Organizational Learned Helplessness (OLH).

Organizational Learned Helplessness  occurs when people in an organization believe there is nothing they can do to make a difference.

Symptoms look like this:

  • Performance spirals downward
  • Communication and respect for others decreases
  • People fall back on primitive self-protection behaviors

Killing the Messenger

Results shading is a symptom of organizational learned helplessness because somewhere in the organization’s history telling and dealing with the truth is not rewarded.

This is called “Kill the Messenger” management.

Unfamiliar with this form of management?

Here is a simple description:

Senior leaders belittling or reprimanding a junior person (anyone that reports to them) because they deliver results or news that is not favorable.  The junior person is not in control of the results (they are not the thought-police or enforcers of any kind) and therefore are simply reporting.

We have all seen it. It is not to say that you should be unkind or demeaning in delivering results.  Even (and especially if) they are bad.  But, killing the messenger does nothing but tell people that the truth is only good when its favorable, even if that is not what meant.

Over time, organizations that suffer from Learned Helplessness almost never let data, results or news go out without “shaping it” or softening it or whatever colloquialism is used to say “change it to make it sound better”.  Therein, leaders never really hear the real unfettered truth.

This is one of the big reasons that consultants are brought in to uncover why things are really going awry (if they are.)

Setting the Truth Free

It is not easy to tell the truth, but in the long run dealing with bad news or results head on enables the organization to learn and recover quickly.  Sometimes, it even makes them more effective. Here is a simple process.  The problem is that the process will take some work, as most simple things do (…think diet and exercise.)

Making it easier/better to tell the truth:

1. Build the Ark 

There is a tendency to be afraid to tell bad news because telling bad news because it does make people feel bad when there is nothing you can do about it.  It can leave the person(s) receiving the message as if there is no hope.  That makes them either angry or depressed.

The best way to avoid this is to couple a solution or method to uncover why the news is bad with each piece of bad news.  That takes a bit of work, but its important that bad news isn’t just left out there without something that can be done about it.

2. Prepare leaders 

Let senior leaders know that the news/results are not good.  It’s never a good idea to blind-side leaders with bad news.  So make sure they are aware of it, potential rationale for why it is bad and what could be done about it.

3. Let everyone know the “real” results QUICKLY 

One of the worst things that can be done with bad news is to hide it or “shape it to not sound so bad”.  It’s important that accountability for the results at every level is discussed.

Don’t point the finger at mysterious forces out of the organization’s control like “The economy” or “Outsourcing”.

Of course those things will have influence, but they are not the only (or sometimes even the primary) reasons for the bad news/results.

4. Take action 

This is the most critical part of the process. Inaction is a contributing factor to on going OLH and why employees don’t trust “management”.  When an issue is uncovered, action must be taken.  Organizational inertia has a tendency to stifle action that may disrupt the status quo, but if nothing is done to impact bad news or results people see ongoing failure as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then the next bad news/results are found they don’t believe anything will be done about it and so its better not to admit them at all…sound familiar?

Taking action doesn’t have to be bold or splashy, but it must be done.

  • Q: Wonder why employees don’t think engagement matters?
  • A: Look at the lack of action from previous results.
  • Q: Wonder why employees don’t believe that the consultants were really brought in to make the organization more effective?
  • A: Look at the lower earnings that were released or the layoffs that occurred after the last consultants were brought in.

If there is not a commitment to follow though with action, talking about the bad news is not worth it.  If there is not commitment to taking action on results, conducting an employee engagement is counterproductive.

5. Follow up

Don’t just leave the news/results lingering in employees memories. Follow up with news of the action taken.  Then ask for more input, conduct another survey, etc.

Shining the Light of Truth

The truth is vital to shine a light on real issues within the organization.  It is so important to tell the truth because no matter what the truth always comes out (think Enron) and dealing with it head on make the organization more credible and builds employee trust of leaders.

Not telling the truth will continue the shaping, double speak and distrust found in many organizations.

Have you seen instances of “kill the messenger management?” What are you doing to help encourage more openness about results?  Please let me know. I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Anil Saxena
Anil Saxena
 is a Senior Consultant and Business Partner with Coffman Organization
He helps organizations create environments that generate repeatable superior results
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | (888) 999-0940 x-730

Image Sources: lifetickler.com


5 responses to “Leadership Follies: Telling the Truth or Just Lie?

  1. Yes, Anil. I certainly can think of a time when I was in an environment with this kind of management. What did I do? Left after being killed too many times and created a more gentle brand of leadership.

    I actually think the cover up stems from too much emphasis on the results without looking for the root cause of the results – good or bad. When there are great results, the source should be examined so they can be replicated. When there are bad results, it is important to do the same so corrective action can be taken.

    Your point about not looking outside the organization for the cause of the bad results is right on. The old adage, you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result – – – holds true here. However, I often think what keeps the lies in place has more to do with a resistance to change than making people feel bad.


  2. Thanks for the comment Debra. Your comment about focusing on the result is interesting. I think we have to be balanced with a focus on the result but pay attention to how people get there. It’d be bad to select the methods that people use to drive results, but we can’t have them mowing through people in the process. People lying as resistance to change? That is interesting and something I will pay attention to. Thanks again.


  3. Pingback: Leadership updates for 09/20/2012·

  4. Telling the truth sometimes exposes us and our shortcomings but it does make for progress and resolution. Your point about recovering quickly is so true indeed. Getting over the bad news and moving on is key. Suzanne


  5. Pingback: Leadership Follies: Telling the Truth or Just Lie? | todaysbriefs2012·

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