Telling the Truth in Modern Organizational Culture
By Mark Meckler, Ph.D., February 10, 2015
Human beings have a long history of only telling truths and partial truths that are convenient or self-serving. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson declared: “All men are created equal”. Did he truthfully mean all men, or just all white men? If he were being completely truthful in 1776, wouldn’t he have said something like “All men are created equal (except black men, Native Americans, women, and most other people different than me)”? Slavery, native’s rights, and women’s rights were difficult discussions back then – and civil rights, gender equity, and many other discussions remain difficult today. So why it is so hard to be truthful? And why is it a problem?
One of the most difficult things to do at work (or almost anywhere for that matter) is telling the truth. It seems so simple. Don’t we tell the truth almost all the time? No, we don’t. Here I make a short case to the members of our learning community -- to those who want to become better leaders, to those who want to make better decisions, and to instill better cultures in their craft businesses: Learn to tell the truth! I have an ironic saying that I’ve been living by for a number of years at my University and that I preach to my graduate leadership students: If you start telling the truth at your job, after a while, you will start to get away with it. Here are three simple CRAFTINGASTRATEGY.COM rules for a good leader and an impactful decision maker:
Rule #1: Don’t “b.s.” or lie to yourself
Rule #2: Strive to absolutely minimize how much you "b.s." or lie to others
Rule #3: Be authentic
These rules are difficult to follow, not only at first, but continue to be difficult over time. Strong cultural norms, institutionalized routines and personal habits are pushing against them. There are values pushing back as well, like politeness, comfort, empathy, pride and so forth. Because the world is imperfect, and so are people, some truths are not very pretty and others are downright ugly. Truth telling can certainly lead to very difficult conversations, and can bring uncomfortable decisions that we might like to avoid front and center. Nevertheless, good leaders communicate the bad news just as honestly and transparently as they communicate the good news. This applies both to communicating with ourselves (reflection) and to communicating with others. It may help to think of truth-telling as part of basic respect for the intelligence, lives and plans of yourself and of others. Not lying to yourself or to others means not subordinating honesty or truthfulness to any of your other “more important” values. To bring about this change, leaders, managers and decision makers should consciously try to make honesty and truthfulness more important than almost anything else; more important than money, power, being right, being liked, pride, status, friendliness, winning, and so forth when you are engaging in any role, circumstance or transaction that presupposes the truth is being told. My opinion is that it should not be more important that love, or respect. An if you love and respect others, it allows truthfulness to be a heck of a lot easier. Authenticity means not picking and choosing or admitting only things that are politically correct, and hiding or holding back truths that are not. This is especially critical within your team and your organization, and the great leaders do it in all phases of their lives. Lying and in-authenticity gets us frustratingly nowhere because the organizational solutions and processes that get built are then likewise inaccurate and incomplete. Habitual, even occasional lying results in organizational routines and solutions that are not in sync with the facts, and therefore do not work well or hold up to the test of time.
In the craft brewing business, this lesson is incredibly important. The craft beer industry was built on honesty and the battle cry of “authenticity.” Honest ingredients, more flavor, doing things the right way, high standards, being different because of our values and always acting in accordance with our values; all of these core beliefs have united small and independent breweries in the pursuit of happiness and civic health. Why then, would a new entrant into craft beer slam the very products they create?
It is widely known that Elysian co-founder; Dick Cantwell opposed the sale to AB/In-Bev. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, Cantwell was furious when, during the Super Bowl, his new bosses aired a commercial slamming pumpkin peach ale, despite Elysian brewing Gourdgia on my Mind only a few months prior. Do you think the AB/In-Bev team working on the deal was completely truthful with Cantwell and his Elysian cofounders at the time of the purchase? Or, were they telling only some truths, the admirable ones, the palatable ones, about improving distribution, and growing Elysian into a national brand, and how they, personally love craft beer and believe in the movement? Were there lies (holding back other known truths) about the real level of support and belief in the company for craft beer? This is what needs to be discovered so that the companies and management teams can work together effectively moving forward. Perhaps the new AB/In-Bev craft division or department, and their negotiating team is just a small outlier in this giant company that truly does have different beliefs and values than the rest of AB/In-Bev; values and hopes that honestly are in line with the craft beer movement, and with Elysian's. Perhaps they did disclose this to Elysian's board, and perhaps they told the board it would be a battle to sway to rest of the corporate giant to their way of thinking, but that they believe it can and will be done. Perhaps. Perhaps not. On the other hand, perhaps the folks at Elysian knew very well what they were getting into, but the majority of votes really really wanted to make a bunch of money.
Truthfulness as Your Culture’s Key Coordinating Mechanism
“Coordinating mechanism” is a fancy terminology for any means that we use to coordinate parts and pieces of our business. Culture is one of the primary coordinating mechanisms in any firm and the CAS members reading this can learn how this works in our white paper: Using Culture as a Coordinating Mechanism .
