The Pesky Truth

When my children were young, we read them bedtime stories each night. Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle books were favorites, along with Olivia the pig, Angelina Ballerina, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and the Arthur series. I was reminded last week of one of our Arthur books, “The Truth Pops Out” in which a garage sale jack-in-the-box acts as plot device to teach a lesson on honesty. In the end, goes the tale, the truth always makes itself known.

The thought of this book came to me as I was in the midst of teaching a two-day professional course on strategic communications. As we moved into the section on managing employee communications during “special situations” (dealing with news that is controversial or conditions outside the local norm) I shared my two maxims on honesty and communication:

  • Always ensure that what you say – and how you say it – is sincere, transparent and credible. In other words, your audience deserves your honesty. And they know when you are giving it to them, and when you are not.
  • Never delude yourself into thinking you “own” the story on any particular topic, and that you alone can determine when and how it plays out. There is always a story out there, as we humans instinctually need to put some kind of structure around the world we inhabit. The question is not “When do I want to release my story, and how?” but rather “Do I want to help shape or influence the story, or do I want to spend my time chasing it?”

The Public Relations Society of America, the world’s largest and most influential society of public relations and communications professionals, clearly states in its Code of Ethics under “Disclosure of Information” that its members must “be honest and accurate in all communications.” As much as the general public might like to imagine that PR professionals are shills for whichever employer signs their paycheck, that is not reality. These professionals know, without a doubt, that playing fast and loose with the truth only serves to set up the conditions for the next crisis. The infamous Watergate scandal spawned the oft-used term, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” to explain the long tail that acting and speaking dishonestly creates.

In 2009, Warren Bennis and James O’Toole, writing in Harvard Business Review, discussed the still striking need for fulsome transparency within organizations. They advocated for true cultures of transparency and the free flow of information upward, downward and even at the Board level. They discussed how such transparent cultures not only improve performance, avert problems or accidents and create an incubator-like environment for idea generation, they expressly welcome and reward those who speak up. These organizational cultures are also led by what I call the Egoless Leader; one who looks at his/her role in terms of service and impact vs. personal gain. In other words, a leader who is not afraid to seek the truth.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would claim, publicly, that they think dishonesty is OK. And yet how often do we find ourselves shading the truth, obfuscating details or turning away from the obvious because it’s easier to do so, saving our hide in the moment? I’m sure that happened a lot at Wells Fargo, the bank whose multi-year fake account scandal resulted in the loss of 5,300 jobs, a sharp drop in retail business since the scandal broke in September, Congressional inquiry and the resignation of the head of community banking as well as the CEO. I’m also sure that those involved, internally and externally, would love to turn back the clock and promote a bit more institutional honesty instead of unrealistic sales quotas.

Being honest in the moment, and recognizing that the most you can do is positively influence what others believe, can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Yet it also is just plain smart. A bit of present day discomfort saves scores of future misery. As Arthur’s friend Binky discovered in that long ago bedtime book, the truth always finds a way to pop out.




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