In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey says that trust is the most powerful form of motivation and inspiration in organizations, and that it’s the ultimate source of influence. On the reverse, however, low trust slows decision-making, communications, relationships and results – and mistrust is more the norm than the exception. Covey’s conclusion is that no quality is more important or more rare than trust.

So, if trust leads to successful engagement with authenticity, truth telling and realism, leaders must define reality and have the courage to accept it at face value.

There are three beliefs that keep people from telling and accepting the truth at work:

  1. People believe that their managers and leaders really don’t want to hear the truth.
  2. People don’t think they can safely tell the truth.
  3. People don’t know how to discuss the “undiscussable” issues and still be perceived as a positive force in the organization.

All of these beliefs are responsible for the lack of realism and truth in our day-to-day interactions. They force people to say what they think others want to hear rather than what they believe to be true. As a result, we don’t become real in our expectations, in our thinking, or in our interactions.

Changes needed

Building a culture of truth telling means creating a work environment where employees know it’s not just OK but actually preferable to tell the truth, no matter what others – including leaders – may think. Just as companies have expertise in their specific industry, they should have expertise in truth telling. To have an engaging culture, leaders need to find ways to build the competency of truth telling – to attack tough issues head on without attacking people.

How do we do this? In many cases, leaders may need to change some of their behaviors to create a new type of culture . They may have to:

– Drop the three “F’s” that seem to be in many leaders’ tool boxes….Facts, Fear, and Force. Instead, focus on creating new hope by being more empathetic to employees’ perspectives.

– Give people permission to have the conversations that matter, even when it’s hard to do that.

– Convert criticism into co-thinking and co-owned actions for improvement.

– Embrace cynicism and use it to spark a belief that change and improvement are possible.

When organizations build a culture that encourages truth-telling, people can move from just being candid about what’s not working to taking accountability – without having it forced on them – and taking responsibility to do something about it.

Listen to what’s really going on

One of the most longed for aspects of truth telling is the simple acknowledgement of what’s really going on! After all, the first responsibility of a leader is to define and confront reality. Leaders do this by listening and showing respect for people’s opinions and feelings. If the real reason why people are cynical and don’t change is a feeling of demoralization and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, the most basic thing that a leader can do is to listen to how they feel. Leaders need to convey that they understand an employee’s predicament before they have to tell you, and make it safe to talk about the real issues on a strategic, cultural and behavioral level.

Critical conversations should happen in the open. But in many organizations, they occur in just three places – at the water cooler, in the restrooms, and in the hallways. Those are the places where people feel free to say what they really think in an “off the record” manner, where they can openly share their views and speak the truth. These truths, if shared in the right forums, could make a positive impact.

Sketching as a truth-telling tool

There are many ways that organizations can transform hidden conversations into a more public, effective dialogue. One technique is “watercooler sketching.” Using data from leaders about the challenges they face (behavior, cultural, and strategic), an artist draws a black-and-white characterization. Using compelling visual caricatures, cartoonlike quote bubbles and humor, these sketches get to the heart of the matter in a way that mere words cannot.

Watercooler sketches® are designed to create a candid mirror of reality. They serve as an informal way to address conflict, ambiguities, and destructive behaviors, and offer opportunities for individuals and teams to be more effective. They invite people to openly talk about the challenges they face and draw out opinions, attitudes, and beliefs so they can be honestly addressed and new solutions can be crafted.

Changing the image of reality

It’s our responsibility to do something about the current reality if it’s not working. It’s the leaders’ job to help people realize that we’re all accountable for creating and sustaining our environment, whether it’s good or poor. The key is to have the tough talks in the forums that matter – to bring the truth into the light.

Remember, sketching the truth is valuable only if it deepens accountability, challenges the status quo, and enables new hope, energy, and enthusiasm for finding a better way. Watercooler® sketches give people the opportunity to put the truth on the table in a safe way. They enable people to see how they’ve contributed to the existing reality, what they can do to change behaviors, and how the sketch of the company’s future reality – their reality – can and should look. Only when they see this can people ultimately make the change from a culture of cynicism to one where employees are actively engaged in driving outcomes and company success.