Truth, Lies & Organisations

Following on from our first two 2021 Leadership Forum themes, Growth (March) and Progress (May), our theme for July was Truth. As one participant put it, this was, ‘an eye-opening conversation that took us from philosophy to business, marketing and communication, to religion. We touched upon so many facets of human knowledge.’

Joining the discussion were leaders from consultancy, PR, membership, marketing, wellbeing, communications, finance, branding, and healthcare. To explore what ‘truth’ meant to participants, we began by contemplating the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s caustic assertion:

Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed 1

Five main themes emerged from the subsequent discussion (in bold below). Film buffs may have spotted the nod to Stephen Soderburg’s 1989 film, Sex, Lies and Videotape in the title of this piece. The reason will become clear in the summary.

Truth is essential to the function of organisations

Whether in terms of client/consumer confidence, or staff wellbeing, all participants agreed that organisations who have an uncomfortable relationship with the truth often suffer in the long term. As one leader in ESG investing put it,

There is damage done by selling bullshit in business. The consumer is smart. When you’re only using regulation as a way of showing your pedigree and showing that you tick all the boxes, it’s a problem.

A leader in PR thought that when organisations stray too far from what employees see as the truth, ‘it takes its toll and manifests as psychological issues.’ The recent Brewdog leadership scandal was cited as an example.

A leader in healthcare recognised similar problems in the large-scale NHS operations that he had run, where he saw,

‘Muscular leaders who were great at meeting targets, whatever the cost. That’s not sufficient anymore. I think it’s a great time to be a leader if you’ve got values.If we don’t talk about truth, we’re not going to keep the staff who look for openness and transparency

However, while recognised as essential to an organisation’s function, one leader in comms noted that the word ‘truth’ is rarely mentioned in organisations.

Truth is individual, although individual perspectives weave into bigger agreed truths

Having defined truth as essential to the function of an organisation, there was some debate about how to define truth in a corporate context. A belief? Fact? Reality? The notion of truth that emerged was one that is personal and individual. This postmodern notion of truth was summed up by a leader in branding:

There is no truth, only perception.

A leader in creative consultancy and ex-board member of a large marketing group wondered about the social and political consequence of undermining ‘objective truth’:

If truth is potentially becoming so individualised, and we each have our own truth, is there such a thing as a lie? And is Donald Trump the inevitable outcome?

This led to a debate about whether in this ‘post-truth’ world, whether the denial of objective truths might be a survival mechanism. One leader in PR wondered,

‘Is cognitive dissonance a survival mechanism that we’re increasingly needing to rely on to survive?

This ‘truth is perception’ model raised a problem. If only individual perception matters, how can organisations function? A leader in membership thought that the answer must lie in the culture that leaders set at the top.

Staff follow leaders because they know that they’re getting value from what those people hold to be true, and seeing it work in practice, and that’s what builds a culture. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: what they say was the truth for their organisations. And that can feel quite safe to people. Equally, challenging that truth can feel unsafe.

In essence then, leaders need a strong message that their teams and clients can trust. That strong message acts as a north star that individual truths (or perception) can orientate to. Right? Well, not exactly.

Business realpolitik trumps ideals about truth

While everyone agreed that ‘damage is done by selling bullshit’, several leaders thought that staff would lose confidence in a leader who revealed too much of their inner workings. Similarly, while all participants thought it essential to be truthful with clients, some thought this ideal ignores the reality of sales.

‘I ran an international marketing agency for 15 years. When you run an agency you, you just cannot be truthful, because no one will buy it. I mean that’s the reality. The agency is the seller, the client is the buyer. The seller wants to be truthful, but the buyer demands the lie. Every time I was transparent with a client, I never won the business, because they wanted me to tell them what they wanted to hear.

A leader in PR wondered if this dynamic might sometimes suffuse the comms world ethos.

‘I think authenticity isn’t synonymous with truth. In the comms world, I think the question becomes, “will people believe what we’re saying”, rather than, “is what I’m saying authentic?

