‘The truth – you can’t handle the truth’ bellows the colonel in the aptly named film ‘A Few Good Men’. But the sentiment isn’t restricted to a movie. Why is truth telling so difficult within organisations? Yet truth telling is the vital component of trust, and without trust, how can organisations function effectively, let alone, unleash human capability?
Yet for the importance of truth, it is generally not taught in business studies papers, and normally is hidden away in an ethics paper where the moral fibre of leaders is discussed. Also lacking are any widely known or used tools to actively promote and encourage truth telling within organisations.
The purpose of this hack is to present a model that will actively encourage truth telling to occur within teams, departments or organisations. Leaders are role models for subordinates and it’s common to describe their status as living in a ‘glass house’ or ‘fishbowl’... So why not put them in one and observe what happens?
Leaders are sometimes like the Emperor from the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Emperors Clothes. Their view can be so distorted and misaligned to the truth (i.e. walking naked believing they are wearing the finest garment). The senior management team around the leader keep silent – a classic example of groupthink (i.e., like the Emperors ministers who did not want to be seen as unfit for their position or stupid). But often employees in an organisation know, and can see the truth (as the child in the crowd called out to the Emperor that he was wearing nothing at all).
Where the analogy stops is that employees don’t often have the courage to speak up in organisations. What’s interesting about the Emperor story is that once the truth had been spoken, the entire crowd could see the truth. All it took was one person to speak.
The problem is it is difficult to speak truth to power. All human behaviour is biologically predicated on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Sometimes avoiding the truth is our way of avoiding pain. Employees fear the repercussions of speaking truth to power, especially when their livelihood (remuneration, promotion) is tied to the organisation. There is a Moroccan proverb that sums this up: ‘If you’ve come to tell the truth, you’d better have a good horse outside the door’.
Every organisation has mokita’s (a New Guinean word that means ‘a truth everybody knows but nobody speaks’). Exposing these mokita’s publically in an open forum and addressing them is critical to unleashing human capability. Often these mokita’s become ‘road blocks’ that insidiously affect the organisational culture and prohibit the organisation from functioning at full capacity.
The reality is most organisations have devised subtle mechanisms for blocking the truth.
- Organisations care more for the hard numbers and less about the ‘soft’ people issues. They know that ‘soft stuff’ is important, but either give lip service, or don’t have any tools in their tool box on how to engage in meaningful conversation. But the point is that the ‘soft stuff’ is often an early warning system for the difficult truths, which if left uncovered, affect the culture and health of the organisation.
- Organisations also adopt hierarchical insulation – where typically layers in the hierarchy discuss issues only amongst people within same layer. This leads to the ‘rose glass’ syndrome, where they only see what they are told, and aren’t receiving rich information from dialogue with employees outside of their layer in the hierarchical structure.
Truth telling can be uncomfortable. It can create conflicts and drudges up emotions and ‘unspoken truths’ that most people would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. However, to adapt a Biblical principle: ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off’ (quote: Gloria Steinem).
Take a look at the business world we operate in today – especially post GFC. Something is clearly wrong. The amount (and consequences) of business failures go beyond the normal “market conditions”. Within businesses, irrespective of size, there are people within the organization structure who can solve many of the businesses problems, yet feel disempowered or helpless to do so. Why is it is only AFTER a collapse of a major corporation that the reasons (truth) of the issues become apparent? Aside from outright corruption, why aren’t employees within an organization engaged to speak the truth about issues that can mean business success failure? Why is it left to “top management” to try and solve and create a direction for the organization single handedly?
With truth telling and trust being inextricably linked, and a key cornerstone to unleashing capability, there are limited models available on how to engage employees in the practice of truth telling.
The solution is to suggest a model that can actively engage employees in creative exercises to enforce truth telling as habit.
The Idea: “Truth Telling Fishbowl”
This is best done in groups of people that loosely work together (team, department, executive etc). The key requirement is that the group’s hierarchy leadership is present and participating.
A fishbowl has 2 groups of people:
- The management – who form the active participants inside the fishbowl
- The team members – who form the observers outside the fishbowl
Organise an empty room, assembling two circles of chairs, one large outer circle representing the outside of the fishbowl, and an inner circle of chairs for active participants to sit within the fishbowl.
The process is as follows:
- Normally most senior management of the group sit inside the fishbowl circle
- There is also one empty chair in the inner circle for a ‘guest’ from the outer circle to join the inner circle.
- This ‘guest’ is able to ask any question they choose
- As many members of the inner circle can respond to fully answer the question
- The ‘guest’ does not leave the fishbowl until they are totally satisfied with the answers given. There can be free flowing discussion.
