Are leaders told the whole truth?

leaders, truth, Putin

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, which is human. Let’s face it, if we were ordinary Russians and Vladimir Putin asked us a question we would be careful not to say anything that could get us into trouble.

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. However, if the person in charge is an autocrat speaking ones mind can have severe repercussions.

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?

Pictures: World Economic Forum

85 thoughts on “Are leaders told the whole truth?

  1. I agree with you Catarina on the point on which you begin the post, we generally tend to give the answer what the person would believe they want.
    Lovely post like always dear, you each week bring into notice a topic we must focus on.

  2. Leaders may say they want the truth, but they make it pretty clear if they really mean it. The current occupant of the U.S. presidency does not listen to advice from his inner circle. He doesn't care what they think, even if it's the truth.

    1. …is as bad as the man in the picture. Hopefully his aim to follow in his footsteps will not work out according to plan..

  3. "The truth is in the eye of the beholder" is the most important process of presenting information.
    Information, not matter how true, or false, can be presented with a spin or a point of view which will change it meaning.
    A leader must be open to receive information, not only from his allies, but also those with an opposing opinion.

    1. A leader, regardless of philosophical reflections, need to find out what’s happening in the company. If he/she doesn’t it can have severe repercussions.

  4. Very insightful post, Catarina. It can indeed be difficult to find and hear the truth. As a leader, I always encourage people to be honest with me and truly value their insights. But I have certainly worked for people who don't want any criticism or suggestions–regardless of the good intentions. That creates a stifling work atmosphere that is hard to tolerate.

  5. In today's political environment this really hit home. There is a segment of our population that will believe anything DT says. It wierd to know that for some lies become truth and truth becomes lies. What can you do with that. Sigh!

  6. Excellent post Catarina.

    You have hit home on many points. It is of no benefit for a leader to be told only what they want to hear. You cannot change if you do not realise change is required.

    I agree that many employees have motives, some good and some not so good. As leaders we should use wisdom and be quick to identify if someone is genuine.

  7. Good leaders should always listen to the opinion of their colleagues and encourage anonymous feedback to get the truth.

  8. This is just my opinion but, no matter how truth is communicated it can easily and often be misinterpreted. Everybody can hear and interpret it differently. There is a very fine line between the truth as the leader see’s it and how they need to communicate it. Just my two cents. 🙂

  9. Are leaders told any truth? In my experience as a manager in the 1980s, I found this different from employee to employee. I can't believe this has changed much over time. For the most part, I remember more half truths than full truths when it came to certain issues. And you get to know the cast pretty well. I reported to the CEO and that was always, brutal honesty both ways.
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    1. Glad you and the CEO were brutally honest, Patricia. Honestly, Scandinavia is probably the most honest part of the world in this respect. But even here it's FAR from perfect. In some cultures in the world there is no way there will be honesty:-)

  10. The more involved a leader is with their employees the more they will notice changes. If the relationship is one of safety and respect, they are more likely to get the truth when asked for it. Yes. That is in an ideal world. For most this relationship does not exist. Getting to the ‘truth’ will be a challenge, especially when everyone sees the ‘truth’ through their own life lens.

    1. Yes, the problem is that you will not find even two people who perceive the world in exactly the same way, isn't it, Cheryl. Add to that selfishness and other less admirable traits and it gets a bit complicated.

  11. Being a leader can’t be an easy job where you are expected to be honest and tell the truth whilst the people working for you may be hiding information from you. A good leader is one who listens to everyone point of view but makes up his own mind.

    1. Love the first sentence, Mina:-) It's unbelievable what's expected of a anyone in charge. But then again, someone who truly has a leadership personality it's easier to get employees to trust him

  12. Hi, I agree that leaders cannot confide in employees as there is a definite 'them' and 'us' culture. If the lines become blurred it could create a complex situation, especially if the colleague has a hidden agenda.
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  13. There is no more important skill for a leader than the ability to listen. I have experienced exactly what you are talking about, a boardroom full of people whose every utterance is self promotional. The first step for a leader to encourage openness and honesty is to be a good listener. So many aren't.

  14. I’m not sure if you’re referring to a political leader or a supervisor in the workplace. I’m going to go with a supervisor or a team leader for my comment. People have supervised me, and I have supervised others. When I was being supervised there were “truths” I wanted to share.The problem was some of my truthful insights had nothing to with the business. My supervisor was wonderful, fair, respectful and a true mentor. However, he wasn’t by “pal” business is business, and sometimes employees’ expectations of a leader are the same expectations they have of a friend. When I became a supervisor, I realized some of the misconceptions I had as a member of a team. Very often the people who I led wanted me to know information that was totally irrelevant to their job or the organization.

    1. Yes. Pamela many times what colleagues want to talk about are silly issues about another employee or a disagreement they have had. Or something about themselves that you really can't do much about.

  15. I think there are many reasons for why leaders many not get the truth, including:
    Two opposing people may see their version of the truth differently;
    There may be fear of repercussion, especially if a corporate policy was the reason behind the problem – who wants to blame that?
    Finally, fear of repercussion, ratting out a well-liked co-worker, or diverting blame away from your own actions.
    I think the best way for a leader to get at the truth, is to watch and listen. Pay attention to what’s going on and know your employees. Still not a guarantee.
    At least that’s my opinion.

  16. Hello Catarina
    Great post..
    Today I was discussing on same issue with a friend.
    I think a leader with the vision can know the ways to get the truth and its always better not to rely on single source of information.
    In case of any problem it is better to call all the members and take the opinion or know the situation.
    I think that if the leader is stuck with some flattery then it will never allow to get truth. A leader should give room to all members of team to express them and give them room and confidence to have trust on him/her.
    If you know as a member of team that by telling a truth you are the one who have to pay for it or your neck will be caught first … I do not think in such situation anyone will be willing to tell the truth.
    In my 10 years of service at university level I met with a lot of people and feel that best leader is the one who is not biased in any way, is honest and who gives confidence to team and for sure he/she gets the truth. Met some amazing people whom I will never forget.

  17. People will either tell leaders what they see as the truth, which may not be interpreted in the same way by any other person, or what they think the leaders want to hear. It’s touchy trying to decide. I think that if the leader is one who really cares about his or her colleagues and makes that feeling known by actions as well as words, that he or she is more likely to be told the truth as the person sees it.

  18. This might be easier if there weren' so many different versions of the truth, right? Laugh! In my years as a manager in a leadership position, this never ceased to amaze…the bending of facts, and how different interpretations of truth directed people. But I do like the anonymous approach sometimes. It does free people to speak without fear of repercussion from a manager OR their co-workers!

  19. 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.
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  20. 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

  21. 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

  22. 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

  23. 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.
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  24. 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!
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  25. 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.

  26. 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.
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  27. 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.
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  28. 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.
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  29. 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.
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  30. 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. 🙂
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  31. 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.

  32. 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.
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    1. 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.

  33. 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. 🙂

  34. 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.
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  35. 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.
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  36. 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.

    1. 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?

  37. 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.
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  38. 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.



      1. 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?

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  39. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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.

        1. 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?

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