Data, facts and interpretation
Are managers and employees on your team comfortable with absolute truth and honesty? Are your organizational processes and management decisions transparent? Can you and your team discuss data, facts and interpretation without anyone’s hair catching on fire? I am not talking about ad hominem attacks, although members of an organization may take the presentation of facts personally. I am talking about the ability to rationally and objectively discuss subjects such as performance, weaknesses and failure in order to find solutions.
Will you shoot the messenger?
Naked Truth and Brutal Honesty are my two most valued employees. Clients sometimes ask for them by name, but they accompany me on every engagement regardless of whether or not they were invited. Don’t worry — there is no extra charge for them.
Over the years, one or two clients have not appreciated their input and we’ve all been summarily dismissed. Oh, well. Who needs those kinds of clients, anyway? Honesty and truth are essential components of the “whole package” comprising personal integrity. If you are willing to mold the truth for a fee, you lack the critical firmware package that also includes ethics and morality.
We worry about artificial intelligence, and we should. If A.I. eventually turns out to be made of the same malleable moral and ethical clay as the natural intelligence possessed by humans, we’ll be in big trouble when A.I. finally breaks out of its nursery. Sometimes, it’s not even a matter of ethics or morality. We often can’t recognize truth when it’s flashing furiously right in front of our eyes. Why should we expect better of machines?
Can facts be offensive?
One time I offended one member of a group by calling them all troglodytes because of their antiquated and inefficient business processes. I said it in an affable, humorous sort of way, but it was on the West Coast! What can I say?
However, I have often had hard pushback from organizational management when presenting straight facts such as, “Your organization lacks statutorily required privacy and security policies including X, Y and Z.” You can put a copy of the law right in front of them and they will still engage in virulent refutation.
You can’t handle the truth
In the consulting business, one is often asked to provide assessments. Most of us try to keep it real, but let’s face it — bogus assessments didn’t disappear when Arthur Andersen LLP was buried in 2002. Smashing through the granite wall of denial that is a cultural characteristic of many organizations can be a Herculean task, and sometimes one has to accept failure when the wall proves to be impenetrable. Observing the nature of denial is both fascinating and frustrating, and it is sad to watch otherwise intelligent people explode in an angry burst of denial when you attempt show them that 2+2=4.
One wonders why organizations so often contract assessments and then completely reject not only the conclusions but the facts. Arthur Andersen the person (1885-1947) lived by motto “Think straight, talk straight,” but such behavior is not a part of the culture of most organizations I have encountered. When it came to audits, Andersen believed that the “responsibility was to investors, not their clients’ management.” Had his company continued to embrace that philosophy after his death, it would likely still be in business.
Honesty and transparency are essential foundations of sound management. At investment management firm Bridgewater Associates, for instance, brutal honesty is a workplace requirement. Sadly, in most organizations, the pursuit of truth is neither familiar nor welcome. Bridgewater is governed by a set of “Principles” compiled by founder Ray Dalio. In an online presentation of the principles, Dalio instructs the reader, “When digesting each principle, please… ask yourself: Is it true?” Truth is always the best starting point.
Is it true?
My best teachers and professors all taught me to relentlessly ask that question about everything. I recall one graduate seminar where we went through some pretty lengthy scholarly works dissecting every sentence. It was a brutal exercise. What I learned is that a great deal of what was considered to be definitive and scholarly was questionable or sometimes just flat out wrong once it was closely examined.
Consensus is not proof
The traps of lazy thinking, false assumptions and groupthink are permanently set and perfectly positioned to capture us. In spite of decades of training, I still have to consciously avoid being snared by them. Conventional Wisdom and Consensus have no place in business, science or public policy but they often control and dominate the conversation.
In 1980, the consensus among physicians was that “stress and lifestyle factors were the major causes of peptic ulcer disease.” Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren discovered in 1982 that the actual cause was Helicobacter pylori. They were initially ridiculed, but were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 2005. There is an extensive history of ideas that bucked consensus. When consensus rather than fact is presented as evidence, we should be skeptical and demand proof.
Equivocation, rationalization and justification seem to be acceptable management tools in too many private- and public-sector entities. Honesty shouldn’t be considered “brutal,” and it is only thought to be so because we so rarely encounter it in its natural form. Introducing honesty and naked truth to your organization might be a great goal for 2017.