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When we talk to people about the rewards of telling the truth as a business practice, it is common for reactions to include fear, suspicion, and skepticism. In the context of most organizations, “telling the truth” almost always has a negative connotation.

How have we managed to create organizations where “telling the truth” is seen as a radical act? Why do people consider it as unpleasant as administering a dose of castor oil?

We had an “aha!” moment that shed light on these questions during a recent conversation with our friend and colleague Mark Levy, author of  Accidental Genius. We asked for his reaction to our most recent newsletter, which included advice for “A Better Way to Deliver Difficult News.” His initial feedback: “That advice is refreshingly harsh.”

Harsh? Ouch. Sometimes the truth hurts.

It shouldn’t have surprised us, really. Other people have been known to describe our message that way without the “refreshingly” modifier.

As our conversation progressed, Mark backpedaled, saying a better description is “unapologetically honest.”  He said he understood why asking people to “live the experience of truth” would be a concept business people might turn from.

“It’s not like your writing about ‘The Secret,’ and telling people they can get anything they want if they just visualize,” Mark said. “Part of the reason I said ‘unapologetically honest’ is because I am always apologizing for telling the truth.”

That sparked an animated and illuminating conversation about what spurs the impulse to apologize for being honest. We had a revelation — people never apologize for telling the truth unless they are uncomfortable telling it, or they think it is something that might be difficult to hear.

Suppose someone begins a conversation with “Can I tell you the truth?” What happens? Typically, the response is a step back. People brace themselves. They look for something to hold onto so the force of hearing something unpleasant won’t knock them flat.

Nobody requests permission to tell the truth (or apologizes for it) if the message is: “I think you’re a terrific leader.” They don’t think twice about delivering a truthful “I really appreciate all the extra hours you’ve been putting in to make this project successful.”

But when the truth is difficult — “things aren’t going so well” or “we need more from you” — people are reluctant to deliver it. And that raises another difficult issue: People are often equally unwilling to hear the truth.

Our work is based on helping clients develop organizations where people can tell each other the truth and understand the business reasons for doing so. Perhaps we should invest equal energy in developing an ability to hear the truth — even if it doesn’t feel good. Even if it evokes fear. Even if it demands reflection and self-awareness.

For the next few weeks, we will continue to explore the organizational cost and benefits, risks and rewards of “telling the truth” from our perspective.  And we hope you’ll be willing to hear us.

NOTE: We’d really like to hear your stories about truth telling. Relate a time when telling the truth felt too risky, and how it turned out. Or an example of when you told the truth even in the face of your fear. What happened?

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