Pick your battles and use your judgment to decide when to speak out, says Sarah Harvey.
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Do you work in a truthful workplace?
How much did you have to think about that question? Did a yes or no answer come to you immediately or did you have to carefully consider whether your working environment is a truthful one?
To help you decide how truthful your organisational culture is, take a moment to consider these questions:
- How many meetings do you sit in where you know the real issue is not being discussed?
- What issues are you (personally and collectively) avoiding talking about?
- What are you (or others) pretending not to know?
These are powerful questions, aren’t they?
When it comes to creating a truthful workplace it is of course a massive oversimplification to say that everyone just needs to tell the truth. It’s easy to think that if everyone just told the truth everything would be OK. In reality, the truth is rarely that simple and that’s what can make it so elusive.
Creating a truthful workplace doesn’t mean telling everyone about everything all of the time. Sometimes the truthful thing to do is to maintain confidentiality and not divulge sensitive information until it’s agreed that that should happen.
I understand these tensions. As a leader, manager, coach or mentor sometimes you are put in a difficult position and you can’t always be as open as you’d like.
But I don’t see this as not being truthful. I see this as a time when you need to use your values and judgment to decide what information you should share and what you shouldn’t. It’s about acting with integrity and being honest about when you can and can’t communicate certain messages.
But people need to know there is no hidden agenda. If you act with integrity you retain your credibility and people will acknowledge and trust you when you say that it is simply not the right time for certain conversations to take place.
Creating a truthful workplace doesn’t mean telling everyone about everything all of the time
Creating a truthful workplace can have its challenges and give rise to some difficult conversations. There’s a general assumption that the most important thing to do is for everyone to avoid conflict, get along, stay positive and not say anything to hurt anyone’s feelings.
But let’s consider for a moment where and when debate, conflict and constructive criticism may bring positive benefits. Might it actually be a good idea to occasionally rock the boat.
Recent history is littered with examples where groupthink and lack of challenge has led to some catastrophic consequences. Good people have been known to accept toxic workplace cultures as the norm and to follow unethical instructions without question.
Is it because people don’t always know how to disagree without falling out or creating uncomfortable tensions? Do people feel they have no choice but to go along with dubious decisions because the consequences of challenging leadership would be too extreme?
Would speaking out for what’s right have been more extreme than the reality of what happened in the likes of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015, and the collapse of Carillion in 2018?
The truth is not simple.
To avoid tensions and unhelpful conflict it is important to find ways to embrace difference and create ways for conflicting viewpoints to be discussed and debated in open and healthy ways.
Creating truthful workplaces can lead to better ways of doing things, new solutions, mitigated risk and better decision-making.
It can provide opportunities to learn. It can create a strengthening of trusted relationships with greater collaboration and buy-in, greater collective responsibility and shared values or goals.
Charlan Nemeth, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, certainly believes conflict can be healthy. Her research found that groups asked to debate with criticism, rather than brainstorm without it, produced nearly 20% more ideas.
And as Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock identify in ‘Strategy + Business’, healthy conflict can also help overcome a number of unconscious biases that can affect our decision-making, including:
- Confirmation bias.
- In-group/Out-group bias.
- Availability bias.
- Fundamental attribution bias.
- Distance bias.
- False consensus bias.
Creating a truthful workplace means finding the right path to tread through the multiple competing realities that can exist simultaneously.
In other words, everyone owns a piece of the truth and each person’s reality is determined by how we each see things. It’s only by collaborating and by having truthful conversations that we can make sure everyone’s truth is out on the table.
Because as painful as it can sometimes be to explore the truth, it allows relationships to be reset based on mutual understanding and for outcomes to be agreed which everyone can go along with.
On a practical level everyone can seek out the truth, but for entire workplaces to become truthful, behaviours must be role-modelled from the top.
Teams are not going to speak the truth to their leaders if they don’t see them being truthful themselves. It won’t feel safe to speak out and it won’t be worth taking the risk.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that being truthful and creating a truthful workplace is important but there will be times when seeking out the truth is just not appropriate. If in doubt I suggest asking yourself:
- Is it crucial?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it kind?
We should all strive to create truthful workplaces. But sometimes it’s important to pick your battles and use your judgment to decide when to speak out and when to simply bite your tongue and move on.
About the author
Sarah Harvey is founding director of Savvy Conversations and author of Savvy Conversations: A practical framework for effective workplace relationships.