“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

Insist on itThe Godfather.  Goodfellows.  A Few Best Men.  Cinematic history is ripe with examples of fear-mongering leaders, demanding blind obedience with no hint of dissent.

“You can’t handle the truth!” Colonel Jessep screamed.

In actuality, it’s usually the other way around.  Too many leaders nurture an environment in which they clearly don’t want the truth themselves, and certainly not from their followers.

Okay, perhaps that’s overstating it a little.  Leader’s may want the truth, but their actions and behavior often discourage critical feedback.  So begins the slide into organizational oblivion….

Anyone remember the “smartest one in the room” article?  Why is it so hard to demand the truth from those around you?

Well, the truth is that too often when challenges or failures stem from previous decisions, leaders feel vulnerable, insecure, and uncertain.  Just like the rest of us, these emotions produce a chemical reaction deep within the brain (in the amygdala, for you neuroscience geeks).  A fight or flight response naturally occurs, which often is exhibited in less than helpful reactions to those around us.  So, the chemical pathways subvert rational action, and leaders react negatively to the “messenger.”  Followers then also experience a chemical reaction, called conditioned reasoning.  In other words, they quickly connect the experience of providing bad news to a negative reaction from the boss.

The crux of the matter is this….we’re all insecure in certain aspects of our life, professionally and personally.  While we work hard to overcome our perceived weaknesses, we also endeavor to minimize the discomfort associated with attempts and failure.  Most of us are fairly conflict averse naturally, so our inclination is to avoid interactions with the potential for discord.

Here’s how leaders can help themselves:

  1. Realize you’re not perfect and don’t need to be the smartest in the room.  Being a good leader is more about building and developing the best, brightest, and most talented team possible.  Even as the leader, you’re just one cog in the team’s wheel.
  2. Actively seek out dissension in your team.  Encourage alternative perspectives.  Ask “Devil’s Advocate” questions to draw out dissent from your team members.
  3. Withhold your own beliefs, preferences, or opinions about issues until everyone has voiced their own.  If your followers don’t know where you stand on an issue, they are more likely to provide constructive ideas and thoughts on their own.
  4. Reward those who “sell” alternative thoughts and reactions, as long as they are provided in a respectful and appropriate manner (not to you, but to the entire team).

The reality is that strong leaders must be able to handle the truth.  But truth goes both ways.  Leaders must encourage transparency and diversity of thought, and followers must insist on providing it.  Neither is naturally comfortable for many people, but without the ability to give and receive “negative” news, we’re all just precipitating the rapid decline of our organizations.

Give it a shot…..

One thought on ““You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

  1. Trevor, great points. I will practice holding my own thoughts until I have heard the others to see if it works better than my sharing first thinking it is opening the door for them to express their thoughts. Thank you for the enlightening post.

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