Good organizational cultures rely upon truth telling and bad ones often rely upon telling less truth. Within every culture, subculture, and social situation, there are rules and norms for how one should tell the truth, how much of the truth to tell, and when to bend the truth. Telling the truth and being able to tell the truth is one of the most important leadership capabilities.
Let’s make believe for a moment that everybody in the organization tells the truth all the time. Kind of like computers would do. Then, when somebody told their colleagues or their subordinates or their superiors “X,” the others would know that “X” was in fact the case. This would make decision making much easier, and fewer mistakes would be made. Unfortunately there are strong socio-cultural norms and limitations learned outside of your craft business that dictate how frequently and directly people and groups of people can tell the truth. It’s a real problem.
Start with yourself
"If one of the reasons you get into business is to make money, say so, own it. Also own the other great reasons you get into an industry as well."
As a leader, and a person who wants to be proactive about growing a healthy organizational culture – break these norms! Start with yourself, always tell the truth, make a habit of it, and then spread this habit to others. Make truth telling at your workplace and with your industry partners, suppliers, customers and alliances a norm. Make truth telling a “hub” in the culture of your craft distillery and brewery. (Cultural hubs are the prime things people habitually access and think “through” when deciding, acting or making sense of things.)
If truth telling were easy, then every company culture would thrive, but we often cannot trust even ourselves. That is, people frequently do not tell the truth, or at least the whole truth, to themselves. It is hard work learning to tell the truth to yourself. It is hard to be honest with yourself. What are your true motivations, your actual desires? What are your good and bad habits, your fears and your joys? What are your dreams and what is your vision?
For example, one of your deep goals and desires may be that you want to make a bunch of money (Probably not exclusively, but more likely along with your other goals and desires, most of them more “pc” -- politically correct). However, in the craft beer culture we live in, being in the business to make money can be seen as petty or inauthentic. The public judgment will likely be, if you are in this to make money, you are not in line with the values of the membership of this industry’s culture. Even if you try to fake your values and suggest money doesn’t really matter, if you really do want to make money, your actions and decisions will reflect this – even subconsciously! Your employees, suppliers, buyers, and consumers will notice over time that your decisions, at least partly, center on money. Sometimes decisions will undermine achievement of your other goals.
If one of the reasons you get into business is to make money, say so, own it. Also own the other great reasons you get into an industry as well. If someone told me at the Craft Brewer’s Conference, “I opened a craft brewery to make great beer, feel proud and fulfilled by my work, help the community by paying taxes, providing decent jobs and cleaning up the south end of Willow Street, and hopefully to make a bunch of money doing it.” That would sound pretty darn ok to almost everyone.
If the owners of 10 Barrel Brewing, accused of “selling out” had said something like, “We are so psyched we just all made a lot of money selling the business to AB/InBev. We did it by crafting great beer and sticking to it, and by working really hard, and doing right by our community. We dreamed it, but never thought it could really come true. Now let’s see if we can keep the standard just as high after the sale as before. God bless America! And God bless craft beer!” If they had said that, most of us would have had a more positive reaction, and many may have even identified with them.
Espoused truth versus operant truth and aspirant truth
The truth of the matter may be purposely or not purposely buried, and replaced with what we say or claim as the truth. What we claim as the truth is called the espoused truth. Aspirant truth is what we wish were true. Often the espoused truth does not really match the operant truth (like a lie or like bullshit , two different things). We do it all the time (Frankfurt & Wilson, 2005). We don’t advertise or communicate the real truth because it is uncomfortable, or irrational or unethical, or unlawful, of confusing, or embarrassing, or we are just messing with someone. Often, what we wish were true does not match with operant truth. What we advise you always seek, in science and in your business, is the “operant truth.” This is what actually, really causes things to happen, that actually causes behavior. There’s an old saying, I believe it is originally Korean that was translated to me as something like this:
“There is what you say is true, then there’s what is really true ----- and then there’s what is really, Really true.”
This saying means that we often hide or obscure, ignore or remain ignorant to actual truths, (what is really, Really true). In order to move forward, work toward authenticity. That is getting operant truths (the unpolished way that things are) to match both our aspired truths (what we wish or hope were true) and the espoused truths (what we say is true, both to ourselves and to others.
Some truths are ugly: biases and discrimination at work
Now back to the Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence example we began with. In the USA (like in so many other places) there is a long history of discrimination by color of skin, by nation of origin, by ethnicity, by religion, by age, by gender and by mental and physical handicap. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and subsequent supplementary laws made discrimination in the workplace and in public places based upon these factors unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately, skin color discrimination and ethnic culture discrimination remain quite significant in the USA, and have recently been blamed for a host of problems. During serious and very public debate of the matter in back in 2014, an intelligent Op-Ed column by Nicolas Kristof was published in the New York Times on the topic of social discrimination. The point this expert author was trying to make is that almost all of us have ethnic and gender prejudices that operate outside of our consciousness. The author correctly insists that many prejudices, some rational and some irrational, are built into our habitual “fast” thinking and judgments’. He cites the great “ Thinking Fast and Slow ” work of Daniel Kahneman (2011) and other studies in demonstrating this. I agree that he is correct, and that the claims are true that we all have cognitive habits that operate perhaps without direct intention.
