The Truth Is, the Truth Hurts

Unit of One

The Bible says, “The truth shall make you free.” Witnesses in court proceedings swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” So why is candor in business still so rare? Telling the truth means many different things: delivering bad news to the boss; giving a negative performance review to a subordinate; disagreeing publicly with a colleague. But most people think it means something else – risking your future. In a survey of 40,000 Americans, 93% admitted to lying regularly at work. Of course, for leaders, the flip side of telling the truth is hearing the truth. How can you make the right decision if you can’t get accurate information and honest opinions? Fast Company asked 11 plainspoken business leaders to provide advice and techniques to help people tell – and hear – the truth.


Jim McCann
Westbury, New York

Truth is about actions as well as words. General Electric CEO Jack Welch taught me that lesson a few years ago. I had to fire a senior person in the company. Everyone knew he wasn’t right for the job. Everyone knew I wasn’t dealing with the problem. But this guy was a friend. I’d spent time with his family. It’s never easy to fire someone, but in this case, it was brutal.

I met Welch at a dinner party and told him about my situation. His response? “When was the last time anyone said, ‘I wish I had waited six months longer to fire that guy’? Always err on the side of speed.” The look in his eye told me that he had learned this lesson in the school of hard knocks. It motivated me to deal with the situation a few days later. It hurt – but I felt such relief. The pain soon went away. And now my friendship with my former colleague is back on track. It was the right decision for everyone.


Of course, words count too. My first rule of communication – whether it’s an email, a memo, or a half-day briefing – is “Tell me in the first sentence what you would have told me in the last sentence.” So much of corporate life is about spinning the facts. I don’t want to be spun. That simple rule helps stop the spin.

People from our ad agencies understand this principle. When they come in to deliver a 34-slide presentation, they don’t wait ’til the end to get to the punchline. “Do you have a final summary slide?” I’ll ask. If they say yes, I insist on seeing this slide first. Then we go back and look at the details.

Jim McCann bought 1-800-FLOWERS in 1987, when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It is now the world’s largest florist.


Chuck House
Executive Vice President
Dialogic Corp.
Parsippany, New Jersey

What everyone wants to know is, Can I tell the truth without jeopardizing my career? My honest answer is, you never know until you try.

Three decades ago, as a naive young engineer at Hewlett-Packard, I persisted in championing an idea despite opposition. I came away from the whole experience with a motto: “Come to work each day willing to be fired.” David Packard awarded me a “Medal of Defiance” for my efforts. I became something of an icon of truth-telling at HP.


Which is why I found it so striking that as my career moved forward – first inside HP and then beyond – the truth became harder to come by. The further up I was promoted, the less my former colleagues trusted me. I was now one of “them,” and “they” never tell the truth. And in fact, my fellow “thems” expected me to become less candid and more polished – to be realistic about “the compromises we make at this level.” What most disappointed me, though, was that I stopped hearing the truth. People who had once told me everything assumed that I couldn’t be trusted anymore.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about how to maintain enough trust and honest communication to keep organizations flexible. I would make three simple points:

Maintain an informal network. Use this network as a source of authentic feedback. Hold it up as a mirror to yourself.


Find gentle ways to discuss hard truths. Leaders don’t always face pleasant choices. Find nonthreatening techniques (one of my favorites is scenario analysis) to sort through the options.

In the end, just do it. People respect decisive leadership, even when they disagree with a particular course of action. The more that you show a bias for action, the more likely the people around you will be to tell you the truth.

Chuck House spent nearly 30 years at Hewlett-Packard, where he was the company’s first corporate engineering director. His second career involves working with software startups. He is also president of the Association for Computing Machinery.


Michael Wheeler
Professor of Management
Harvard Business School
Boston, Massachusetts

Think back to the last time someone in the office proposed a truly harebrained project. Your public response was probably something like “That’s interesting. We should look into it.” Your private reaction was “Yeah, we’ll do it when pigs fly.” The truth is, it’s easier to speak truthfully to strangers than to colleagues. Which means you’re more likely to get the straight story from someone you don’t know than from someone you’ve worked with for years.

There are lots of good reasons why the truth hurts. A colleague may be a friend, and no one likes to disappoint a friend. Companies that embrace a “can do” spirit often frown upon even well-intentioned criticism. There are political calculations too: Vetoing someone else’s project may invite retaliation against your project.


But the more you avoid the truth, the steeper the price that you are likely to pay in terms of wasted effort, frustration, and even cynicism. It’s a vicious cycle. Here are a few ways to break it.

Face the truth about the truth. Be honest with yourself about how good (or, more likely, how bad) you are at having difficult conversations. That’s the first step to getting better at them.

Have sympathy for the devil. Encourage people to play devil’s advocate. Even good ideas can be improved through critical, truthful give-and-take.


Don’t ask for what you don’t want to hear. If you invite people to offer a “warts and all” version of events, then you’d better listen. If messengers of bad news wind up stacked like cordwood outside your door, survivors will learn to censor themselves.

Honesty requires subtlety. Speaking and hearing the truth are acquired skills. Blunt questions can force people into corners where they feel compelled to shade things – even to lie. Instead of asking, “Are you in favor of this project?” you should ask, “How can we improve it?”

Michael Wheeler teaches two required first-year courses in the Harvard MBA Program – one on negotiation and one on leadership. His corporate clients include 3M, Johnson & Johnson, and Nabisco.


