Humans are hardwired to reward truth-telling and responsibility-taking. I know it doesn’t feel that way when you’re the one with the secret, the piece of information you have a moral responsibility to share, or the insight that needs to be said out loud.
You might take damage when telling the truth. Don’t expect everyone to thank you. You might not be rewarded. However, short-term suffering in service of the truth is always less than the long-term suffering caused by avoiding it.
When we withhold the truth, the following things happen:
We avoid intimacy with the people for whom the truth is most relevant. This is a natural, if unconscious, attempt to avoid the prick of conscience we feel in the presence of those we are damaging or deceiving by our silence.
We engage in magical thinking. We try to counter the inner pressure and knowledge that we are doing wrong to ourselves and others by constructing complicated and faulty rationales for not telling the truth. Maybe we convince ourselves that our case is special, or worse, that we are special. There’s something about us or the situation that somehow suspends what otherwise would be the right thing to do.
We suppress those people and processes likely to expose our lack of action and truth-telling. Perhaps we avoid contact with the wise counselors and trusted advisors in our lives. At the organizational level, this often manifests as a desire to control the voice of others. Meeting agendas related to the topic are tightly constricted and narrowly focused. Engagement and feedback-seeking becomes tokenistic. More darkly, perhaps dissenters are treated with suspicion or punished in some way – if only socially.
All of the above builds a tremendous psychological weight for us to carry. Those who sense that something is amiss, or feel silenced and suppressed, carry this weight as well.
The effect of this is that people begin fighting about all of the wrong things. Small disagreements become proxy-battles for the larger truths that no one is allowed to talk about.
This is when community and relationships begin to seriously deteriorate.
However, when we tell the truth the reverse of everything above is put into motion:
We grow closer to those directly impacted. Sure, they might be angry and hurt, especially if the information was withheld from them or suppressed for a long period of time. They might simply react to the disruption that the information brings. Most of us like to believe that everything is okay in our team, even when we have evidence to the contrary. Disruption can be jarring. But ultimately, most people care about those around them and want to know if there’s something that’s hurting them.
We become reality-based. We have a story for every relationship in our life. This includes our relationship to our organization and colleagues. It is hard to accept that the story in your head is deficient in some way. It might not be false, but it might be substantially incomplete. We might fear that the truth will destroy people’s equilibrium or the organization’s internal mythology. However, people and organizations are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for. Usually, these fears are really just our own fears projected outward. The truth is probably more frightening to you than it is those around you. If you are thinking it, others are too.
Finally, we shift relational and organizational power to those to those who care most for the institution. These are the people who are likely to say, “If I had only known sooner, I would have done something and helped you.” Or they might say, “Thank you for having the courage to make us face this. I was avoiding it too, but now I know we have to do something.”
Trust that when you tell the truth, the best people will come to your aid. There might not be many people, but they will be the right people.
This article is part of a thread of articles on responding to serious incidents and scandals in an organization. If you liked it, check out:
Check out the Leading Conflict store for more practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.