A Culture of Truth Starts at the Top (?)

I clearly have some issues with hierarchy, and since I'm all about systems, I often find myself pointing out ways that people who are NOT in official positions of power can work to make things happen, change things, etc. In general, if someone says X needs to come from the top of the organization, I find myself pushing back, arguing that while the top certainly needs to do something, you (in the middle, at the bottom, wherever) also can be doing something.

But I wonder if that general philosophy does not apply as much to the challenge of building an organization where more truth is spoken. I've written before about the four different areas that need attention when you're building a culture of truth (walk, talk, structure, and culture). I always thought that gave any system lots of opportunities for building a more truth-friendly workplace.

But I think the issue of speaking the truth is much more closely tied to some built in assumptions about hierarchy and power than I had realized. Maybe this is not something that can come from the ground up. Although eventually your organization will need to undergo changes in individual behavior, public statements, specific processes or structures, none of that really gets started unless the core group (usually senior management) actually lives this new culture and models it. Before anything else happens, the people who are in charge need to make a change, and the people who are not in charge need to see that change in action. That is a prerequisite for all the other important work that needs to be done to build a more truth-friendly workplace.

What do you think?


  1. 27.01.2010 at 11:02 am

    I think it has to start at the top. That’s the level where corporate strategy is formed and policy defined. That level is the public face of the company, for better or worse. I believe that internal grassroots can lead to corporate change – but not until there’s true buy-in at the C-level. The ability to fund and defund initiatives and the ability to require and prohibit certain activities defines how the company interacts with its stakeholders.
    Twitter: @bbudlong

  2. 27.01.2010 at 11:56 am

    Pretty hard to imagine any culture taking hold without “buy in” from the top. A culture of truth may “start” lower in the organization, but if senior management doesn’t get on board, it will be quelled very quickly. In my experience, very few cultural changes/enhancements start with a grass roots effort – not to say it cannot happen – I just don’t see it very often. That said, I do believe that strong managers lower in the organization can build a great subculture in their own divisions/departments etc… and when/if their results are seen by upper management, change can occur across an organization. However, this does require a champion in senior management who is willing to look/analyze and model that change for other areas of the organization.

  3. 27.01.2010 at 12:10 pm

    Jamie –
    As much as we may wish this were not the case, a culture of truth begins at the top. Innovation, initiatives, strategy, teamwork even silos can break horizontally or vertically. But truth? The amount of truth spoken in an organization is directly related to the tolerance level for it from those in position to hire and fire.
    The choice in that case is to assimilate, compromise or leave. Change can come to the organization but only when those who demand the truth are willing to pay the price to get it.

  4. 29.01.2010 at 10:24 am

    Another great post Jamie. I have struggled with this issue a lot.
    I think the key for me is from Shelly’s comments “change can come to the organization but only when those who demand the truth are willing to pay the price to get it”
    I can no longer support the idea that change/progress/solutions (whether it is a culture of truth, an inclusive culture, innovation, social media or anything else) has to start at the top.
    That is simply how we let ourselves off the hook. “I am passionate about the truth, but the powers that be just don’t get it.”
    If we are passionate about truth (or diversity, or innovation, or flexibility or anything) then we will demand it. That may lead to repercussions, but that is part of the equation with passion.
    Leaving our relationship with truth and our other aspirations and values in the hands of those at the top of the pyramid has not served us well. At all.
    The solution is not new leaders. The solution is us acting in accordance with what we claim to believe.

  5. 29.01.2010 at 1:21 pm

    Joe –
    Well said. I may have been a little less optimistic than I meant to be in my first response.
    What I meant by “being willing to pay the price” was exactly that. You are correct that truth must begin with each individual. Organizational change can start anywhere but to take root the powers that be have to let you make a stand without showing you the door.
    We have a responsibility if we’re willing to pay the price (and all of us should be) to speak as we are moved to.
    Jamie – thanks for the great post.