What is really, Really true is something far worse, that nobody really wants to hear or admit, but that many know deep down is the truth. There is operant negative bias toward black African American's and African American subculture by members of pretty much all of the other sub-cultural groups, and perhaps at the national institutional level as well. Not everyone in every group, but enough to make it a reality, a truth. What is really Really true is that for most of us, our prejudices are not merely unconscious biases as described in Kristof's article; these prejudices are conscious as well. We mostly keep them buried and hidden, because they are not aspired and we may be ashamed of them, but they are not unconscious - we know they are there. We may tell ourselves that we are not prejudiced, then admit that what is really true is that we are prejudiced, but it is unintentional, unconscious and unfortunately habitual. When we find that there is a good amount of truth to that, we leave it as a good enough (and safe if slightly uncomfortable) finding. We know, though, if we dare to reflect and admit it that we don’t want to live in “ethnic” neighborhoods, or have too many ethnics move into ours. We believe that members of certain other cultures are more often than not dangerous and likely to be thieves. We think members of the other gender are inferior or are superior. The real forceful beliefs and attached emotions are not unconscious, they are just not presentable, not socially acceptable, and we keep them locked away, unspoken except when they leak out by accident. Many of our strongest beliefs, assumptions and expectations are anchored deep down in the secret places in of our minds, in our “reptilian brains”, safely locked away. The lesson is to be authentic, fully, especially to oneself, in order to find good solutions, to gain real followers, and to organize in ways that actually achieve goals and missions – rather than endlessly groping toward them. The slowing of progress on demographic discrimination is a powerful example of that.
The Truth Leads to Proper Solutions
"The lesson is to be authentic, fully, especially to oneself, in order to find good solutions, to gain real followers, and to organize in ways that actually achieve goals and missions – rather than endlessly groping toward them. The slowing of progress on demographic discrimination is a powerful example of that."
Missing or ignoring what is really, Really true limits our ability to correct our behavior and to make good decisions. Acting upon and moving forward based upon what is “really true” is often a way of hiding from or denying what is really, Really true. Leaders do not deceive themselves, and help others get past the first level of convenient, but incomplete truth, and get down to the actual truth. Real truth tellers in any culture or organization are invaluable, though often considered uncomfortable pains in the neck. They are the wise ones, who see through the clouds, past the convenient excuse is, to the true heart of the matter. This allows them to select proper solutions. It sometimes seems like magic, her genius, but is simply clarity. They have removed the cognitive biases and see the world through the painter’s eye.
What I mean by the painter’s eye is the ability to see what is really there, and not what our brain or our heart wishes or wants to be there. Anyone who can really draw or paint in the realist fashion likely has at least some feeling for this. Where everyone else may see a perfect red brick wall, the artist sees the wall has it really is: partly red, partly grey, partly tan, pockmarked, with deep dark shadows, cracks, stains and streaks of golden sunlight. We must attend to those with “the painter’s eye” for they see and communicate the world as it truly is.
“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” – Benjamin Franklin
So let’s go back now to where this paper began, back to the commercial from Anheuser Busch that slammed craft beer. What's really true is that the culture of Anheuser Busch is different than the culture of most small craft breweries. They are a publicly traded company with ambition to be profitable in everything they do. What's really true is that by buying up Elysian and 10-Barrel brewing, they are sending a signal to the craft beer community that flavor matters and we want to own the best brands in the fastest growing segment of the overall domestic beer industry because we owe it to our shareholders to always protect and promote their interests. And what is really, Really true is probably that deep down they are more than a little bit scared of the movement, perhaps because it is out of their control, and because people with high paying corporate jobs could start losing them. Deep down, there is likely reptilian brain anger and emotion, translating to something like: who are these these tiny craft brewer nobodies who do dare to challenge and criticize us? The CEO may even have deep aggressive fantasies and dreams like "We will crush these fools."
They will act; all the powerful and entrenched breweries will, and the more cornered and defensive they feel, the more aggressive the push back will be. What will craft consumers do when AB drops the prices of these beers and a great tasting beer costs half what it used to. Will we be completely truthful to ourselves when great beer is also very cheap? A common deep down belief would be: “I don’t give a hoot what it tastes like, I hate it, it’s bad and I don’t want it near me.” This sounds oddly similar to the ethnic bias problem and ensuing ignorant solutions from our past. Furthermore, even after admitting to that fundamental bias, seeing only what we hope to see, what we wish were the truth rather than what is, would be folly. Will we continue to produce the right responses and solutions? Or let hopes and wishes rule our decision?
So I ask again what I asked at the opening: As the clear beer corporations incrementally improve and start to introduce beers that are actually good and well-crafted, what will we do? What will we say? Will we tell the truths to ourselves and form strategies accordingly?
Frankfurt, H. G., & Wilson, G. (2005). On bullshit Cambridge Univ Press.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow Macmillan.