Dear Boss,

If you’re facing a big decision, what you most need now is the truth.  Without the truth, you could easily foul that decision up.

Here’s the bad news: No one tells you the truth.

This may come as a surprise. You think you’re approachable, fair, and level-headed.  Trust me, you’re not… at least not in the minds of your people.

They remember that day a few months ago when you were a mini-Mount Vesuvius and erupted all over them.  They remember the time you heard something you didn’t like and they felt the arctic breeze blow across the conference table, over their shoulder, and down their back toward the place where the sun never shines.

You call yourself intense. They call you volatile. You say you like working with smart people. They say you hang with your cronies. You say you demand excellence. They say you’re a perfectionist.  You say you have an open door.  They say you stuff your ears with cotton.

So when you most need the straight truth, you’re left with something more obtuse.  People are playing each other like backboards, bouncing messages off each other or a subordinate or a consultant and hoping to get the ball to drop through your net.

Each time they open their mouths, they’re thinking about consequences. Rather than articulate, they calculate. Some go silent. Worse yet, others have learned what you want to hear and they’re happy to feed it to you even if it isn’t really true: “You’re right. Alex is a screw-up. And everyone else sees it too.”

Maybe most frightening, those who are most likely to give you a straight shot have stopped short of 100% candor.  They leave out the crucial 11%, quietly hoping you’ll fill in the blanks and covering their bets by not showing their whole hand.  Why risk retaliation when they’re not sure you’re going to go for it anyway?

How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision

Before you shrug your shoulders and move on, think about the consequences for a minute:

  • Do you ever feel like you’re the one who is pulling hardest on your team? Do you ever get frustrated with the team for not owning the goals that you’ve set? Maybe at this point, they’re in the first stages of resignation.
  • Unless you’re a genius and can make your company’s dreams come true single-handedly, you’re going to need to attract and engage a team of highly talented people to turn the dream into a reality.  You can only play the “it didn’t work out with Mark because he wasn’t a good fit” card so many times. Then, smart people will start to realize that maybe it’s you. Good luck recruiting them then.

You’re probably surprised about this. You might be tempted to forward this note to your own boss or to a colleague.  Before you do, think for a second:

  • Am I getting the whole truth from those around me?
  • If not, how am I encouraging people to hold back?
  • What can I do to increase the level of candor?

Since you have the courage to ask those questions, you probably want to take action.

Here are a few ideas on how to get the truth when facing a big decision:

  • Choose a straight-talking person on your team and take her out for coffee. Ask her an open-ended question like, “What fact is obvious to everyone else but most people would think I miss?”
  • If you’re feeling really courageous, ask her, “What am I doing – or not doing – that has made people hesitant to tell me that truth?” Or, “What’s it been like to be on the receiving end of my leadership these past few months?”
  • It will be tempting to justify, explain, and defend. Don’t. Take notes. Ask curious follow-up questions like, “Tell me more.” Or, “What did you see that made you react that way?”
  • Thank your team member for her honesty.
  • Pay for the coffee.
  • Do something immediately to apply one thing you learned from the conversation. If you want people to keep telling you the truth, please don’t skip this step. If appropriate, publicize your effort to the team member who prompted the insight as a way of saying thanks.
  • Repeat.

Yes, this is vulnerable. It takes time. It takes humility, that most winsome leadership trait. But do it long enough, and the spigot of truth will flow freely. You and your team will make better decisions as a result. You’ll increase the chances that your team will achieve its goals and make an impact in the world. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Be Bright.