What Captain Kirk Teaches CEOs About the Power of Truth-Telling

I recently spoke to the Oklahoma Business Ethics Consortium in Oklahoma City and then Tulsa on 6 strategies to strengthen our integrity in a greedy world.   How is it possible to “Face the herd?”  As a result, I was interviewed by The Company Ethicist, a San Francisco based organization, on what it means to “speak truth to power.” Following is the interview we think you will find beneficial.

Q&A With Mick Ukleja

In theory, it make sense to empower employees to tell the truth to their bosses — or risk all kinds of problems. In practice? Easier said than done. Many factors are at play in the workplace that can encourage employees to speak or clam up. Here, Mick Ukleja, a leadership consultant and author of The Ethics Challenge, makes the case for why a culture of truth-telling is critical to a company’s success and describes the steps companies can take to foster it.

Do companies really need to proactively support truth-telling in the workplace?

Sixty percent of employees say they observe wrongdoing in the workplace, but only 40 percent of those report it. If employees know something that’s not good for the company and they’re not sharing it because they’re afraid to, then that could create havoc for a company.

After the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003, NASA determined the underlying problem wasn’t technical — it was a cultural problem of non truth-telling. People were afraid to say what they thought.

How can senior management encourage employees to speak the truth?

Really commend them and reward them when they tell us the truth. Even if it’s wrong, we should not ostracize them. We should say, “We disagree with your assessment, but we’ll listen to you. We love that you used your head and tried to do what’s best for the organization.” It’s a cultural thing and you have to be very intentional about developing a culture of truth-telling.

This means the person at the top needs to talk about truth-telling as though it’s part of the culture. He could say, “I need you to give me the information I need, because otherwise one of us isn’t necessary. If I fight back and you strongly feel one way, you better make me listen. If I find out, you’re not telling me what you really think, that’s when I’m going to be really upset.” He should also say things like, “Is there anything I’m doing that would impede you or be an obstacle for you to tell me what you think?”

Captain Kirk wasn’t the smartest guy in the USS Enterprise, but he leveraged all of the strengths around him because he depended on them to tell him what they thought. As the leader he collected all their information and data, and they had the freedom to tell him what they thought.

How does groupthink play a role in truth-telling?

There are two strong forces to balance in life — the force for togetherness and the force for separateness. If the force for togetherness is too strong, I get enmeshed in the group and think what the group thinks instead of what I think is right. If I’m too separate, I cut myself off from the group and learning doesn’t take place, feedback doesn’t take place, there’s a lack of accountability. People should be able to say, “I think this is wrong, and I know where the group ends and where I begin. I’m going to say it’s wrong.” The people in any organization who aren’t the top executives need to develop that ability to self-differentiate.

Can you cite a real-world example of someone who self-differentiated effectively?

The whole situation with Johnson & Johnson back in 1982 when cyanide-laced Tylenol killed seven people in the Chicago area. One side of the company, including the accounting and marketing departments, thought J&J should only take products off the shelves in the Chicago area. A few board members stood up against this and said, “Remember our No. 1 value: ‘Primum Non Nocere,’ which means ‘above all do no harm.’” Those board members went against the crowd and the argument that they were going to destroy the company if they pulled Tylenol off all store shelves. The CEO applauded the people who pushed back, saying, “You’re right.” Within a year’s time, they had their market share back, and the residual effect was they invented something that everyone else profited from — tamper-proof packaging.

I’m not saying every time you speak the truth, something good is going to happen right away. But over the long haul, that’s the only way to be successful. If we try to cover things up, we get in trouble.

Image via Can Stock Photo