No Truth, Lots of Consequences: Take action to prevent lying in the workplace


Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series about workplace communication in "Keys to Unlocking Successful Workplace Communication."

Let’s face it. Telling the truth isn’t always easy.

Lance Armstrong demonstrated that pretty well. He had us believing for years.

Lying on the job isn’t reserved for athletes or, for that matter, politicians. It also claims lots of airtime in the workplace. In fact, lying on the job is pretty common these days.

Participants of our Lying in the Workplace poll reported an increase in the prevalence of lying over the past five years. Fear (in various forms) was cited as the biggest trigger of workplace lies. Among the greatest fear factors that led to lying were fear of reprisal and fear of job loss.

No company, regardless of size, can afford the consequences of lying in the workplace. It is possible to create a workplace where truth can reign. More than 65 percent of Lying in the Workplace respondents said the catalyst for trust is effective communication between managers and associates.

Here are six ways to help managers create a truthful work environment through open communication and transparency:

1. Don’t do for managers what they must do themselves. Simply put, don’t give managers a reprieve from communicating. Corporate communication and human resources play vital roles in an organization’s information exchange practices, without question. But they are not playing the leading roles. That top billing must go to business managers, at all levels. They need to own the responsibility of communicating, regularly, with team members on the front lines. If the leaders at your organization don’t believe that communication is their No. 1 job, provide them with data from external and internal resources that proves otherwise. The research is abundant. Work to change managers’ mind-sets and the design of internal communication strategies so that managers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the exchange of information in the workplace.

2. When you hit bad times, talk about it. No company or organization has 100 percent good news 100 percent of the time. Even the best-performing firms face losses, such as the loss of talent, a contract or a customer. Make it safe to communicate bad news. That starts with the key messages crafted by communicators. Don’t diffuse reality with complicated buzzwords or doublespeak that confuse and fluster. Employees quickly see through fluff and filters, and are readily offended by the notion that they can’t handle the real deal. Get into the groove of discussing successes and setbacks—from executive-level town halls to supervisor-led team huddles.

My firm introduced a simple communication tool for unlocking this balance in an organization where red-zone topics went unspoken. A two-column template marked “what’s going well” and “what’s not going well” became a standard guide for planning and presenting timely business information. While people weren't instantly comfortable talking about tough topics, the repeated use of a tool that made bad news both expected and acceptable went a long way toward helping managers and employees talk openly about setbacks and potential solutions, as well as mistakes and lessons learned. Another recommended approach, which comes from our survey feedback, was “during team meetings, always bring up the issue of truth in the workplace and how it is pertinent to the success of the company and the success of oneself.” Use tactics like this to create a culture where people do not fear repercussions for speaking up if they are late on a deliverable, cause an error or lose a sale.

3. Recognize voices of courage and candor. For organizations with a “shoot the messenger” culture, this is especially critical. Actions and words need to signal new directions in openness, candor and receptivity. Start with listening practices. Most likely you’ll need to adjust the amount of dedicated listening time in leadership communication practices. Five minutes in a one-hour town hall is woefully inadequate for demonstrating attentiveness and interest. Stop “cascading” information down multiple levels of management! Start driving dialogue through two-way exchanges that require speakers to excel as listeners. As leaders increasingly learn to tune into what employees say, coach them to positively recognize voices of courage and candor. “No one should be punished or ridiculed for telling the truth,” offered a survey respondent. An on-the-spot compliment goes a long way in rewarding an employee who speaks up with a contrasting opinion, constructive feedback or bad news.

4. Find role models and give them air time. Real examples of enlightened leaders are powerful guideposts for others. Don’t presume that manager status guarantees a person’s ability to disregard spin and confidently walk the talk. Use “show and tell” tactics to highlight specific actions for effectively dispelling rumors, dealing with conflict and announcing a difficult decision. Among comments to our Lying in the Workplace survey were these: “Reinforce direct, open and honest communication with leaders modeling the behavior and not putting down others who follow their lead” and “You need to lead by example so people know that it’s OK to have respectful debate.”

Showcase the actions of real people—supervisors in stockrooms, managers in cubicles, executives in the C-suite—who have the respect of others and results to show. Capture their interactions with team members on video and create mini-training modules for online viewing. Invite them to talk about their winning ways during manager forums and then engage the entire group to develop common requirements for handling difficult conversations truthfully.

5. Measure the environment. Every senior leader needs to know what's going on in their organization. Business acumen and managing by "gut" may work for some, but it's a hit-or-miss proposition, at best. Organizations that focus on metrics and measurement fare far better than those that don't. What's really going on in your organization? How do you know? Our work with firms large and small tells us that—particularly in an uncertain economy—you need every mind engaged. Conduct periodic assessments with employees about the state of honesty, openness and transparency in your workplace. Evaluate the effect of cultural and operational dynamics on the behavior of managers and their teams. Try quick polling techniques that make it easy and unintimidating for employees to give candid feedback.

6. Hold people accountable. Many of the written comments posted in our survey cited a lack of accountability in the workplace. Explained one participant, “If it is acceptable to lie, without consequence, then it will definitely happen.” Establishing clear ground rules and consequences is essential. Adherence to an honest workplace code of conduct must be modeled from the top executives down. “By making honesty a value, and then seeing evidence that managers are living it sends a strong message to all,” commented another poll respondent.

The very act of assessing the impact of your organization’s words and actions signals the importance of an honest workplace and your commitment to it. In my firm’s measurement work with clients, we use visual scorecards with color-coded graphics to make it easy to convey data and track accountability. We post high- and low-performing areas—overall and by demographic groups, such as work groups or locations.

For example, one client used scorecards to track the accountability of senior leaders completing a weekly walk-around program. Leaders were individually assigned to work areas, and each week they received a new location to visit. A scorecard was created to track leaders' accountability: in this case, the successful completion of a walk-around each week by a leader. The scorecard used stoplight metrics, which is common in operational assessments. Red coding was assigned by a leader's name if he or she did not complete the practice. Green coding was assigned for a successful outcome. Yellow coding was assigned if the walk-around did not successfully meet guidelines that had been established for the practice. These guidelines addressed leaders' words and actions during the walk-around practice; however, the majority focused on leader behavior. The scorecard was managed by a cross-functional team of frontline employees. Transparency is especially important if it’s a cultural dynamic that you’re trying to instill.

Regardless of size or industry, every organization should actively work to establish an open workplace. By no means is this an overnight conversion. It takes time to cultivate managers' knowledge and skills of leading in a direct, open and inclusive way. It takes reinforcement through coaching and recognition, as well as practices to underscore accountability and sustain focus.

Next month we’ll look at the state of listening in today's organizations and ways to improve your ability to tune in to frontline associates.

Published on IABC: CW Bulletin:



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