There are two types of truths: comfortable and uncomfortable ones. A comfortable truth, like "The sky is blue," is easy to share with others. An uncomfortable truth, like "You are doing a bad job," is hard to share with others.
At any given time, your employees know a plethora of both comfortable and uncomfortable truths. They are likely afraid of sharing the uncomfortable truths with you. Here's what happened to me recently:
Last year, I fired someone for poor performance. Later that day, one of my employees stopped me in the hall:
Chris: "I'm so glad Bob got fired. He broke our core values constantly. I was hoping you'd fire him."
Me: "Why didn't you say anything sooner?"
Chris: "I assumed you'd figure it out eventually."
I stopped dead in my tracks. What had just happened? Chris and I had been working together for over a year and I was certain we had a trusted working relationship where he could speak truthfully to me and me to him. Yet, he clearly didn't feel comfortable telling me his true thoughts about Bob.
I had to know more. How could I encourage employees to proactively speak up in the future?
The reality is that telling the truth is sometimes hard. It's especially hard when the information is sensitive or damaging in some way. I call these truths the "Uncomfortable Truths."
And, regardless of your team's culture, and regardless of how well you think your culture fosters trust and open conversation, Uncomfortable Truths are always the hardest ones for employees to discuss.
On top of which, it becomes increasingly more important for each person to talk about the Uncomfortable Truths as your team grows. Why? Because no one person will see everything. And the more people you have on your team, the more stuff will happen without you personally hearing or seeing it.
Team Communication Gets Exponentially Harder as You Grow
The irony here is that the more import it becomes to share Uncomfortable Truths, the harder they become to share.
The reason: team communication gets exponentially harder as you grow.
On a team of three people there are 6 distinct one-on-one bonds that need to be formed:
Person A with person B, C
Person B with person A, C
Person C with person A, B
On a team of six people, there are 25 one-on-one bonds:
Person A with person B, C, D, E, F
Person B with person A, C, D, E, F
Person C with person A, B, D, E, F
Person D with person A, B, C, E, F
Person E with person A, B, C, D, F
If your team grows from three to six people, that's 19 new trusted bonds that must be formed. You can see how this becomes a growing issue on bigger teams.
Sharing an Uncomfortable Truth only happens when a trusted bond exists between two people. And, the bigger a team becomes, the more people there are on that team that every other individual has to form a trusted bond with.
If a team members doesn't truly trust another person, they'll likely keep things to themselves rather than risk telling the other person. If I'm on your team and I don't yet know how you will react to me telling you that I think someone should be fired, I'm likely not going to tell you. I don't know if you'll judge my own performance negatively and I don't know if you will agree with my viewpoints.
Tell Stories to Get Employees to Share Uncomfortable Truths
So, how do we combat against this natural tendency for employees to err on the side of avoiding sharing Uncomfortable Truths?
Tell stories about times when an employee told an Uncomfortable Truth and it had a positive impact on your team. Here's how:
When you learn about an Uncomfortable Truth, thank the person for having the courage to share it.
Get the person's permission to share the story with the team or company.
Tell the story verbally in front of the entire company or team. It's ideally best if the employee tells their own story, or if you and the employee tell the story together.
Share the positive impact the Uncomfortable Truth had on the team.
By recognizing the positive impact the Uncomfortable Truth had on your team you are applauding the employee who had the courage to step forward, and you are modeling the way for others to follow.