Paying the Price for Truth

Last week I suggested that if you want a culture of truth in
your organization, perhaps that needs to start at the top. Several of the
comments chimed in with a "you're darn right it does." The top controls resources, the top decides strategy, the top
sets the example, so they need to step up and lead the culture change. I get
that, of course. The top does have an absolutely critical role to play.

But deep down I wanted someone to jump up and say
"NO!" Let's face it: I'm a systems guy and a Gen Xer, so ultimately I don't want the
top of the hierarchy to actually be in charge. My honorary brother (and Gen Xer) Joe
was up to the task with his comment. I will reproduce most of it here rather than summarize 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 belie

Selly Alcorn made a similar point: "Change can come to an organization, but only when those who demand the truth are willing to pay for it."

There is a price to pay for truth. At an individual level, this means rocking the boat. This is
true in every aspect of your life, by the way. Living a full life requires
rocking the boat. That is a choice. You can choose to live less than a full
life (most of us do), and you can find a nice tepid harmony with those around
you. Don't push people, don't make them uncomfortable, don't show passion or
emotion. Just be polite, kind, nice and reveal about 10% of what's real for
you. That's normal and, frankly, it's okay. You should have the ability to
choose how to live your life.

Paying the price for truth means revealing at least some of
that 90% and working through the consequences that will have on the people in
your life, and on you for that matter. You will make some people unhappy. You might spark some conflict. You might have to face some inner contradictions. You will violate what people in general may be expecting of you. You will incur judgments from other people. This is the price you pay for living your life fully. All of this is manageable, of course, albeit hard work at times. Only in very rare cases will living your life fully and telling the truth put your life in danger (but that does happen, by the way). 

Paying this price can yield significant returns, however. There is a lot of research out there demonstrating the dangerously low levels of engagement among American workers, and you can track some hard expenses for an organization associated with the reduced efficiency and high turnover that stems from low engagement. A culture of truth can counteract that. In general, people who regularly express their passion are not the disengaged ones. People who know they can speak the truth and push the issues are not the ones calling in sick on Friday. Paying the price for truth is an investment that pays off big time.

So back to the organization: how do we support individuals in our organizations to invest in the truth? Paying the price is ultimately an individual decision. We can't make that decision for them or institute a new policy that demands our employees bring more of themselves to work. I don't want to "let them off the hook," as Joe suggests, by implying that the top of the organization must change their behavior first, but how else can we support them?

I think that is really where my first post came from. Individuals have let themselves off the hook because I am guessing that in most organizations they are afraid. They say they are afraid of the repercussions of telling the truth. They fear they might get fired or in trouble. Fear lives where the truth is not spoken. It flourishes there, in fact. So regardless of whether the top controls resources or drives culture change, I think that if the top of the organization intentionally speaks more truth, it will counteract fear. It may require you to deal with some new things, but the fear of what they might think, what they might do, will be lessened. It removes an impediment to people telling the truth. It's not the only solution, and it's not even the first solution, but it could be a powerful strategic move in your quest to have individuals start investing in more truth. On one hand, you don't want to let them off the hook by implying it must be done at the top first. On the other hand, you can take away one of their biggest excuses if you start at the top.

The rest of us don't have to wait for the top. We have to dig deep and be willing to pay the price for living a fuller, more truthful life. That will show up in our organizations in many different ways. And you lovely people at the top? You have the same charge. Your truth telling will have some different implications, but it's still an investment that will yield returns.


  1. 03.02.2010 at 9:06 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I think if you see the need or desire the need for change, regardless of where you sit, you have to take action. We leave too much in life (both personally and professionally) up to external forces and attribute it to the situation being out of our control. I guess the bottom line is the fact that the only thing that is truly out of our control is what we allow to be out of control. Sure the outcome(s) may be different than we envisioned, but doing nothing, especially when a situation is crying out for a solution, idea, remedy, etc. is ultimately just contributing to the problem, not living in the solution. Change is hard, change takes time, but most importantly change takes courage and conviction to simply step up and do something. One of my favorite mantras is doing what’s easy isn’t always right and doing what’s right isn’t always easy. The world needs more good leaders, leaders who regardless of their role, title or job aren’t afraid to do something – do anything – to impact the status quo. Great post as always!

  2. 03.02.2010 at 10:16 am

    Love this discussion. Here’s where it lead my thinking…
    You can only create change if you’re in the position to do so. Yes, that can come from the middle, but only if you have the relationships and the trust of the people you work with–above and below. Joe’s comment is inspiring, but not so practical for folks who have a lot of shades of gray to weigh in their work lives.
    I guess the challenge for folks in that middle position is knowing what you’re capable of, choosing your battles, and fighting them valiantly.
    Someone I admire always says, “I do my job–the way I think it needs to be done–until I get fired.” And she’s done just that, progressing through a number of jobs, creating change, and always moving on when she’s pushed as far as she could. But at the end of the day, she did move on, and did the change stick? Who knows?
    Which leads to my question, when the change comes from the middle, and the driver leaves, does the org default back to square one? How do you keep that from happening?

  3. 03.02.2010 at 12:08 pm

    My favorite line.. edited so as not to speak exclusively about truth within an “organization”; “Change can come…, but only when those who demand the truth are willing to pay for it.” (A “truth” long held near and dear to my heart…and one I’ve “gone broke” for in more ways than one.)
    Since we’re “paying” for truth, let’s consider that action part of the “economy of truth.” As with any economic structure, one naturally develops a budget, formal or informal, and spends according to the lifestyle they wish to maintain. Relax and ponder that concept through your mind’s wide-angle lens. Do you agree?
    If you do agree, let’s figure out how we can change the economic structure itself. My thought, and I’m confident it’s not an original thought, is to move the value of truth from the debit column into the credit column. Wouldn’t that change everything?
    Let’s follow the human nature of this for a moment; Truth is easier to see outside of ourselves than within. Being honest with ourselves requires courage… often the kind of courage that one uses to overcome the fear of the unknown; a.k.a. “Change.” And, that kind of courage is rare. Therefore…
    What if “truth” was rewarded when recognized? That’s easier, if only slightly different than insisting other’s (those at the top if we’re speaking organizationally) be truthful. Why wouldn’t those at the top be “truthful?” Because “truth” is a debit for them too. Ant those at the top of any organization MUST keep their eye on the bottom line. Agreed?
    When “truth” moves from the debit column into the credit column… things will change.
    Here’s to the future!

  4. 03.02.2010 at 12:16 pm

    Great conversation and comments! I agree that it is possible to be a truth teller at any level of an organization. Will an individual voice make a difference? I have found it depends on whether others, including top management, are willing to listen.
    Jamie’s point about fear and truth is well taken. A culture of fear created by silence is different than the fear that comes with change. Both are uncomfortable, but the former crushes the individual spirit and kills creativity and vision. The latter can energize, and as Jamie said, lead to a fuller, richer life (and great organizations)