by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

THERE is a discussion on LinkedIn titled “As a Leader, do you hear less of the truth from your team?”  As I am writing this, there are 105 responses.  I have been seeing this on my weekly feed for some time, and each time I see it, it bothers me.  Perhaps it’s time to explore why.

revive truthFundamentally I am bothered by a sense that truth is growing more and more elusive.  We certainly have a few negative role models for truth in leadership these days, if you follow newspapers and business journals.  I had high hopes that the escapades of the likes of Enron, Arthur Andersen and others in the early 2000s might be a wake-up call to the world that we live in, that acting illegally has material consequences.  Not so much.

In the musical Wicked, Elphaba accuses the Wizard of lying to the people of Oz.  He pipes back, “Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.”  Well, that’s disturbing, but probably not too far from the truth.

In today’s world, we call it “spin.”

History…spin….where does truth come in?  Perhaps the Wizard offers a hint of why truth has become elusive, and even why leaders hear less of the truth from their teams.

“There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”

Simply put, a leader that doesn’t hear the truth from their team doesn’t want to hear the truth.    There can be many reasons.  Perhaps the leader doesn’t feel empowered to respond, perhaps the leader has no better intelligence than her team.  Perhaps the leader knows that the employee won’t want to hear the answer.

It could be that a leader believes that he is hearing the truth from the team.  Keeping dialogue at a superficial level allows the leader to “check the box” that he asked for feedback and that the team responded, but nothing changes.  I see this all the time when working with clients on dissecting employee feedback surveys.  Leaders complete the basic task – report the results back to the team and ask for feedback – but the team either knows or suspects that the leader really doesn’t want to hear the truth.

Employees are very smart people.  They see through lies, half-truths, avoidance and “spun” information.  They read the clues – hesitation, procrastination, and they try to reconcile when what they hear doesn’t match what they see happening.  In the reconciliation process, they devise their hypothesis about what’s going on, and generally it is not favorable to the leader or organization.

How can leaders, who are also very smart people, be truthful with and generate truth from their team?

They can make a commitment to transparency.  By saying what the leader knows and doesn’t know and by saying why information can be divulged or not, the leader’s words should mirror the actions, relieving the team of having to come up with their own hypothesis.  Transparency fosters trust, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

They can be very observant.  Leaders who spend time with their team, who ask good and insightful questions, can also hear what the team says and doesn’t say.  Remembering that at least 80% of communication occurs without saying a word, leaders can glean important information about how messages are being received.

They can push beyond the superficial questions.  Asking a team what they need may or may not provide insight.  Asking a team if they have the right staffing and equipment to produce the expected performance will yield more specific answers, and yet more if the dialogue continues.  Asking questions to which the team knows you may not be able to respond positively demonstrates a willingness to take on hard topics.

They can rise above the fear of what to say or not say.  Lack of confidence is a clue to the team that the leader is unsure, but confidence and truth together are a powerful mixture.  If a leader is unsure, seek out a mentor and practice until you know the message is truthful, and you can deliver it with confidence.

They can follow up.  Asking good questions and getting sincere feedback requires action, or the leader’s transparency is kaput.  Even if the answer is “no,” it is an opportunity to provide the why and to continue the dialogue about options or alternatives.

They can prove their trustworthiness by a track record of honest and open communication.  Trust can evaporate quickly when it is broken.  A consistent and honest dialogue opens up ideas and innovation, and paves the way toward higher performance of the team.

I started this post to explore why it bothers me that someone would ask about (or worse, admit to lack of) truth in a leadership/team relationship.  Leadership is hard work, as is building trust.  But that’s what leadership is all about.  Otherwise, why do you need the leader?

That’s my thought, anyway.  I would love to hear yours.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Jane, I’m sorry that you found a cultural clash within your organization, at least it seems as if that’s what happened. Organizations tout honesty, but then recoil when honesty is spoken. It is, unfortunately, a fact of organizational life (some call it politics) that you need to be able to effectively read your culture to make sure that your behavior works within the culture. If you find too much disconnect, it’s time to think about options.

    It is encouraging that your manager understood, and merely helped you see where the disconnect occurred. Perhaps after you work through your thoughts about the incident, it might be helpful to have another conversation with your boss, and ask about how you might have handled the feedback differently, with a different outcome.

    Thanks for your comment.

  2. It breaks my heart when I witness shaded truths or outright lying at work or at home. It’s deceitful and has no benefit. What’s the point? I was called into my managers office one day and asked to have a seat. She told me that a project leader complained to her about me. I had been asked by the business owner of a project I was on to provide a status for specific tasks on the project. I spoke briefly, but honestly about where we were. I didn’t cast blame, offer details beyond what I was asked, but my honesty got me into trouble with the project leader. I was caught off guard and apologized if I caused discomfort, but I wouldn’t apologize for being honest. My manager was good to me and only observed, “Well Jane, let’s just say that some people can’t handle your degree of honesty.” In the end that project failed miserably and I’m convinced that it’s because of the deception that plagued each phase of development. And I repeat . . . lying? What’s the point?

  3. Carol,

    Since you ask; I would expect the leader to be clear as to his/her perception first and foremost, only then could he/she expect to receive information which could the be weighed against the “truth”.

    Truth being very relative so if the people working for any leader are to provide any useful feedback they need to know what the leader considers to be of importance.
    Alignment of perspectives and perceptions done all that remains is your question as to the others respecting the leader.

    If the vision and perception is commonly shared there could be no reason to “hide” the truth from the leader as it will always be found out. Reason being the truth would be a set of parameters which are essential for the organization to reach or establish a certain result which the leader has taken upon him/her.

    Only reasons for people to do this are avoidance of failure or fleeing the issue by people that hold certain responsibilities to deliver part(s) of the result.
    Very common and hard to prevent but it can be found out and even prevented if engagement is high enough.
    have fun.