Debra Allcock Tyler: Truth doesn’t just build trust – it demonstrates it

There are lots of reasons for having a complicated relationship with the truth, but good management is about supporting people, not protecting them

When my brother was little he was always getting himself into trouble, and then telling giant fibs to my mum about his misdemeanours. 

When his teeny tiny four-year-old self tremulously demanded to know how she knew he was lying she said that a big red spot appeared in the middle of his forehead every time he fibbed. 

After that, whenever he lied he would clamp his chubby toddler hands over his forehead while protesting vehemently: “It wasn’t me Mummy, honest!” My mother is a very clever woman!

I was thinking about this earlier today while listening to the news. Every time a politician was asked a direct question they never answered it. 

They obfuscated, mostly with those common and soul-destroying phrases such as: “We won’t rule anything out,” (usually meaning we’re going to do something you won’t like but we’re not telling you yet); or “the British people want” (as if they had asked every single one of us and we all want the same thing).

Another golden oldie is: “I mis-spoke,” meaning I deliberately lied but there’s not a chance in hell I’ll admit it; or “I can’t comment on hypotheticals,” meaning I do have a view but I’m not going to share it in case I get into trouble with the Whip.

We have such a complicated relationship with the truth. We are often afraid of it for all sorts of perfectly understandable reasons – such as not wanting to look bad, or frighten people with bad news, or fearing that people can’t handle it.

My experience has always been that truth builds trust. Even when that truth is a horrible, scary one like the organisation facing a financial crisis, or being unable to keep a promise that you made, or that you have made a massive mistake.

Because truth doesn’t just build trust – it also demonstrates it. When you tell people the truth it shows that you trust them.  

It is too easy to fall into the trap of treating our staff, volunteers, donors, beneficiaries or service-users as if they are not grown, capable adults who deal with much tougher truths in their own lives than anything we are going to tell them. 

And there is pretty much nothing you can’t tell them in relation to the organisation.

My mantra to my managers is don’t protect people, support them. It is not your job to hide unpalatable truths – but to provide the physical and emotional tools to deal with them. 

I think this is especially pertinent in our sector, where we are dealing with some gruesome truths. The difficulty in raising money; the problems with racism or sexism or homophobia in our organisations; the failure of a project, for example.

The thing is, they almost always already know. So there is no point not being honest. We must allow people to be grownups. Don’t be a politician at work – be a fellow adult.

In 2024, build a reputation for telling the truth – then you’ll never have to hide your forehead with your hands.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

Topics:
Management

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