by @bigredal

In the courtroom classic ‘A Few Good Men’, Col Jessep, (Jack Nicholson), starts getting riled under cross examination by the navy lawyer played by Tom Cruise. It leads to this classic exchange:

Col Jessop:‘You want answers?’
Lt. Daniel Kaffee: ‘I think I’m entitled’
Col Jessop:‘You want answers?!’
Lt. Daniel Kaffee: ‘I want the truth!’
Col Jessop: ‘You can’t handle the truth!’

It’s dramatic fiction of course, but it does serve to illustrate the tension between those who want or need to know the truth so that they can put things right, and those who believe that sometimes it is better to withhold the truth for the greater good.

In Jim Collins book ‘Good to Great’, he researched the companies who over many years made the transition from good to great, whilst other similar companies stayed at good.

One of the key common denominators was that the leaders in the good to great companies forced themselves at some point to confront the brutal truth. For example the simple question ‘What do we suck at’?

As a result those companies looked to see if those things could be improved, and if not they shut down or sold those parts of their business on, so they could focus on something else.

The author also cited the story of captured POWs in the Vietnam war. Counterintuitively the ones who suffered the most were the optimists. The ‘everything will be alright’ brigade. With their optimistic world view, they felt that they might be rescued or escape at any point. When this hope was dashed daily, over a period of time they mentally crumbled.

The ones who mentally survived best in a bad situation, were the realists, those who had confronted the brutal truth. We are captured, we may not get out of here. The best thing to do is deal with the reality of the situation now and make the best of it.

Confronting the brutal truth can often feel like an uncomfortable affair. The fear is that it might lead to accepting defeat or failure, or highlight weakness or incompetence. Ego and self worth are on the line, and so it is perhaps understandable that we sometimes seek to protect ourselves and others by not demanding the truth in case we don’t like what comes back.

Could you handle the truth?

My interest in the question here is not just rhetorical. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a project that helps companies to confront the brutal truth about their culture. The good, the bad and occasionally the ugly.

The interesting thing about company culture is that everyone knows it is important, but for the most part it is invisible.

So we’ve signed up some brave souls and got them confront the truth about their culture. Using surveys and interviews, we join the dots and create a picture of their culture, making the invisible visible.

And I gotta tell you at times it has been uncomfortable. We’ve ruined a boss’s break, and there have been tears. Even when they’ve asked for the truth, they haven’t always been comfortable with the the answers. When some of it can be perceived as negative, it can be very difficult not to take it as a personal criticism.

‘The truth is like medicine. If we are sick we all say we want it, but when it get it, we often don’t like the taste. But if you want to get better quicker it’s the shortest path’.

Interestingly the companies we have worked for so far have not been very sick. In fact any reasonable commentator might consider them very fit. They were profitable, full of smart people doing smart things for smart companies. They were even known for their cultures. One even regularly frequents the top 10 places to work charts.

Despite this, (or maybe because of this), they were keen to know the truth, because, being progressive companies they wanted to know what, if any, areas they could improve.

And it’s worked…we’ve managed to find areas that they weren’t even aware of that needed work. And because they’ve known about them, they’ve had a chance to do something about it and make those areas better. WIN!…

What about those companies who perhaps have a few more issues? Think of the business owner whose product is being superseded or commoditised, the salesman with the wrong product, where blind optimism often leads to disaster.

What about if you are so sick you have cancer? Would you want to know? Is ignorance bliss? Is the head in the ground strategy an option? Well, if I may quote the great work culture guru in the sky, ahem, Elvis:

‘Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.’ Elvis

You can ignore it. But as Mulder and Skully will tell you ‘the truth is out there.’ The truth exists. And at some point you will forced to confront it, so why not ask for it, or give it early when you still have time to do something about it?

I once worked for an MD and we had just had a bad run of results. He was hurting and only a few others knew. He was frustrated that a designer who worked for us, (who was seemingly oblivious), seemed to be taking forever to get things done. So he’d be cross with him, and the designer would be a bit confused and upset as he didn’t really understand why his boss was so cross.

I urged my boss to tell tell them the truth. His answer though, much like Col Jessop in A Few Good Men was ’he couldn’t handle the truth’. He may or may not have been right, but if he wanted to change the status quo and get him to do something differently and react to the situation, the truth might be a good place to start.

What I have often found is that even when the truth might have really negative consequences, people prefer to know. If for example you were going to get sacked, wouldn’t you rather know as soon as possible so you could make alternate plans?

Even when the truth might have really negative consequences, people prefer to know

And the other thing I’ve found is that even if the truth about a situation is negative, very few people want to cut and run. Most people want to help and make things better. Because it’s in their interests too. Take the designer above. If he knew finances were weak, he might be prepared for a period of time to turn things round a bit quicker, do some overtime, open his contact book, any number of things that might help. And if they didn’t want to help at times of crisis, are they really the kind of people you want on your team anyway?

Now there are of course different kinds of the the ‘truth’. I’d put them in two camps, fact based truths and belief based truths. A fact based truth might be you were ten minutes late for work this morning. A belief based truth might be something like ‘I don’t think that person is committed to her work’. One is an unarguable fact, the other might just be a point of view/belief.

A belief based truth might in fact be ‘wrong’. But in organisations both facts and beliefs coexist, with the beliefs often being far bigger drivers of behaviour because they often come with stories, and stories as we know often carry more weight than facts. Often beliefs end up being presented as facts. The philosopher Nietzsche twisted this further and said:

‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ Nietzsche

But if something was believed to be true, and actually was not, wouldn’t you rather know and confront it?

In one of the companies we worked with there was a belief that although the culture was great, the pay was not. The client immediately did a salary survey, and found in fact they were in the middle of their competitors, and in fact when they factored in other benefits the package was worth far more than other companies in their field. They were able to communicate this to staff, and a belief that was widely held as a factual truth, was in fact wrong, challenged and corrected.

So the truth. You can fudge it, you can fight it, you duck it, you can hide from it, but is always exists whether you like it or not. And wouldn’t you rather share it or know it?

I’ll leave the final ‘truth’ to Winston…