Why speak the truth?

How confident are you in the future? Do you have a great sense of certainty about how the world will be in five years? in ten?

My friend and colleague Patrick Hollingsworth writes of the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) in his outstanding book, The Light and Fast Organisation. He recommends a light and fast approach to managing the changeable atmosphere of contemporary business challenges. Don’t get stuck in a tunnel vision approach; be nimble and adapt, quickly. As an Everest mountaineer, he knows first hand the need to make quick decisions when circumstances change. If you don’t, people die.

Organisations that stick doggedly to their five year strategy plan with fierce commitment are likely to die too. How many book stores, CD stores, DVD hire places do you see around these days? This is failure to adapt.

These organisations were likely missing a Truth Teller.

A Truth Teller is a person who speaks the truth, especially when the truth is contrary to conventional wisdom, and is not a popular perspective. A Truth Teller shines a light on uncomfortable facts. They may call attention to a project that is failing, or a social dynamic that is dysfunctional, or a trend that is threatening to wipe demand for a product aside.

Truth Tellers have also been called “soothsayers”, or “seers” originating in the fourteenth century. A soothsayer was a person who spoke truth, often practising divination, fortune-telling, oracles, or haruspex (the lovely art of inspecting entrails for signs of future events).

Soothsayers have troubled experiences. If they tell a story that resonates and uplifts, they are celebrated. When they bring bad tidings, they are maligned, ostracised, and sometimes killed.

Being a contemporary Truth Teller can be akin to the treacherous life of a soothsayer in that speaking the truth does not always bring good news. Speaking the truth can be confronting for people.

For example, a Truth Teller might reveal:

•    The business plan is flawed and will likely spin the organisation into decay and disaster. [The team reacts defensively as it was their plan; the comment is seen as a personal criticism.]
•    The team is run by a forceful leader who imposes their will on others. [No one contradicts the boss out of fear of reprisal and losing favour.]
•    A project is doomed as there is simply no longer demand in the market. [Team members fight for the project because the alternative means contending with potential job loss and failure.]
•    Internal politics are corroding collaboration and team morale, and results are failing. [Factions bind together in self-defence; the best form of defence is attack, especially against the Truth Teller.]
•    Some roles in the organisation are superfluous and draining the business of financial resources. [No one likes being told they are a waste of space or underperforming; insult turns to attack.]

Self protection against a Truth Teller’s observations creates huge blind spots for an organisation. The fierce drive for personal survival supersedes the need to rise above the truth and bind together in exploring new options. Instead we often default to fighting for the status quo.

What we need is three-fold:

1.    We need to encourage and celebrate the Truth Tellers. They say what we dare not admit. They reveal what we most fear. And in doing so, we are freed from the shackles of being timid. They invite us to dare, to pioneer, to explore, to risk, and in doing so, give us the best chance of surviving.

2.    We need to become a Truth Teller ourselves. We need to hone our skills of looking at the current and future trends and getting fully present to what that means, good and bad. We need to become brave in asking the tough questions, in pointing out the elephants lounging in the middle of the room. We need to get curious about what we are seeing. If the Emperor has no clothes, then we say so.

3.    We need to speak the truth, without lobbing pooh bombs. Bad news is still bad news. If we develop rapport with others, if we hold a good intention, if we invite them with respect to discuss the troubling truth, then we have a better chance of not setting off a pooh bomb and its subsequent pooh-storm. We can learn to speak the truth, ease the pain, and keep the players at the table. This is masterful Truth Telling.

How do you respond to Truth Tellers? How quickly and easily do you get over the panic of their revelation? How do you develop your own Truth Telling skills? What truth do you need to speak now?

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