A Culture of Truth: Talking the Talk

Earlier I wrote about the first part of my session at ASAE10 in Los Angeles on building a culture of truth, which focused on how everyone in your organization–no matter where they are on the organizational chart–can start to change their behavior in ways that will build a culture that values more truth being spoken. But just because everyone has responsibility, don't think I was going to let you senior managers off the hook!

An area of focus that is particularly relevant to the top of the organizational chart is "talking the talk." One of the facts about being at the top is that people in your organization will generally move in the direction they think you want to go. But the key word there, is "think." Whether or not you tell them what you want, they will come up with a conclusion about what you want and move in that direction.

Yes. They'll just make it up. It's how our brains work, frankly. We need a relatively complete view of the world in order to operate, and where we don't have actual data, we fill in the gaps with assumptions. And in case you haven't figured it out, the stuff they make up about what you want is frequently much worse than the truth.

So that means we senior leaders need to say more. We need to be more transparent, and we need to talk the talk about truth telling. Our statements to our people matter. I recognize, however, that transparency scares some people. It highlights our lack of control. So in my session I tried to give concrete strategies that people could implement right away, but didn't necessarily involve living in a completely glass house. There were three ways to talk the talk: 

  1. Strategic transparency
  2. Imperfect messages
  3. Listening

Here I'll talk about the second one: imperfect messages. People at the top of the organizational chart typically spend a long time crafting their messages. They speak infrequently to the staff, so they work on what they're going to say. They wait until they have all the information, until the staff is "ready" to hear it, or until they have perfected the message.

This is a mistake. In the end, it means you say very little to the staff. You deliver that one perfected message a month, but they have no real context. They don't know the nuances of your thinking. It's actually much harder to interpret what you mean, even though you spent time perfecting the message.

So find ways to safely deliver imperfect messages. Attend more meetings with your people, and tell them what you're thinking. Make it clear that you might not have thought it all the way through, or that you're just brainstorming, or whatever you need to say–but then share your imperfect thoughts.

Or start an internal blog. What if all association CEOs started an internal blog? Staff could read it behind a password-protected wall, but you could share your unfinished thoughts. You could put ideas out there before they were fully baked. If your staff has access to this, then they will better understand your carefully crafted conclusions. They will also be more likely to share their own thoughts with their colleagues. They will learn not to be so judgmental about ideas, because they are so freely shared. They will develop the habit of questioning and exploring, rather than reacting and pushing back. 

A blog is just one idea, but take a look at your organization and look for ways to share more of what you are thinking with your people and then watch how that changes "the way things are done."