Is it possible to have truth in the workplace?

It’s happened to all of us. We are told one thing by leadership, and then they do the opposite.

One company had as its slogan that it valued its people, promised no layoffs, but 3 months later laid off 5 percent of the workforce. By the third layoff in 18 months, the workforce certainly did not feel valued, and the cost to leadership was their loss of credibility.

At NASA, the analysis of some of the reasons why the shuttle Columbia disintegrated found that the managers responsible for the shuttle tried to tell the Administrator’s office about the tile problem before the shuttle was launched; but the truth was rebuffed.

The informal organization tells us you’re never supposed to tell leadership your truth for fear of the consequences. “No surprises” is a common refrain that leadership gives to their direct reports corporate cultures based on power or politics. The inability to tell the truth is often about ego, control or an unwillingness to learn from those closest to the problem.

So we end up with cultures where people are afraid, where the norm is “nice and kind, but not honest.” It is a workplace where meetings hardly ever address the tough issues. Leadership then wonders why people are not speaking up. Most do not want to speak truth to power for fear of losing their job, a promotion, or influence.

So we do crazy things to avoid telling the truth. We rationalize. We justify. At the end of the day, we don’t tell the truth. We can’t.

Is it possible for leadership to create an environment where the workforce can speak their truth?

Pamela Fields, the CEO of Stetson, was recently profiled in the New York Times, (Oct. 2) as saying “People know that they can come to me and let me have it if they think I’m wrong … there’s a complete fear-free zone.”

To create a truth-centered, or “no fear workplace,” leadership:

Is grounded in their leadership philosophy that trust, not fear, is the way to lead an organization in these complex times

Is clear in their own mind and heart that listening to others’ truths are essential for the success of the organization

Never threatens retribution for anyone who tells their truth

Acknowledges the courage of people willing to tell their truth

Follows up and follows through on what they have heard with concrete actions, communicating that back to the workforce

At Ritz Carlton, leadership invited the entire workforce to tell them everything that was wrong in the hotels. They got 10,000 comments the first year and threw a big party. The workforce was perplexed. The second year leadership asked about what was wrong, they received 40,000 comments, and threw an even bigger party. The third year the same request yielded about 5000 comments. Leadership knew then that they had been told the truth.

It’s a choice. We will get the truth if we rigorously purge fear from our cultures, build high levels of trust, invite and honor others’ perceptions of the truth. The truth does not hurt. It merely makes us better, more credible, and then the businesses can soar. And it starts with leadership.

Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919.265.9616.