“The problem with telling the truth is that it is never the whole truth.”
James Flaherty, founder of New Ventures West
Speaking truthfully is the third component of four foundational leadership principles that to me are essential in creating a workplace where everyone can thrive (along with paying attention, listening deeply, and acting compassionately).
What is the truth?
Here’s what’s in the dictionary:
Definition of truth
This short excerpt alone could easily spark many heated discussions. The truth is hard to define. Have you ever tried it?
Usually, when I ask my clients what’s true, they quote data and science. Most companies have significantly staffed up their data analytics teams in recent years. Many of us are on a constant quest for the ultimate truth. And we often hope that if we crunch enough data, we’ll get to it. Maybe eventually we’ll even figure out the algorithm for absolute truth in every moment. The brain is wired for safety. The ambiguity of not knowing what’s true can easily stress us out. One strategy to make sense of this kind of threat is to cling on to what we have been told is the truth, and, in order to protect it, discard any other version of the truth that’s not in accordance with our own. Another is to go with what we have learned from experience, declare our own truth, and advocate for it. Both are seemingly giving us firm ground to stand on, yet can easily lead to conflict.
Another way is to engage the thought that there may be many versions of the truth, and that there is not necessarily a need to be fully identified with a particular one. This may potentially help us overcome the rigidity of judgment with the help of curiosity and generosity. Inquiry into other people’s perspectives helps us see what’s true for them. That doesn’t mean we need to accept their truth as ours. What if multiple truths could and should co-exist? What if we don’t need to know exactly what the truth is? If that sounds crazy to you, how about experimenting with adopting a completely different perspective for just one day? Or just one conversation? And see what happens from there?
I may not have a satisfying answer on what the ultimate truth is or how to get to it, yet I think it’s hugely important to find frequent ways to voice what’s true for each one of us.
Why is it important to speak truthfully? And how does it pertain to work and leadership?
It goes without saying that we will not be respected as leaders for very long if we don’t take a stand, or even worse, if we are being perceived as liars. As leaders, we are role models for the kind of behaviors we want to see in our company culture, and lying isn’t one of them. The reason why I’m so passionate about speaking truthfully is not so much about catching the big liars since they usually get found out quickly anyway. It’s about noticing and giving voice to the truth inside of us that is important for us to express and for those around us to hear, but that we often hide.
Have you ever been to a meeting where a decision was seemingly made by consensus? Only to stand by the coffee machine later, listening to the “real” conversation. How often have you been upset by a decision that you didn’t agree with and that you feel you had to pay for later? You could have spoken up, spoken your truth, but you didn’t, for whatever reason. I think we all know what it feels like when we are not speaking up for ourselves or others we care about, and then have to suffer the consequences.
Are you currently working with someone who has a habit that annoys you? Or who recently did something that upset you? How do you feel about it? How does it affect your work week? How are you reacting? Are you complaining to others about it? Are you ignoring it? Or are you planning on having the courageous conversation of telling them what’s going on for you? How does the thought of that conversation make you feel? What’s the risk of speaking up? And how does that compare to the risk of keeping quiet?
Are you part of an underrepresented minority at work? How hard or easy is it for you to speak your truth? How much are others inviting you into the conversation? Do you feel like you are being heard? I recently ran a leadership program at a tech company. During the debrief of a team building activity my co-facilitator asked the group how many felt like outsiders during the activity. Five out of eighteen people raised their hands. Three of them were women, one of them was an African American male. They all tried to be fully immersed in the activity, but their truth was that they felt like outsiders. Not many of the others (mainly white men) seemed to have any awareness around that. They didn’t even consider the possibility that there was an outgroup. A big eye-opening moment.
Not being able to speak our truth or create a space where someone else’s truth is invited in affects our relationships, our creativity, our happiness at work, our productivity, you name it.
So why is it so difficult to speak our truth?
Whether it is in the workplace or at home, many of us fear that we may upset others if we speak up. Many of us worry that sharing a dissenting point of view may pose a risk for a particular relationship, or become a career limiting move. We are wired to be part of our tribe, and subconsciously we often don’t want to mess with the pecking order. We need our community. We don’t want to be outsiders. Voicing our truth requires a lot of courage. I’m sure you are familiar with the type of internal dialogue that goes something like “What if they disagree? What if I lose my credibility? What if I upset them? Can I live with the potential consequences? Maybe I’m better off staying quiet. It’s not worth rocking the boat…”
It seems to me that fear, whether we are aware of it or not, is the biggest barrier to speaking up. Another one is busyness. We simply have too much on our calendars. We are too distracted with other things. Speaking our truth doesn’t seem like a good time investment. It may potentially give rise to a much bigger issue that will be too time consuming to rectify. We often do not see, however, how much time the watercooler conversations take up. Or how many hours go into resolving a serious conflict that may show itself after days, weeks, or months of festering frustration, and could have been avoided with one courageous conversation.
How can we learn to speak our truth? And, equally as important, how can we create space for others to do so as well?
So even though fear, time constraints, or other reasons may hold us back, our voices are important. What is it that we can do to become better at speaking up? And how do we empower others to do the same? How do we practice the muscle of speaking our truth? Just like in the gym, you start with lighter weights and build up capacity for the big ones. Here are some ideas that have worked for some of my coaching clients:
Start with awareness. Next time you feel like something or someone is irritating you, pause for a few seconds and feel what’s going on inside of you. What is this feeling trying to tell you? Maybe an old trigger is coming up, or a boundary is being violated. What is it that you would like to say to yourself? To the other person? To other people involved in the situation? And how could you say it in a way they can hear you, even if they have a different perspective? It doesn’t mean you have to say anything if you’re not ready, but becoming more aware of potential choices opens up new possibilities. Journaling about these questions is a good step to practice. Or discussing them with a trusted person.
Once you have increased awareness around when you hold back, start taking baby steps. Find someone who makes it safe for you to speak freely, and reveal a little more about your own truth. See how it lands and what you learn. And once you have lifted many of the lighter weights, the heavy ones won’t seem so overwhelming. You will only know if you try. The world needs your voice.
On the flip side, what is your awareness of you potentially making it hard for others to speak up? Are you so passionate about your point of view that others can’t get a word in? Are you in a position of power? If so, do you know how that affects those around you? Can you recognize an ingroup and outgroup on your team? Whatever it is – how can you become more open to what others may want to contribute to the conversation, and proactively invite other perspectives in? Curiosity helps. Next time you find yourself secretly judging someone else’s point of view, try to walk in their shoes for a bit and see if you can value their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. See what becomes possible from here.
Getting more comfortable with speaking our truth, and becoming more practiced at inviting in other people’s truths is a virtuous cycle. It significantly increases psychological safety in the workplace. It reduces emotions like frustration or sadness that arise and linger when we are not showing ourselves to the world, or when we are not being seen. It opens up space for collaboration, creativity, connection, and belonging. Which helps increase joy, meaning, and success at work.
Speaking truthfully is a win win.