Are leaders told the whole truth?

The truth is hard to find, not least if you are in charge. Your colleagues will frequently, whether they are conscious about it or not, give you the answer they believe you want.

leaders, truth, feedback, leadership,

Which ones of your colleagues will be completely honest with you?

On the other hand there are those who always contradict and complain to demonstrate that they are not yes sayers.

Then the defenders who are protective of themselves, members of their own department or whatever is important to them. On top of it, the ones looking after number one will say whatever it takes to further themselves.

Neither category are of help to a leader trying to find out what’s really going on or if an idea or proposal is of value to the company. Nor is the fact that we all interpret what we see or hear in different ways. Most people actually see and hear what they want or fear.

Do your colleagues feel safe enough to be honest?

If you are a good leader your colleagues know that they can tell you the truth. But even so, leaders fall into a different category than employees and it’s difficult to achieve the kind of complete openness you can have with close friends.

Employees are to some extent dependent on the leader. Even in a country like Sweden where it’s difficult to fire anyone getting the whole truth from colleagues is easier said than done.

So how do you overcome the fact that your colleagues are to some extent reliant on you and enable openness?

Let them be anonymous

Sometimes it’s a good idea to let staff give their opinion, or account of what’s going on, anonymously. That enables both constructive criticism and may bring out honesty in those afraid to appear like yes sayers. And anonymity could stop people from, say, protecting someone in their department.

Having said that, the kind of system some companies have where employees report colleagues for something they believe is wrong can also be abused by someone who, for instance, want to be promoted, simply doesn’t get along with a colleague or want to take revenge.

Leaders need to have psychological insight and intuition

It’s essential for a leader to be a good judge of character and have a gut feeling about what motivates another person and what’s going on. But unfortunately not all leaders have such qualities.

What can be done short of spying?

Apart from spying on staff, is it really possible for a leader to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Questionable, isn’t it?

The truth is in the eye of the beholder

Whenever something takes place and you have ten witnesses you have ten different accounts of what really happened. So maybe the closest it’s possible to get to the truth in such cases is what the accounts of the majority have in common? It’s hence important for a leader to have the judgement to make the best possible conclusion of what really happened.

As a leader you need to talk to someone who is not dependent on you and will be truly honest. Someone who gives you constructive positive and negative feedback. Who tells you the whole truth and gives you constructive criticism? Do you feel you get valuable and honest feedback from colleagues on proposals and ideas? How do you determine the whole truth about what’s really going on in a department where there is a problem? Do you know, or have a feeling about, who’s honest with you and who’s not? Is it ever possible for a leader to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Photo: World Economic Forum – Flickr

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50 Responses to “Are leaders told the whole truth?”

  1. GuyW Says:

    I guess the question is whether anyone gets the "whole truth and nothing but the truth" as one's life experiences tend to lend themselves to perceptions of others and what the message behind the words is.

    Having said that, I've found a good leader is one that has a reputation for honesty, fair-play and objectivity with those around him/her. A person that strenously avoids any perception of favourtism and is prepared to take decisions in the best interests of the business. In such circumstances, the leader will have a network of people providing input with such input likely to be more reliable.

    Discepancies must be investigated and resovled and then appropriate action seen to be taken. This will then "feed" the cycle, ensuring future input is more reliable, and so on.

  2. catarinaalexon Says:

    That's one way of putting it Guy.

    However, I'm sure you get honest opinions from your close friends. But is it possible to get colleagues to be unbiased when asked for an opinon?

    No matter how honest , open and fair you are as a leader I'm not sure you can get objective opinions since they are to some degree dependent on you. Do you believe you got unbiased opinions from colleagues?

  3. GuyW Says:

    I think one builds to that point – perhaps not completely unbiased as everybody has a level of bias in everything, but objective enough to enable one to make decisions.

  4. Slim Says:

    Leader don't want to hear about problems. They want to hear about solutions. Problems should be dealt with before they get to the leader.

