In 2022, a leader of a certain company mentioned that there are only 1.5 truthful individuals in the entire organization.
How do you interpret this phenomenon? If we were to apply this to your company, how many individuals do you believe speak the truth?
I believe that if an organization has no one “speaking the truth,” one aspect to reflect upon is how well the organization is in terms of “listening.”
Let’s explore the relationship between “speaking the truth” and “listening,” and discuss some thoughts and suggestions on how to establish a “culture of candor.”
Your AI-powered meeting assistant — Huddles
01-“Listening” and “speaking the truth,”Which one is more inherent to human nature?
Which one is inherent to human nature?
I believe free will is inherent. For example, sheep do not like to be tied up, and birds do not want to be kept in cages, despite the hardships of finding food.
However, I also believe self-interest is inherent. For instance, cattle, horses, and mules are willing to work hard to avoid the whip.
“Listening” or “speaking the truth” is a balance between free will and self-interest for individuals.
On the other hand, is it natural to prefer obedient individuals?
From everyday observations (such as why many people prefer dogs to humans), it seems that liking obedient individuals is more like human nature. However, from the perspective of raising children, do you prefer your child to be obedient or disobedient? The answer doesn’t seem so black and white.
So, is “listening” inherent, or is “speaking the truth” inherent? Is it inherent to “prefer obedient individuals,” or is it inherent to “prefer non-obedient individuals”? These are life challenges that everyone must face, as well as collective challenges that all organizations must face.
Moreover, this is not just a Chinese issue; it is a “global challenge.”
02-Can one both be obedient and speak the truth?
For individuals, theoretically, it is possible, and some people can do it very well.
For “organizational people,” whether they are obedient or speak the truth largely depends on the organizational culture in which they find themselves—whether it’s a “culture of obedience” or a “culture of truth.” At the organizational level, “cultures of obedience” and “cultures of truth” are two distinct paths and choices, difficult to reconcile.
The organizational environment in the late Qing Dynasty was a “culture of obedience.” In that environment, most people dealt with this issue in the following ways:
- Many people chose to give up on pursuing a career so that they wouldn’t have to speak much and could simply observe the performance of those in power. They could even create public opinion, portraying themselves as loyal subjects and vilifying corrupt officials, making the drama more exciting.
- Highly capable individuals who couldn’t stand idly by chose to withdraw from society, indulge in poetry and wine, and live a peaceful life far from worldly affairs. They preferred not to see and not to be bothered by the troubles of the world.
- Common people who had to make a living to support their families had no choice but to endure and work within the constraints of the times. Some might even leave their hometowns in search of a different environment.
- Those who didn’t want to withdraw from society and also didn’t want to give up on their career had to adapt to the situation. Learning to “say what the leaders want to hear” became a basic skill, while achieving “not telling lies but also not speaking the truth” was an advanced requirement. However, sooner or later, they would face a critical moment where they had to tell a lie to protect themselves. Over time, they would become accustomed to it, and telling lies would become second nature.
It’s those who know how to swim who drown in the river. One day, you may think you have grasped what the leaders want to hear accurately, but you miscalculate. Or perhaps, even though you have grasped it correctly, the leaders are influenced by public opinion and decide to sacrifice you. The charges are always either disobedience or not telling the truth.
In a culture of obedience, phenomena like flattery, deception, conformity, and sycophancy are inevitable. Transitioning from a “culture of obedience” to a “culture of silence” and then regressing to a “culture of lies” is the common destiny of a “culture of obedience.”
However, despite the obvious problems with a “culture of obedience,” why can it still exist widely and persist for a long time?
03-What are the advantages of a “culture of obedience”?
If a “culture of obedience” is done well, it can have advantages such as order, obedience, loyalty, diligence, and uniformity.
One important advantage of a “culture of obedience” is that the cost of implementation is relatively low. The cost of distinguishing who is obedient and who is not is low, and the means to manage those who are not obedient are relatively easy to learn (such as censorship, imprisonment, or exile). In our culture, it’s also relatively easy to find obedient individuals. In comparison, a “culture of truth” has much higher implementation costs.
Another advantage of a “culture of obedience” is that if the leader at the top is wise, they can quickly magnify the benefits of such a culture. Especially in smaller companies, a “culture of obedience” allows for quick decision-making and agility. Many companies survived their infancy with a culture of obedience and later became path-dependent.
