Sunday, March 30, 2008

Handling the Truth

"You can't handle the truth," one of the greatest lines ever uttered on screen, is an unspoken thought behind many corporate communications. It completes the sentence for many a (here's another great line) failure to communicate. Some examples:

"We didn't tell you about the misconduct of the senior vice president because ...."
"The focus group didn't raise its concerns about the price because ...."

"Your first-line supervisors will not tell you about their fears because ...."

Being able to handle the truth, and being perceived as able to do so, are essentials if you are going to be a capable receiver of information. Much emphasis is placed on the communicator's responsibility to clarify but that will be self-restricted if the receiver is thought to be incapable of processing or carrying the burden of the information. Communicators often give as much truth as they think the receiver is able to handle. There may be concern that feelings will be hurt or relationships will be permanently damaged. (Consultants are told things that are not shared with co-workers because the communicators know the consultant will eventually be leaving and won't be shooting death-rays from across the breakroom three months from now.)

Signaling an ability to handle the truth has to be a consistent message. One lapse can discourage candor for months. I've met some executives who probably haven't heard an unvarnished opinion in decades. People won't believe your somber assurances that candor is desired if they see that frank colleagues are exiled, shunned, or fired.

Pose this question in your next moment of introspection: Can I handle the truth and do others know that?

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