Wednesday, April 07, 2010

We can't Handle the Truth

In the movie, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson playing the role of a hard-core, old-school, tough-as-nails Marine Colonel delivers the famous line in a military court, “You can’t handle the truth” in answer to Tom Cruise’s cross examination demanding the truth about a code red.

This is a problem for many of us. We can’t handle the truth. Maybe our huge egos prevent us from seeing the truth. Perhaps it is rooted deep in our survival genes to protect us from harm both physical and non-physical. Maybe it is our arrogance from our over-the-top self-image or self-importance. Whatever the reason, we can’t handle the truth if it is not in alignment with our thinking.

We all believe in truth however the truth is not always easily believed. What blinds us from seeing the truth? What in our minds automatically blocks us from seeing the truth? Why do we not want to believe the truth? How do our perceptions create different lenses in seeing the truth?

According to Jon Miller in How to scold like a Kaizen Sensei, the role of the Sensei is “to speak truth to power in ways that a member of the organization could not.” This honest, insightful and raw truth telling skill has very powerful results depending on the delivery by the sensei and the reaction of the learner. Regardless if you are an outside consultant or inside the company, there is a risk in truth telling.

It is easy to see why this truth telling skill does not work coming from within an organization. Unfortunately, the proverbial “kill the messenger” is alive and well in American business. People who speak the truth are often labeled as a non-team player, a disrupter, a trouble maker or the current tag of being “not a good fit”. End result the person either quits or is fired.

Have you ever compromised the truth to keep your job? What about keeping silent? How does your company leadership handle the truth? How do you handle the truth?

It doesn’t take much to see that the truth can get watered down, altered or hidden entirely inside a company, especially as it moves vertically up the ladder. We may believe, at least in the short term, that this is the best way considering the risk, political correctness and social politeness but at what cost? In the long term, is the cost greater? Doesn’t this render our problem solving capabilities as impotent? Isn’t our continuous improvement quest towards perfection halted without seeing the truth?

“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions


Jeff Hajek said...


One problem with 'truth' is that it is relative.

'The wealthiest Americans pay too much in taxes.' Is that statement true? Probably, if you are one of the wealthiest Americans. It may not be to the less cash-endowed among us.

Business works the same way. Truth is linked to personal goals.

Jeff Hajek

ServiceDandy said...


I just found out about your blog. Very impressive. Thumbs-up!
I got your point about "telling the truth", I am actually doing an assignment on the "sins of the quality manager" and this is also part of it. I guess a lot of innovation and improvement is lost on "not telling the truth", because of political issues in companies and therefore people being afraid of career consequences. But it should be the other way round...

Kind regards