‘You Can’t Handle the Truth!’

Or, can you?

The headline is arguably the most memorable line in the 1992 movie, A Few Good Men.

The line by Jack Nicholson’s character echoes what we’ve found is a common blind spot among today’s leaders: An openness to hearing the truth.

It’s clear that truth telling is not a core competency for today’s organizations, based on our research and studies like the Edelman Trust Barometer. Many leaders believe that to be effective and successful, they need to be smarter than the next person, fight for their area of the business, and not show vulnerability.


The costs of not having a culture where it is safe to tell the truth are significant:

  • Information does not reach the boss because no one wants to pass on the bad news.
  • Departments do not share information because it might put them in a bad light with peers.
  • The hassle and perceived consequences of telling the truth are not worth the cost for employees.

On a daily basis, friction like this kills speed, collaboration, and quality decision making.

Of course, truth is not absolute. What people see, perceive, or feel can be completely off-base or accurately spot-on.

Regardless, you want those facts, perceptions, or feelings to be openly processed within an organization. If people feel like the truth gets scrutinized the way your electronics are at airport security, you have an issue.

Leaders who wish to engage with the truth require vulnerability, as not all truths are reinforcing, comforting, or good news. The willingness to engage with the truth is, in and of itself, a sign of being a strong and bold leader.

Finding the Truth

If you want to jumpstart a truth-telling environment, consider the following 45-minute activity with your team. We call it “Walls of Greatness and Reality.”

Follow the steps below to complete the activity:
  1. Give each team member three or four large Post-it Notes. Ask each member to write down one item per note that is great about the team and how it has worked together and executed in the past 12 months.
  2. Have the team members place each of these on an open wall space and start to “affinity-group” them (that is, line up the various notes that fit under the same theme). You should end up with numerous vertical rows of key themes.
  3. Have team members alternate reading all the notes aloud and provide any commentary they see fit. At the end, ask the group for the story that describes what the team is great at. Capture the “Wall of Greatness” story on a flipchart.
  4. Repeat the activity by giving everyone another three or four large Post-it Notes and ask each person to write down where the team has the greatest opportunities or disconnects.
  5. Place these notes on a different space on the wall. Repeat the activity of affinity-grouping the notes and reading the vertical columns aloud with the team standing in front of the wall.
  6. Ask the team members to put a check mark by the three issues they each believe are most relevant and represent the greatest opportunity for the team.
  7. Identify the two or three key themes that emerge from the group.
  8. Ask the following questions:
    a. Why do you think these realities exist?
    b. How have we helped create these realities?
    c. How have we personally benefited from these realities?
    d. What can we do to make sure our Wall of Reality looks different six months from now?

Note that questions b and c require vulnerability, and it can be very powerful if the leader goes first. Either way, this activity will give you quick insight into how comfortable your team is in talking about difficult issues.

Truth is Critical

Truth is a critical blind spot that can create an environment of poor decision making, mixed with a significant lack of trust and disengagement in your organization. Finding the truth in any organization requires an authentic commitment by leaders to create a culture where people feel safe to tell you what they really think and feel.

If you don’t make the effort to allow truth, the true problems of your organization and the best ideas of your employees will remain buried in their hearts and minds.

If you let your employees speak candidly, you will have an organization that soars.

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