Speaking truth in an organisation requires trust

While most participants felt encouraged by a younger generation of leaders who seem to value authenticity, everyone agreed that there is an eternal principle: it is difficult to speak openly about truth in an organisation, especially when trust is in short supply. The comms leader noted,

It takes bravery to speak truth to power when there is little trust. We’ve all been in boardroom meetings where people will actively try to work around you or undermine you. That makes it more difficult to speak your truth, when it’s much easier to say nothing. And to sit back and watch things happen

A leader in consultancy elaborated:

What holds people back from giving you truth in an organisation is often fear. Which is why people wear masks at work and build walls.

The obstacles to truth can be substantial

A leader in wellbeing, who had participated in many boardroom battles as chair of a marketing group in the recent past, noted,

We live in a world where business often carries negative emotion. Artificial Intelligence is not the answer to our problems, human mindset change is the answer. We need bold leadership to rip the obstacles to truth apart, but we’ve got too much money to lose. So will it happen?

A leader in branding noted wryly that this kind of paradigm shift is possible, but that it usually comes at a heavy cost.

There are people who did that, and one of them died on a cross 2,000 years ago. That’s the man that changed the Old Testament God of fear into a New Testament God of love.

As the conversation turned to the relationship between religion and truth, the leader in healthcare thought Christianity had a case to answer for ‘elevating humans above nature’ and in part, creating the conditions for the current climate crisis:

We have such illusions. How can we as leaders get beyond those illusions?

Summary

Drawing these themes together, it strikes me that it’s not possible to think about how to engage with truth as a leader without also considering awareness. Bear with me while I unpack that thought.

Summarising the discussion above: organisations are made up of individuals, who tend to see truth as a matter of perception. In order to function as a team, individuals need to rally around a compelling leadership vision that is aligned, to some degree at least, with their individual truth.

While there is inevitably ongoing (and necessary) variance between individual and organisation truth, when openly discussed, this variance can add value. For example, it can be fertile ground for innovation. Equally, when this variance is suppressed, especially where trust is in short supply, it may lead to simmering tensions that can, ‘manifest as psychological issues.’

The conclusion here might be that an ‘open door policy’, where ‘truth can speak to power’ might be an essential structure in an organisation’s approach to truth and wellbeing. However, leadership researchers Megan Reitz and John Higgins stress that simply advertising an open door is not enough. On the one hand, fear and politics may prevent workers from wanting to enter the open door in the first place. On the other, ‘lack of executive self-awareness’ and ‘executive ego’ may force the door shut.2

I wonder if the obstacles to engaging with truth in an organisation are less about leaders lacking awareness per se (although, undoubtedly, some do), and more to do with a lack of conversation about the unseen pressures that might drive leaders to ignore, or supress the awareness that they do have. As one participant pithily noted, ‘the buyer demands the lie.’ If the ‘buyer’ represents both clients (who might want you to tell them what they want to hear) and team (who might want you to always appear competent and unflappable), the implication is that leaders must choose carefully between what they listen to and/or reveal, and what they ignore and/or keep to themselves.

As always, the principles of story are instructive. There is an adage that the most important information in a story is ‘who knows what, when.’ Alter the chronology of events and a comedy becomes a tragedy, and vice versa. Stephen Soderberg’s 1989 film, Sex, Lies and Videotape exemplifies the adage, because it is, literally, a story about what each character knows, and when.

Transposing this idea back into our discussion about truth, both individuals and organisations require filters to function. Without filters the world would be (an even more) chaotic jumble of random information and irrational desires. To choose what we reveal requires an awareness of the truth (and lies) at play. Crucially, the choice also requires an awareness of the filter itself, and why it is being used. Seeing that clearly from your own perspective alone can be difficult, if not impossible.

Going with that thought, ‘Awareness’ will be the theme that guides the discussion in our September Leadership forum.

Tom Cotton Founder, Mind Environment, 3rd September 2021

1 The quote is an approximation of the more precise, but dense translation, which reads: ‘For the historical audit brings so much to light which is false and absurd, violent and inhuman, that the condition of pious illusion falls to pieces.’ Thoughts Out of Season, Part Two, The Use and Abuse of History by Friedrich Nietzsche. Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by Anthony M. Ludovici and Adrian Collins, Delphi Classics, 2015

2 The Problem with Saying “My Door Is Always Open” by Megan Reitz and John Higgins. Harvard Business Review, March 9th 2017

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