Java with Joe: Telling the Truth in Organizations: 7 Guiding Principles

Most of us have been taught from a very young age that we should tell the truth. Our parents and teachers have tried hard to help us understand that “honesty is the best policy.” How old were you when you first heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree? 

But if the importance of honesty has been reinforced since we were children, why do so many people…including those in positions of authority…have such a hard time telling the truth? Conversely, why are people who speak truth to power so often attacked? Why do we need laws to protect “whistle blowers” who pull back the curtain on dishonest organizations?

And speaking of organizations, why do so many seem to have a real problem with the truth?

I understand that telling the truth isn’t always simple. I understand that “telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is a high bar…and I appreciate that it may not be the appropriate standard in every case. But let’s be clear: lying, covering up, deliberately being misleading, and other dishonest tactics should have no place in our public life or in our organizations.  

Organization leaders should always strive to tell the truth, even if it is painful to do so. Equally important, they should enable and indeed reward the organization’s people to tell the truth…again, even when the truth hurts. In high performing organizations, there’s no such thing as bad news. There’s only news that can make you better or validate the path you’re already on.

So, with all this in mind, here are a few thoughts for you to consider.

Guiding Principles for Telling the Truth in Organizations

1. Be Predictable: When leaders consistently tell the truth, whether they’re delivering good or bad news, they become predictable and build trust across the organization.

2. Be On-time but Be Time Sensitive: When truthful information is disseminated widely and in a timely manner, it stifles rumors. If you wait too long to get the information out, you may well lose control of the story. Sure, you need to think about whether people are ready to hear what you’ve got to say …whether, for example, they’re in the right emotional state to really listen…but that said, don’t wait for the “perfect” time.

3. Don’t Shoot the Messenger: Those who tell the truth about embarrassing mistakes or issues need to be rewarded, not punished. So, recognize them and tell stories about them. That’s how you build a culture of trust…and get the information you need to get things right the next time.

4. Follow Up Quickly: When mistakes or problems are revealed, be rigorous about looking for ways to improve the situation. Success depends as much on finding ways not to repeat mistakes as it is on how to replicate success.

5. Publish the Process and the Results: Be transparentabout the steps you’re taking to resolve difficult situations, and let people know what solution you finally end up with…and why.  Do that consistently and you’re on your way to higher levels of trust, engagement, and performance.

6. Share the Pain: When the truth hurts, don’t be afraid of sharing your own feelings. When you’re viewed as authentic, you’ll also be viewed as more trustworthy. Chances are others are feeling the same pain.

7. What You Tolerate is What You Believe: As a leader you can stand up in front of people and say what you believe. It won’t mean very much, however, if people see you tolerating untruthful behavior in others.

Again, let’s be clear: setting a high bar for yourself and others when it comes to telling the truth is critical to building a culture of trust. It’s critical to building a culture where people give their best…and become their best. “Honesty is the best policy” is far more than a corny saying: it’s a pretty good guide to becoming an effective leader and building a superior organization.

How do you handle situations when a person comes forward with a mistake that has happened or with an organizational problem?

When was the last time you recognized and told a story about someone who brought forward an issue that needed to be addressed?

How do you think your people view you in these situations?