    Leaders have a shoot the messenger mentality. There is a good reason for this. Not all leaders are always effective all the time. Leaders make mistakes. Mistakes are a problem. Shooting the messenger means he won't be reporting on the leader's mistakes and others won't be encouraged to do the same.

    For the employee (at any level) if you can't fight, flee. If you can't flee, flow. From CNN News. One employee at Goldman Sachs is being sued by the Govt. Supposedly, someone found a laptop computer with "evidence" suggesting others were culpable. The Government seems not to want to pursue the issue.

    The Dept. Of Agriculture. Shirley Sherrod no longer works there. I understand the Secretary still has his job. Sometimes, in the US, anyway, it takes civil action in US District Court before anyone takes notice. The lawyers make their money, and both sides settle out of court, amicably.

    Sincerely,

    Slim

  5. Susan Oakes Says:

    I think you can get honest opinion and feedback, but not sure it will ever be 100%. The reason is some people have their own agendas and it doesn't matter how open you are as a leader they will still play it their way. That said as a leader you can usually tell over time how to identify these people.
    My recent post How to Add Value That Your Customers Want

  6. catarinaalexon Says:

    Guy, I honestly think that when people are to some degree dependent on another person the truth suffers. Parents and children are another example. As a leader I believe it's really difficult to get an unbiased opinion from someone. You can get close to it but that's about as good as it gets. What colleague is going to tell you that a proposal is great if it endangers his job?

  7. catarinaalexon Says:

    Agree with you completely Susan.

  8. catarinaalexon Says:

    Slim, leaders who don't want to hear about problems are not leaders. You cannot find solutions if you don't know what the problem is.

  9. Jeannette Paladino Says:

    A leader by definition is an individual who seeks and welcomes feedback and the best information s/he can get in order to make informed decisions. Managers are only masquerading as leaders when they punish dissent and discourage honest feedback. Unfortunately, it's not always possible to tell the difference until you experience it personally.

  10. catarinaalexon Says:

    Agree with you Jeannette. But considering that employees are to some extent dependent on their leader will they be one hundred percent honest? For instance if they feared they would lose their job if they were positive about a proposal?

  11. Marquita Herald Says:

    Great topic Catarina. Before I went out on my own I worked for a global giant in direct sales – so there were many layers between those of us in the field and top management. The message from my immediate manager – you have your goals and your budget – don’t bother me with the details or problems, just get it done. In fact our company conducted an annual survey of managers in the field and to ‘protect’ us it was all done in a way to protect our identities and areas – though the results were shared in a very public way. It never really changed anything that much for us, but for whatever it was worth we had the opportunity to be honest about our working situation. What I got out of it personally was how to be a better manager to the thousand entrepreneurs in my area.
    My recent post Time to Stop Thinking of Failure as the Enemy of Success

  12. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes Tosin, the truth is hard to find isn't it. And a leader has to be able to make a sound judgement.

  13. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you like the article Jeanine.

  14. catarinaalexon Says:

    Interesting points Marquita.

  15. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me John.

  16. Slim Says:

    Excellent point, Catarina.

    At what point, however, do we bring problems to the leader rather than handle them at our level.

    We hear frequent admonitions about leaders empowering employees, motivating them, looking for self-starters when jobs are advertised.

    There are leaders who will tell you, "You should have come to me first. Or, right away." Certainly, when there is a bigger problem caused by a subordinate handling things himself. Also true is when a subordinate handles a problem nicely.

    There are, however, leaders who don't want subordinates handling problems. [ The real reason? If my subordinate can handle the problem, my boss might realise he doesn't need me.]

    A second reason, the leader is a micro-manager. Even if only a little bit. Perhaps I should hearken to the remarks about the difference between leaders and managers.

    I believe a true leader hires the best and gets out of their way. (Teddy Roosevelt)

    Our President is a case in point. He has a cabinet of departmental secretaries. The various Secretaries (Interior, Transportation, Agriculture) should be able to handle the problems themselves. However, I believe that when it comes to State and Defence, that is a different story. Analogous to business. The Vice-President wants to know that the person running the warehouse, or packaging, or shipping, is capable of handling the problems. If the VP is a leader, he will have authorised his qualified people to handle the problems.

