There I was, nervously waiting to deliver a presentation to a group of more than 20 influential CEOs. It was a presentation I had invested more than 80 hours in developing, revising, and rehearsing over the previous month. It was a Big Deal, and I wanted to nail it.
As I was being introduced to the audience, nervous but confident, I rose from my seat and made my way to the front of the room. I was slowly approaching the podium, when a colleague gently pulled me aside and whispered in my ear: “Your fly is open.”
I turned my back to the audience to quickly address my wardrobe malfunction, thinking to myself, “Man, my fly must have been down for the better part of the day. I can’t believe that no one would tell me until now!”
I don’t remember much about the presentation itself, but the thing that’s always stuck with me is that one person was caring and confident enough to tell me the truth: Will, your fly is down. Think about your friends, or those people you work with. How many of them do you think would be willing to tell you that your fly is down, or that you have something stuck in your teeth, or a stain on your shirt? In my experience, those people are few and far between.
That episode recently played back in my mind as I sat in a meeting with many top brass from one of my long-time business partners. The meeting had been scheduled a month in advance to discuss the future funding and support of a joint initiative that we had been working on for more than 4 years. The purpose of the meeting was to get answers from our partners to two simple questions:
- Is your organization in a position to fund and support this initiative moving forward?
- As the CEO and senior leaders of the organization, are you personally committed to owning and driving this initiative throughout your organization?
After nearly two hours of talking in circles, delicately spinning around those questions, I finally had had enough. I turned to the CEO and politely asked those questions again, imploring him to respond with direct, truthful answers. In addition, I told him that I recognized the difficulties of truthfully responding, while also assuring him that whatever the truth was, we would be ok. There would be no hard feelings, and we would find a productive way to move forward. But we needed the truth!
If we’re not operating on a foundation of truth and a recognition of reality, then we’re just playing a make-believe game that no one will ever win. I gave him permission to tell the truth, and reassured him that it would not affect or alter our personal relationship negatively, or the way I viewed him as a person or leader.
Fortunately, we finally got the honest answers we were looking for. After we concluded the meeting, though, I got to thinking. Why did it take 4 years and a 2-hour meeting to finally get the unfiltered truth? And I’ve often wondered the same thing about other business relationships. Why do people and organizations fear the truth and fail to recognize and address reality? After much thought, I identified several root causes for peoples’ unwillingness to tell the truth.
- Telling the truth feels like giving up control. In most situations, people, especially those in leadership positions, will try to control a situation and exert their influence to shape the narrative. In many cases, the truth gets in the way of the narrative they’re trying to spin.
- They value your partnership and don’t want to disappoint you. On its face, that rationale doesn’t really add up. Why would someone who values you not be truthful with you? But if you dig a little deeper, it starts to make sense. People who like you are often worried about losing your respect. They want you have confidence in them and their abilities, and, above all, they want you to like them. They aren’t forthcoming with the truth because they’re worried that it may lead you to end the relationship and think less of them.
- When pressed on questions aimed at getting to the bottom of a situation, people will often resort to responses that reflect their desire to find a way to make the situation work, as opposed to addressing the reality of the situation.
- They desperately want something to be true. Someone may want something to be true so bad that they’ll lie over and over again, hoping that it will somehow, miraculously, change the outcome in their favor.
- The perceived negative impact of truth on business success. To be successful in business, something has to be sold. All too often, selling is done without full disclosure of what it will take to fulfill the sale. For example, a CEO may sing the praises of a new service, without mentioning the challenges that the company’s employees, partners, suppliers, and customers will experience in the process. Too many times, people and organizations do not reveal the truth behind the curtain, out of fear that it may undermine their credibility and possibly torpedo a deal or partnership. Instead, they withhold that information, hoping they’ll be able to figure out how to deliver on their promises down the road.
Now it’s easy for me to sit here and judge others, while insisting that everyone tell me the absolute truth at all times. But you know what? That’s a losing battle that I’m not going to fight. People just don’t work that way. Neither do organizations. That’s reality. But what I am willing to do is to try my best to help the people and organizations that I work with learn to be more honest. One way I’ve been able to do this is by expressing empathy for the pressures and difficulties they’re facing, and giving them permission to tell me the truth, with no strings attached. And when the truth is told, I recognize and reinforce it, and respond in a personable, polite, and professional way. This approach lets my partners know that the truth isn’t as scary as they’ve made it out to be, that I don’t think any less of them, and that the world doesn’t come to an end when the truth is revealed, and reality is recognized for what it is. The foundation of every strong relationship is the ability to communicate truthfully.