We are wired to think, usually. The routine processing of a situation or idea makes its way through our heads via an inventory of analytics and experience that we come to rely on over the course of our lives. Except when it comes to survival; that’s when thoughts go on a short-circuited route, direct to reaction.
All too often in business, survival (a.k.a. keeping your job or client) breeds a rationale to protect the status quo in situations of emergency. It takes courage and wisdom to look beyond perceptions of job security. This condition places us at the intersection of emotions and intelligence, where the stoplights can be prone to malfunction.
The core problem is it is difficult to speak truth to power. All human behavior is biologically predicated on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Sometimes avoiding the truth is our way of avoiding pain. Employees fear the repercussions of speaking truth to power, especially when their livelihood is tied to the organization and the strategic plan it is developing. There is a Moroccan proverb that sums this up: “If you’ve come to tell the truth, you’d better have a good horse outside the door.”
To get beyond this, here’s an exercise courtesy of Toyota’s Information Systems manager in New Zealand:
Form small groups of 2-4 people and have participants give their feedback to listed questions and statements. These would include:
- Name three things you wish this company could be, but are not there yet.
- Name three things that we once were, but are no longer.
- What are some truths that no one speaks about our company?
As you can expect, this requires participants to listen without judgment, to realize that people have different views and to truly understand what is being said without thinking of how to reply. The base rule would be that others could not comment on the answers, to reduce the fear of judgment.
Make no mistake; absorbing this information will take a collection of emotional competencies for leaders (written about with some depth for business application by Daniel Goleman). Before this exercise is conducted, the purpose and objectives should be clearly understood. Some might resist this type of engagement, which may suggest systemic issues of organizational biases and other malformed norms. Honesty can be uncomfortable but accommodating for any other scenario can get messy, as it is a fact horses don’t clean up after themselves.
How does your organization encourage expressions of truth?