    Am I close?

    Slim
    My recent post Team Building: Contributors and Those Seeking Validation

  17. catarinaalexon Says:

    Agree Keyuri, but that's not enough to get an unbiased answer.

  18. keepupweb Says:

    It's interesting to read that you consider relying on gut and being a good judge of character as being essential qualities for leaders. I totally agree with this. I think good leaders do need to rely on their intuition.
    My recent post 6 Reasons to NOT Build a Website

  19. catarinaalexon Says:

    Wish it was that simple Bob. Even in Sweden where what you suggest is the norm it's difficult to get unbiased opinions from employees.

  20. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me Sherryl.

  21. catarinaalexon Says:

    Seems you have had bad experiences with superiors Lou. Sorry to hear that.

  22. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes John, getting unbiased opinions are difficult for someone in charge of a company, isn't it.

  23. wedding favors Says:

    It is very hard to tell the truth sometimes because it can hurt other people but the thing there is, you will have a clean conscience. They said that our eyes are the window of our soul. It is already tested and proven that if the person could not directly look into your eyes, he/she is 99% not telling the truth. And most of the leaders are not telling the truth, unless that they are true to themselves and they are truly serving his/her countrymen. :)

  24. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes, the truth is hard to find isn't it.

  25. Adrienne Says:

    I would also have to say are you really getting the "whole truth and nothing but the truth"? I think that some may give you the majority of it while leaving several things out along the way.

    I can't speak for the corporate world any longer since I haven't been a part of that for the past for years but I would have to say that I believe a good leader is one that does have a reputation of honesty. They are able to be objective and lay all the cards on the table so to speak.

    I know at times it may be hard to not show favortism toward a particular person but I'm sure they can notice those who are going above and beyond to get the job accomplished. Sometimes it's hard not to. As long as the decisions are made in everyone's best interests I believe you are doing the best you can do.
    My recent post Only 26 Days Left, I Would Appreciate Your Support

  26. catarinaalexon Says:

    Adrienne, in Scandinavia what you are advocating is norm. However, getting unbiased opinions is still exremely difficult. We are all biased to some extent. Really don't think there's anything that can be done about that.

  27. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes Lisa, everybody is biased to some degree.

  28. yearwoodcom Says:

    Great article and spot on. I realize that telling the truth, the whole truth, can sometimes be a difficult, if not courageous activity, but the consequences of not speaking the truth to leaders is generally far worst. I have worked in government, not for profits and private sector. I've never seen anything good come from not being honest. On the contrary, I've seen a lots of good employees get laid off because no one had the courage to speak up when things in an organization were starting to veer off course. I've seen it so often that I will always be honest with my leaders. I report to the CEO in my organization and he knows that while he may not always like what I have to say, he can always count on me to be honest. As difficult as that can be at times, my honesty does more to secure my job, than keeping quiet ever did.

  29. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you Debra. Glad you agree with me.

  30. findingourwaynow Says:

    I could write a book on this whole subject.

    The fact is, it's a delicate balance between the truth as the leader see's it and how they need to communicate it. The truth, no matter how it's communicated, is often misinterpreted and by each receiver in a wide and varied way. In other words every interpretation is different. However, If there is trust and lack fear of retaliation, there is a way to correct any misinterpretation of the truth. Just my thoughts. :-)
    My recent post A to Z Wine Terms & Definitions: Wine

  31. Jeannette Paladino Says:

    When people say they rely on their "gut" feelings they are really saying that the accumulation of years of experience in dealing with people and situations enables them to make what are actually "informed" decisions. You can't always tell who is telling the truth. Trust is essential in organizations and companies that lack the trust of their employees — or whose employees don't trust each other — are lacking in strong leadership.
    My recent post How to “Claim” Your Blog on Technorati

  32. becc03 Says:

    As you mentioned, if there are 10 witnesses you will get 10 different accounts, so it is difficult to define what is the truth when there are so many perspectives.
    My recent post Weight loss, how I have sustained it

  33. catarinaalexon Says:

    True Susan, when you look at the issue the other way round.

