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Is It Truth Telling…or Something Less Noble?

“I’m just telling the truth.” “I have absolutely nothing to hide.” “You can take my word to the bank.” “I want you to be perfectly clear where I stand.”

That first line was declared repeatedly by Meryl Streep’s character in the film August: Osage County. The second was just one of Chris Christie’s many remarks during a recent two hour press conference. The other lines are things we hear leaders say every day. It got me thinking about this whole Truth Telling thing. We consultants are always advising our clients to tell the truth…I’ve made several entries on this topic on this blog. But these recent examples in our culture motivates me to clarify a few things.

  • If you have to preface your remarks with “I’m telling the truth” chances are there is something else going on. Either you have a credibility problem in general or you are manipulating the situation. If you make a habit of being trustworthy there is never a need to trumpet “Hey, pay attention to this one. It’s the real truth. Disregard all that other stuff I said.” Authentic truth is part of one’s being so it needs no special introduction. It is likely that this is your wind up pitch for the words that follow. Frequently “the truth” you must announce is something especially negative and personal intended to harm someone. The tone is malicious and spite is the motivation. Just try to recall a time that you heard someone say “I’m just telling the truth” when the comments were supportive or positive or good news.
  • If your story doesn’t ring true then it probably isn’t. Oh sure, there are uncanny moments in our lives when something happens that is just so zany that no one would believe it. But those are usually rare and often hilariously funny. But when it comes to leadership if your story doesn’t pass the sniff test you’re in trouble. If something has happened and you are trying to cover your ass and you have made a decision not to come clean then get some good guidance from your PR person. “Plausible deniability” may work in a courtroom but not so much in an organization. The story ends up compounding your problem. Not only are you lying (or not telling the whole truth) but now the staff is wondering if you are an idiot too.
  • “I just need to speak my truth” is the new age way to talk smack. Whether you are in a nonprofit or a company with humanistic values or a startup that is earnestly trying to get it right…”speaking my truth” is meant to signal that we all have a point of view and all of them are valid. Sounds okay as a stated aim but the reality in practice is quite different. If you disagree with someone or a new initiative then you can claim that your truth would be violated if you went down someone else’s path. “That doesn’t resonate with my truth” is just another way of saying I disagree with you. Don’t dress it up in this truth shroud. It has nothing to do with truth. It’s about a difference of opinion. Big difference.

As I’ve said many times here, people have great shit detectors. If you have a habit of being trustworthy, whether your style is blunt or less abrasive, then your word CAN be taken to the bank. But if you have a habit of humiliating people or stating opinions as fact and/or certainty then your agenda is NOT truth telling. It is about seizing control. And that is quite a different beast altogether.

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