As the one person in the company that has the greatest access to information, CEOs are constantly balancing what information should be on a need-to-know basis and what information can be shared with a wider group. In other words--choosing what you say as a CEO isn't always easy.
Sometimes it can be a no-brainer (like don't share salary data). But other times it is a little more difficult. How about what specific team members think of each other...sharable info?
In an effort to keep everyone happy, sometimes as a CEO you can feel the pressure to steer away from absolute statements especially around negative news. It starts innocently enough; not mentioning a little thing that a customer said or glossing over a financial struggle that the company is going through. But soon, without even noticing it happening, there is a pile of slightly false statements.
This is "Truth Debt." It's like financial debt. Sometimes it's alright to have a little financial debt to bridge short-term issues, but if not kept in check, the interest on this debt can become stifling. And when the debt gets called, the results can be disastrous.
In a perfect world, CEOs should strive to have zero "Truth Debt." But more often, a little bit is part of the job. As CEO it's important to understand that just because people want to know something, doesn't mean they should know it. Think about financial data. Not everyone needs to know this information even though most people would like to know it.
As a CEO you are balancing "Truth Debt" every day.
Here's a list of five things that will help a CEO keep their "Truth Debt" in check:
- Tell the Truth. Seems obvious, and it is, but keeping your messaging grounded with facts, is very helpful. Better to go with the blunt truth than acquiring unneeded "Truth Debt."
- Be Balanced. Talk consistently about positive and negative things the company is facing. CEOs have a tendency to emphasize positives and bury negatives. Doing this over time removes your ability to talk about negative things easily and proportionally so that when you do finally have to talk about negative news or events, employees get very nervous.
- Maintain Perspective. When you talk about company matters, put them in perspective. Oftentimes employees don't have any frame of reference to know if something is really good or really bad. If you don't give employees the entire story, they will make one up and it's often worse than the truth.
- Talk to Employees. This can be at company meetings, in groups, or one-on-one, but make sure you are talking face-to-face. Today in business, 97 percent of communication is non-verbal. Emailing important information is asking for problems. As the CEO, your troops need to see your face. This is how they process "Truth Debt" for themselves.
- Share. Most CEOs won't bend the truth when talking with their boards and they should not with their employees either. CEOs should share appropriate management and board meeting information with employees. Connecting employees with management data helps reduce "Truth Debt."
I have seen a lot of CEOs manage their "Truth Debt" poorly. Interestingly, in those cases, the employees of those companies knew they were not getting the entire story. When you start another company, because you will start something else, you'll want people to come along and help you to do it all over again. You can't fake an honest reputation and managing your "Truth Debt" is good way to stay real and build the good will necessary to be a successful, repeat CEO.