Building a Culture of Truth: Walking the Walk
"The Truth" has been a focus of mine for well over a year. It started with an article and a presentation for CalSAE in the spring of 2009. At that time I focused on how we need to embrace a more complex understanding of the truth, rather than the over-simplified version we're used to, where truth is just about not lying, or objective facts, or personal integrity. It's more than that.
Then earlier this year I did another article, this time for ASAE's Associations Now, that took the next step and talked about how to build a culture of truth. This can be a real challenge, because culture is such a tough thing to get your hands around, but I argued that everyone in your organization can start to build a culture of truth by focusing on three things: walk, talk, and systems. In Los Angeles at the Annual Meeting, I did a session on building a culture of truth (slides embedded below, or click here to open them in a new window), and I went into some more detail about exactly how you can start to do this. Here's what I talked about regarding the first area: walking the walk.
Walking the walk around truth means working to bring out MORE of the whole truth, rather than the half-truths we've been settling for in organizations. There are three good places to practice this. First is with volunteers. Our volunteers often say stupid things. Our Boards want to go in directions that we know are impossible. Our committee members overstep their boundaries and start screwing up our work. Our members complain at meetings and demand we change things (in ways that may be impossible).
In too many instances, we are afraid to fully respond to our volunteers. We don't want to make them mad or upset them (it is THEIR organization, after all, right?), so we avoid telling them much. This always backfires. One way to make it better is to bring more precision in what you tell them. Don't just tell the Board that their idea won't work–acknowledge the intention of the Board member's idea and express the very real concerns you have about the logistics of making it happen. The more precise you are with the reasons or details, the easier it will be to deliver more of the whole truth.
The second example is delivering truth to your boss. What if your boss is micromanaging you? Then you need to give him or her some feedback. My tip here is focusing your feedback on behavior and impact. This is a staple in my conflict resolution training programs and I use it with nearly all of my consulting clients, but being able to focus on the specific behavior your boss is doing (coming into my office three times a day to get updates on the project) and the impact that's having (hard to get my job done) rather than a judgmental statement (you're micromanaging me) allows more of the truth to come out.
The third example is with your peers. You'd think it would be easier to speak the truth with peers–these are the people you go to happy hour with; they're you're friends. But that means you are worried about damaging the relationship, so it's harder to confront them if they are not pulling their weight or overstepping their roles. My tip for this area was actually less about what you say and more about your reactions. Developing your emotional intelligence is the key here. Be aware of when someone is trying to tell YOU the truth and it triggers your emotions, because those quick, angry reactions will end up inhibiting truth in the system later on. Think about it: if someone attacks you when you try to give them some feedback or challenge them on something, eventually you'll stop trying to speak the truth to them.
Every single person in your organization, no matter where they are on the organizational chart, can start practicing these skills. And while culture is a complex thing, it is always rooted in behavior. The simplest definition of culture is "the way we do things around here." So if we all start changing what we do (around truth), then we start changing the culture.
More later on the second part of the presentation, talking the talk.