Furthermore, if the company operates in an industry that doesn’t require much technological innovation, a “culture of obedience” coupled with a wise leader and a large market can easily create world-class entrepreneurs and billionaires.
With these advantages, a “culture of obedience” can certainly outperform a “culture of truth” that is only moderately successful. For example, a “culture of truth” that pursues self-expression, lacks discipline, struggles with decision-making, avoids work, and lacks knowledge or skills would have little competitiveness.
These are some of the reasons why a “culture of obedience” can exist widely and persist for a long time.
However, the fatal weaknesses of a “culture of obedience” are that it can be challenging to foster technological innovation and that it is susceptible to a cycle of rise, grand banquets, and eventual collapse.
The relative advantage of a “culture of truth” lies in knowledge advancement and technological innovation based on free will. Nowadays, many companies are iterating and transforming their development by considering technological innovation as a source of competitive advantage. Therefore, establishing a “culture of truth” has become a challenge for many companies.
04-How can businesses establish a “culture of truth”?
Here are seven considerations and recommendations in building a “culture of truth”:
- Dispelling Myths and Removing Ignorance: The core assumption of a culture of obedience is that someone can have complete knowledge and authority, and therefore, everyone should simply obey. To establish a culture of truth, organizations must dispel the myth that there is an all-knowing and all-powerful figure within the organization. Additionally, it should be understood that “speaking the truth” is a matter of organizational capability, not an issue of individual moral character.
- Enhancing Cognitive Abilities, Especially Systems Thinking: The founder or leader must continuously improve their cognitive abilities, especially their ability to think systemically. Without the capacity for systems thinking, even leaders with good intentions may struggle to establish a culture of truth.
- Establishing Decision-Making Mechanisms for Discussion and Collaboration: Create mechanisms that encourage discussions, arguments, and collaborative decision-making processes, allowing members to see and participate in these discussions. This helps individuals understand that multiple perspectives and reasonable opinions exist on complex issues, rather than relying on one individual’s authority.
- Empowering and Teaching Members to Speak the Truth: Empower employees, especially middle and senior management, to speak the truth effectively. Teach them the skills of clear, professional communication, discussion, and debate, which can reduce the cost of speaking the truth within the organization.
- Respecting Expertise and Involving Professionals in Key Decisions: Respect and involve professionals and experts in important decisions. Many issues, particularly complex ones, require specialized knowledge for accurate decision-making.
- Continuously Developing Mechanisms, Policies, Procedures, and Systems: Foster a culture of discipline, where everyone follows established mechanisms, policies, procedures, and systems. This should not be confused with a culture of obedience. It means that authority partially shifts from leaders to the organization’s established mechanisms and processes, promoting accountability.
- Cultivating “True Executives” and Building a “True Executive Team”: Leadership should focus on developing “true executives” and forming a team of “true executives” who have the ability to balance freedom and responsibility. Leaders must create an environment where these executives can thrive. A strong emphasis on hiring, developing, and nurturing these individuals is crucial.
By following these recommendations, organizations can work towards establishing a culture of truth, where open communication, diverse perspectives, and genuine discussions are valued, leading to more informed and effective decision-making.
At the individual level, regardless of the adverse organizational environment, there are indeed very few individuals who can both obey and speak the truth, becoming representatives of “loyal and capable subjects.”
However, for the vast majority of people, the organizational environment is the primary determining factor in whether members can speak the truth.
For an organization, “obedience culture” and “truth-telling culture” are two paths and choices that are difficult to reconcile. The typical fate of an “obedience culture” is to gradually evolve from “obedience culture” to “culture of silence” and then regress to a “culture of lies.”
Of course, for an organization that was originally characterized by an “obedience culture,” if its founder/leader and senior management team are relatively enlightened, they can guide and evolve it into a “discipline culture” first. Then, with continuous empowerment and delegation of authority on the foundation of the “discipline culture,” it may evolve into a “truth-telling culture” that balances both truth-telling and discipline.
If you choose a “truth-telling culture” and the results are not ideal, don’t be discouraged, don’t give up, and don’t doubt. Most likely, your efforts in terms of “discipline, empowerment, and delegation of authority” are not strong enough or not steadfast enough.