Prevent Truth Decay Before It Infects Your Organization
Two meteorologists I know commented to me recently on a problem they shared. One said that after he provides a weather forecast on Seattle TV and radio, someone will ask him, “What is the weather REALLY going to be like?”
The other forecaster though he is retired will often be asked that same question, especially when there is an indication of bad weather such as snow or high winds.
What!?! Why are experts in weather who would have NO REASON to mislead us be questioned about their truthfulness?
The answer is the growing cancer of Truth Decay.
In case you don’t know that concept here is some background. In 2018, ‘Truth Decay’ is a phrase coined by researchers at the nonpartisan RAND Corporation think tank to describe “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.” It was made popular by President Obama in an interview on 60 Minutes in 2020.
But awareness of this phenomenon does not start in 2018. Back in 2005 comedian Stephen Colbert coined ‘truthiness’ and in 2006, Merriam-Webster bestowed ‘truthiness’ as word of the year. And the problem continues; the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 was ‘post-truth.’
Truth Decay is Every Leader’s Problem
The problem I describe is the sense that not only do we NOT have to tell the truth, but truth DOES NOT even matter. While the source of this insidious change originated in politics, it is like a cancer that is invading the body of American society. For example, the length of the COVID epidemic has been extended because of Truth Decay. Like cancer, Truth Decay is deadly in many ways.
Truth Decay can have a negative impact on your ability to lead!
To be an effective leader, you must have credibility. And to be a credible person, you must always tell the truth. However, even if you practice truthfulness, your people could use any excuse not to believe you. More frequently it is simply because they do not want to hear the truth. Imagine how hard it would be to lead when everything you say is in doubt!
My intention is to provide you with a plan to ensure that Truth Decay does not invade your organization’s corporate culture.
1. Have Frank Discussions About the Value of Honesty
While Truth, Honesty, and Openness may be core values of your organization, they might only be words that an employee does not believe in or practice. When someone doubts a leader or ‘management’, it is usually because they have this question: “What are they not telling me?”
As a leader, you must explain to every employee why honesty leads to success for them and for you, their employer. This needs to be done frequently and very publicly. You must make a strong business case on the need for complete honesty and prove it with specific examples, which can be simple ones. You must make an emotional appeal so that they feel the need for truthfulness.
For example, you provide free coffee and snacks for employees, which they enjoy and appreciate. You discover that the vendor who supplies these has been fined twice for the mishandling of food products. You switch to another vendor and do not cite a reason, other than to say you found a better supplier. That is not being truthful. What you failed to admit is that you are concerned for your employees’ health and before you selected a new supplier, you researched to ensure that this new company takes food safety seriously. Your full disclosure will help employees believe that you fully support them.
2. Weed Out Any Employee Who Does Not Believe in Truthfulness
One aspect of High Road® Leadership™ is compassion. So, I do not make this suggestion easily, but it is vital that you take this step.
I love gardening, but the one responsibility to being caretaker of a thriving garden is to remove weeds as soon as I see them. In the Northwest, there is an insidious invader called the ‘pop weed’ because it has a hair trigger with its seeds. When this weed becomes mature, simply touching it will release a spray of dozens of seeds. When then plant dries out, it pops its seeds on a warm sunny day. One pop weed will produce 20 more in its short lifetime and the seeds sprout in a matter of days. This means I must pick them as soon as I see a new one.
The same principle applies to the employee who does not believe in truthfulness. He or she will send out seeds of mistrust and these will certainly sprout in employees who have the slightest doubt of your honesty and leadership.
3. Share All Wins and Losses Internally First
A typical organization, like a person, has an ego. The larger and more successful a company becomes the larger its ego grows. We want to publicly share our successes but keep our failures quiet. You cannot do this because if employees suspect that you are hiding something, they might believe that there is more stuff that gets swept under the rug.
Yes, there are mistakes and bad decisions that could harm your reputation with outsiders, but it is vital that you always tell the truth to your employees.
The emphasis of this effort is on learning so that as an organization you avoid making the same mistake. Everyone understands the concept that the pain of constantly hitting your finger with a hammer only stops when you learn how to use the hammer properly.
4. Examine Your Attitude About Your Belief in Truthfulness
If you hold the belief that the people you deal with or rely on lie to you, then you become a pop weed. This attitude applies to politicians, government officials, vendors, bankers, investor, employees and even customers.
The root of the culture of all organizations is the leader’s attitude, behaviors, and beliefs. A belief becomes an expectation. So, if you believe that someone you rely on is lying to you then your brain sets the expectation that others lie to you as well.
Another way that a leader acts like a pop weed is when you fall into denial about a truth that you do not like or disagree with. Over the last year, there are many employers who told their employees that masking was not necessary because these leaders refuse to ‘buy into’ the seriousness of COVID and how it spreads.
What you believe always pours out of you through your words and actions even when you think that you have hidden that belief well. Most people are intuitive in that they can sense what a person is thinking and feeling and when they are being lied to. Here is a Natural Law of Leadership to remind you to examine and monitor all your attitudes, actions, and beliefs.
- Over time, people are conditioned to mimic the leaders they follow.
5. Reward Honesty, Truthfulness, Openness
- Behaviors that are rewarded will continue.
- Behaviors that are penalized will stop.
These two Principles of Human Nature are your cue to seek out and extol examples of employees who practice these values. I covered the penalty (termination), so let’s focus on the rewarding aspect.
One emotional-based need that all employees have is the desire to be recognized for doing something worthwhile. Therefore, when you praise an employee for uncovering an undetected problem, facing up to a mistake, being honest with a customer, or similar acts you are telling them that you like their honesty. And when employees see how others earn the reward of recognition, they begin to understand what they need to do to get that same good feeling.
Tooth Decay Can be Fixed with Immediate and Decisive Action
Last spring, while getting regular dental checkup, my dentist found a small hole hidden in a tooth that was growing larger. I take good care of my teeth, so I was puzzled. She told me it was an anomaly that infects only some people; the cause of this decay is not known. Then she said, “You need to take care of it right away.” It did not hurt and was not affecting me. However, she is the expert and I trust her.
Little did I know what I would go through! Fixing this problem required three dental experts, oral surgery, a root canal, two doses of antibiotics, and over 9 months from start to finish. The newly capped tooth is still sensitive and will be for the rest of my life.
So, the ‘cost’ of fixing my problem and the related pain was high. But I know it was worth it because if I had let the decay go, the ‘cost’ might be jawbone infection, loss of teeth, or worse.
Truth Decay, like tooth decay must be dealt with immediately with proactive actions. If I had ignored this problem the ‘cost’ of my denial or doubt in her expertise would have been extremely high.
Do not wait until you see evidence of Truth Decay in your culture and in employees. Start right now to prevent it from ‘entering the building.’ Yes, there will be pain, antibiotics, and the need for expert’s help. That cost is not as high as knowing that no matter what you say, your employees do not believe you.
Remember, Truth Decay is the growing belief that we do not need to tell the truth anymore and the truth no longer matters. This is a cancer that no organization can or should tolerate!