You Can't Handle The Truth!
You may remember the title as a quote from the movie, A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s character, after being challenged for the truth by a defense attorney played by Tom Cruise, shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!” There may be little, perhaps nothing, on the earth more precious than the truth. Unfortunately, the more we achieve in terms of title and position, the less we seem to get it. As one of my retired Army friends likes to say, the first thing often sacrificed with a promotion to general officer is the truth. What a shame, because it's a commodity in short supply for many leaders and yet, it's the one thing that could potentially make the most difference for themselves and for their organizations.
I was recently with a senior leadership staff when their CEO challenged them to be more truthful with him and take the risk of giving him critical feedback. His appeal was heartfelt, and I’d hoped it would inspire his teammates to step up and provide what could be invaluable insights. When I met individually with the most senior among these over the next few days, I asked them what they thought of their CEO’s appeal for the truth. With the exception of one, they all said without hesitation that there was no way they'd take that risk. What a tragedy! Basically their message to me was that their CEO couldn’t handle the truth.
So, what are some behaviors that are likely to keep us blind to the truth? I’d like to suggest a few I've seen over the years:
1. Not asking for it frequently:
Make asking for critical feedback a habit. When leaders ask for critical feedback regularly, they're modeling a behavior for their team that they expect them to practice as well. We’re not likely to get it if we don’t ask for it, so start asking.
2. Dismissing it outright:
The best way to avoid receiving feedback is to dismiss it. Too often I've seen leaders “shoot the messenger” by either dismissing the feedback outright or critiquing the way in which it was given.
3. Say “Thanks!”
And say it enthusiastically! Even if at first blush you see all kinds of holes in their thoughts, don’t mention them at first. There’s probably more truth in what they're saying than you realize. Just say “Thanks!” Go away and think about their feedback and then go back to them and thank them again. It’s a gift. Don’t reject it.
As one friend of mine likes to say, if you find someone on your team who'll really tell you the truth; pay them more! I’ll take it further than that. I believe that truly great leaders build a culture of truth telling. It’s not likely to happen though unless you’re one of the few good men and women who can handle the truth!