- Then next ‘guest’ enters the fishbowl (and the process repeats).
- Observers outside the fishbowl are not allowed to interject or comment. Instead they have a survey and fill in ‘insights’ from the conversation. Such questions could include:
- What did you hear?
- What is urgently calling for our attention?
- Were you surprised by any statements or points of view?
- Is our organisation / department ignoring, denying or minimising any warning signs of potential trouble ahead?
- Do you have any gnawing questions or concerns after hearing what was said?
- At the completion of the fishbowl, there is an open sharing time when each question is revisited and the entire group can discuss what their impressions were from the comments made in the survey.
The rules of the fishbowl are as follows:
No comments from outside the fishbowl
Trust is a must. ‘Between these four walls apply’
No emotional flaring allowed. Constructive not personal comments.
If all participants openly engage in the concept of the fishbowl (and are indeed truthful), then the group (team, department, or organisation) can expect the following positive impacts:
- Group members are exposed to senior leaders, and hear information firsthand – eliminating grapevine / gossip
- Better organisational decisions – management can hear firsthand the ideas and concerns of employees on the shop floor (and often these ideas are the best).
- The one on one interaction within the fishbowl is media rich – observers are able to pick up on both verbal and non-verbal cues. Observers will be able to sense if the truth is being told.
- It opens communication – which greatly enhances learning and knowledge sharing. It eliminates innuendo, false assumptions and goal confusion. Observers can ‘hear it from the horse’s mouth’.
- It can lead to innovative behaviour – essentially from the knowledge sharing, but also that different individuals will take different interpretations from what they heard. These will be applied differently (capturing diversity) and the flow on effect is more innovation.
- It will radically change organisation culture – The openness of ‘we have nothing to hide’ through to the sense of involvement and empowerment.
- Massive impact on team building and effectiveness – able to observe how people think, how they react, what their values are, what are the hot buttons etc Observers can gain more knowledge about fellow team members in one hour of a fishbowl than months of working alongside them.
- Leads to more constructive discussion. Less secret agendas. Less power play. Active listening. Mutual respect.
Senior leadership engagement is essential for this concept to work effectively.
The concept requires a pre-meeting to explain the purpose and the objectives of the fishbowl. An explanation of the ‘rules’, as well as encouraging employees to ask without fear, and refrain from asking personally motivated questions.
Suggest that the first fishbowl session has ‘anonymous questions’ submitted in writing and an independent person assumes the role of ‘guest’ to ask the questions. This will allow the observers to view the fishbowl process and overcome the natural fear and inhibitions that they will have.
There a couple of warm up exercises that can be performed to ready participants (both active and observers) for the fishbowl. There are:
- The idea is to form small groups of two to four people and formulate a list of questions such as: Name three things you wish this company to be, but are not yet?; Name three things we once were, but are no longer?; What truths or realities is this company trying to avoid? Etc. The game is called Rules of Dia-Log. (Dia=between and logos = truth - i.e. the truth is found in conversations that pass between us). Members each answer the questions in turn and observers need to: Listen without judgement; Realise that different people have different views; Listen to truly understand what is being said; Practice W.A.I.T (i.e. Why Am I Talking?) – Don’t comment on what someone is saying – when people don’t feel judged they will tell you so much more.
- Another exercise is to ask groups to make a list of mokita’s (a truth no one speaks) that are relevant for the organisation. Get back into a larger group and share the results.
In addition, preparatory steps can be under taken by the organization before implementing Fishbowl, e.g. establish a Trust Index (so one knows the magnitude of the trust/speaking the truth problem). Also Trust and Speaking with Truth and Candor should be embedded as a key organizational value & be communicated throughout the organisation.
Create a ‘Burning Platform’ for speaking the truth, ie, make it an imperative. e.g. Utilise organizational stories where ‘not speaking the truth’ has resulted in negative or inverse consequences.
From a MIX research perspective, the Fishbowl concept has implications far greater than the effect truth telling has on building trust, increasing productivity and business success. In a post GFC environment, the whole question of ‘what makes an effective leader’ springs back into the foreground. Clearly the current management principles are far from perfect. Research into:
- what leadership type (transactional vs transformational), or
- whether the underlying motivations of leaders (purely profit vs greater social responsibility)
has an effect on management being more receptive to truth telling using techniques such as the fish bowl, would be beneficial in order to better understand the characteristics of leaders that can drive successful truth based and trusted organizations into the future.
To my mentor, David Oldfield