  34. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good points Jeannette. Agree with you.

  35. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with me Becc.

  36. JeriWB Says:

    Even when given the opportunity to give anonymous feedback, it can still be very difficult for an employee to give honest feedback to their leaders. I personally don't have an issue providing constructive criticism, and I welcomed the opportunity to do so in my former teaching job when the teachers were asked to take an anonymous survey. Still, by the style and voice of my writing, I'm sure my principal know the responses came from me on the written portions.
    My recent post Book Covers: Sexing up the Classics

  37. catarinaalexon Says:

    Maybe, Jeri. But what's the solution then? There is a need for leaders to know what works and what doesn't and find out what staff think works and what doesn't.

  38. Mary Slagel Says:

    I like the idea of anonymity. Sometimes it is the best way to get individuals to come forward with their opinions and thoughts. It can be intimidating to talk to some one in a higher position than yourself. Even when you prepare yourself, you get into their office and may feel like everything you tried to say fell apart. This is another reason I feel like being able to write down your thoughts is great. Yes, face to face communication is key but when something important needs said and that person may not be so willing to say it, having the option to write it down and communicate thoughts clearly is key.
    My recent post Fixed Rate Mortgages 101

  39. catarinaalexon Says:

    Agree with you about anonymity, Mary. What else can be done to make staff be honest about what they feel should be done? If necessary make it multiple choice so their hand writing cannot be recognized.

  40. Kelly Wade Says:

    Good idea to encourage anonymous communication- I think that would definitely spark constructive and honest feedback to a leader. I believe I am a very good judge of character and at reading people. Its important for leaders to possess this skill especially in terms of overseeing employee interactions and intentions. Interesting post!
    My recent post How Physicians are Using Social Media for Work

  41. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree Kelly.

  42. keepupweb Says:

    I've always believed that good leaders can establish a 2-way communication where they can solicit feedback that is true. Having said that, I don't believe you find leaders in most businesses. Instead, there are managers. That is a huge difference. In that case, having a way to solicit anonymous feedback is vital.
    My recent post How to Use Facebook Fan Gate to Get New Likes

  43. catarinaalexon Says:

    Absolutely Sherryl. Glad, but not surprised, we agree.

  44. Leora Says:

    It's hard being a leader! Sometimes those that are leaders got there because they were good at being specific in their fields, but they aren't always the one with the most people skills. A good leader spends a lot of time listening.
    My recent post Build Simple Yet Profitable Website with WordPress

  45. Leora Says:

    It's hard being a leader! Sometimes those that are leaders got there because they were good at being specific in their fields, but they aren't always the one with the most people skills. A good leader spends a lot of time listening.
    My recent post Build Simple Yet Profitable Website with WordPress

  46. Leora Says:

    It's hard being a leader! Sometimes those that are leaders got there because they were good at being specific in their fields, but they aren't always the one with the most people skills. A good leader spends a lot of time listening.
    My recent post Build Simple Yet Profitable Website with WordPress

  47. Leora Says:

    It's hard being a leader! Sometimes those that are leaders got there because they were good at being specific in their fields, but they aren't always the one with the most people skills. A good leader spends a lot of time listening.
    My recent post Build Simple Yet Profitable Website with WordPress

  48. Leora Says:

    It's hard being a leader! Sometimes those that are leaders got there because they were good at being specific in their fields, but they aren't always the one with the most people skills. A good leader spends a lot of time listening.
    My recent post Build Simple Yet Profitable Website with WordPress

  49. catarinaalexon Says:

    True, Leora. And that makes people afraid of being honest with them.

  50. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you were given the opportunity to tell the truth, Marquita. And not to forget, learnt from the experience.

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