You see the flashing lights of the police cruiser behind you. A hulking, uniformed figure fills your side mirror, as you begin nervously rolling down your window. “License and registration, please,” he demands. You innocently reply, “Is something wrong, officer?” He gravely informs you that you ran a stop sign a few blocks back. “Oh, I’m sorry, officer,” you say. “I didn’t see it.” In truth, you just hadn’t seen him. . . .

You’re one of 220-million Americans listening to the evening news as the President insists that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman. . . .”

Lying, whether through the deliberate fabrication of untruths or through subtle—though no less deliberate—misdirection or concealment of relevant information, is a common tactic for gaining praise or advantage, protecting an interest, or avoiding some unpleasant consequence. As a society, Americans have always professed a great respect for the truth; however, our private and public actions often belie this claim.

Erline Belton, a Boston-based organizational consultant and principal of the Belton-Lyceum Group, has created a curriculum making truth-telling the centerpiece of her international practice. “As children, we are born being able to tell the truth,” she contends. “But we get early messages that little untruths are acceptable—that they don’t really matter if they make people feel okay or get you what you want.”

Belton points out that the practice of innocent (and not-so-innocent) deceits begun in childhood can become a corrosive force when adults enter the world of work and engage in broader social interaction. “Deception is a real issue in organizations—people are often afraid to tell the truth to other people they work with,” she observes. Beyond the obvious impact of deception on the quality of organizational decisions, she explains, “[a]n additional consequence of deception is that essential relationships with co-workers are founded on fallacies.”

Relating the story of a nonprofit board of directors confronting the disruptive behavior of a member (and organization benefactor), Belton outlines a truth-telling intervention that created conditions for a breakthrough moment during a board development session. Beginning with a review of her “seven principles of truth-telling,” the board examined the negative impact of these truth-evading tactics on individual relationships and, ultimately, organizational effectiveness. (See box.) This discussion enabled the group to take up the longstanding problem of the board member’s relentless (sometimes manipulative) pursuit of her own agenda and the impact of this behavior on overall quality of board relationships and decisions. Through careful attention to maintaining an open and supportive climate, the board member was able to hear, accept, and then act on this constructive feedback from her peers. Moreover, the discussion enabled the board to finally explore and “own” its active complicity in perpetuating the situation.

Implicit in adopting the practice of telling the truth is the goal of fundamental realignment of organization-wide norms and culture whereby honest reflection becomes an essential virtue and feedback an invaluable gift. “Organization members have to begin to take this journey as a team, where they look at themselves—and they can talk about themselves—because they have a process that supports them in doing self-examination,” Belton maintains.

Judy Freiwirth, who incorporates Belton’s framework in her own consulting practice, agrees with the emphasis on a structured process for truth-telling and cautions that the assistance of a third-party consultant is essential to establishing the appropriate structure and ground rules. Moreover, the strategy will not succeed without a clear demonstration of commitment from leadership that truth is, indeed, valued by the organization—and that telling the truth will not result in negative repercussions.
Freiwirth considers truth-telling “a core competency” for organizational leadership and notes that the strategy is most useful when an organization is going through a period of fundamental change. “Truth-telling can make significant contributions toward a broader strategy for organizational change and renewal by helping an organization to clean up old baggage, clarify expectations, and establish new standards for collaboration and strategic alliances,” she suggests.

As board president and with the assistance of consultants, Claudia Smith-Reid led the board of Roxbury (Massachusetts) Multi-Service Center (RMSC) on a truth-telling journey a few years ago when the organization “was struggling to restore its sense of purpose and identity after a prolonged period of disruptive changes in staff, funding sources, and services.” She recalls the erosion of trust and morale on the board and between the board and agency staff as a particularly painful and frustrating experience. “Truth-telling became part of a broader strategy of renewing our commitments to each other, the organization, and the community we claimed to serve.”

The intervention unfolded at multiple levels in the organization and within the broader community. “We spoke candidly about RMSC’s mission and continued relevance to the community with our neighbors, local leaders and funders,” Smith-Reid said.
“For most members of the board and staff, the process of meaningful and respectful dialogue was a welcomed change. On the other hand, peer pressure for truth-telling and accountability proved too intense and threatening for some,” she admitted.
Smith-Reid is convinced that the main value of the strategy is in building trusting relationships supportive of growth and change, adding, “truth-telling takes trust to triumph.” Stressing the on-going character of the change process, she maintains “keeping the cards on the table is critical; you can’t just tell the truth and leave it at that, you have to agree to address whatever the truth reveals.”

Summing up the successful experience at RMSC, Smith-Reid now believes that “we found a kind of kinship in telling the truth, we found the strength to act on that truth, and we rediscovered our reason to exist.”
“Organizations can become high-performing groups,” Belton declares passionately. “They can have relationships based on honoring and respecting one another, and, in the process, unleash vast reserves of untapped human potential using truth-telling as a basic value and guiding principle.”

The Belton-Lyceum Group describes its mission as influencing “societal and workplace re-thinking which honors principles based on creating living legacies using the value of truth-telling.” The Boston-base consulting firm may be reached by calling 617-442-8033, or by e-mailing Ms. Belton at [email protected]

Ty dePass is the Nonprofit Quarterly’s associate editor.