Debra Speight
VP of Information Technology and CIO
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care
Lexington, Massachusetts

The real challenge is not whether to tell the truth but when. We are all a>icted with what I call the “MTV Syndrome”: We process so much information so fast that it’s easy to hear only what we want to hear. If I’ve learned anything about candor in business, it’s that timing is everything. Even if you don’t have a problem with telling the truth, the person on the receiving end of the conversation might have a problem with hearing it. So on those rare occasions when you have someone’s undivided attention, be direct and honest. Get your message across – and then get out.

Also, try mixing the truth with some passion. Lots of people believe that the right way to deliver bad news is calmly, quietly, and analytically. I’ve never believed that. As a leader, I prefer to hear criticism from people who are assertive, who grab my attention and provoke my thoughts. Just the other day, for example, someone gave me some really tough feedback about an aspect of our organization. He was new, and did not realize how hard we’d been working on that issue. I didn’t like what I heard. In fact, it made my blood boil. But precisely because of his passion, I invited him to share his criticisms with my senior staff.


One last point: It can be just as hard to deliver good news as bad news. So many leaders aren’t very adept at giving positive feedback – even when it’s authentic. That’s why I never compliment someone unless I really mean it. I always deliver my compliments in a one-on-one setting, and I make sure that people understand the business impact of what they did. Empty praise to “keep up morale” doesn’t help anyone.

Before joining Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in 1997, Debra Speight was vice president/CIO for the Zurich Insurance Group, a $3 billion insurance company. She was a silver medalist in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games.

Jack Stack
President and CEO
SRC Holdings Corp.
Springfield, Missouri


Do you want to know what I consider to be the biggest and most dangerous lie in business? Information is power. This wrongheaded cliche leads to much of the deceit that you see in companies today. It encourages people to hoard information – to use it as a weapon against colleagues rather than as a way to solve problems.

I was 19 years old when I got my first real job, at International Harvester. I was amazed at how dishonest life was. My job was to talk to production managers around the country and to help coordinate their efforts. If one plant had a surplus of components and another plant had a shortage, I tried to reconcile the situation. Little did I know that plant managers at Harvester never told the truth – it was an unwritten rule. Why risk shutting down your assembly line by shipping components somewhere else? In my youthful naivete, I always gave honest counts. And over time, more and more senior people would call me – not because I was so smart but because I didn’t lie. My visibility inside the company got higher and higher, simply because I told the truth.

That’s why SRC embraces open-book management. We are building a company in which everyone tells the truth every day – not because everyone is honest but because everyone has access to the same information: operating metrics, financial data, valuation estimates. The more people understand what’s really going in their company, the more eager they are to help solve its problems. Information isn’t power. It’s a burden. Share information, and you share the burdens of leadership as well.


SRC is much celebrated for its practice of open-book management. Jack Stack is the author of The Great Game of Business (Doubleday/ Currency, 1992).

Brad Blanton
Radical Honesty network
Stanley, Virginia

Tell the truth. All the time. About everything. What’s the alternative to radical honesty? Waste. Wasted time, wasted money, wasted possibilities – a wasted life.

Sure, the truth hurts. But it inspires too. People spend too much time calculating the risks that come with being honest – and too little time thinking about the rewards. I’ve been counseling businesspeople for more than 25 years. Only twice have I seen people get fired for speaking their mind. Most people who finally have the difficult conversations that they’ve been avoiding tell a different story: In the course of an hour, they were fired twice, they quit twice, but eventually they left the room with their position intact. And within a month, they had a promotion and a raise.

Most leaders want honest communication – even if the message isn’t something they want to hear. Radical honesty is addictive. Once people discover the truth, they fall in love with it.

Brad Blanton is the author of Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth (Dell, 1996) and founder of the Radical Honesty Network (

Mark Cuban
President and Cofounder
Dallas, Texas

Let’s be honest: we lie, and our colleagues lie to us. That’s how human beings operate. People prefer to tell other people what they want to hear. I don’t worry very much about whether everything I hear in a meeting or read in an email is the unvarnished truth. I don’t need perfect people. I need successful people – people who can think for themselves and get the job done. And if they need to tell a little white lie once in a while, well, I can live with that.

Now, there are a few areas where absolute truth is mandatory: When it comes to customer service, never tell me even a little white lie. But in general, I care more about the big picture: Are we being honest with ourselves about the condition and course of the company? I don’t want private, closed-door meetings. That’s why our headquarters is one big open space. We don’t have secretaries – and my own office doesn’t even have enough room for somebody else to sit in it! If we’re honest about the big things, the little things will take care of themselves, even if that means telling an occasional white lie.

AudioNet broadcasts a range of events – from rock concerts to trade shows – over the Internet. It was founded in 1995 and is one of the Web’s most highly trafficked sites.

Christie Hefner
Chairman and CEO
Playboy Enterprises Inc.
Chicago, Illinois

Playboy has six different but related businesses: publishing, entertainment, catalogs, product licensing, new media, and gaming. Our success depends on how quickly and honestly people in these businesses share what they know with headquarters and with one another. We work hard to fill the company with articulate and opinionated people who have no trouble telling it like it is. In fact, we recently initiated two projects designed to let people tell those of us in senior management how well we’re doing our job.

The first is a company-wide survey. Sure, lots of companies poll their employees. But this survey got to the heart of what our people really think about Playboy – as a place to work and as a presence in the corporate world. The second is a 360-degree feedback exercise that began with the top management team. This process works because we get tough-minded comments from all sides. You’d better believe the truth hurts! There’s nothing like seeing how your opinion of your performance differs from that of your boss, your peers, or your subordinates.

Christie Hefner joined Playboy in 1975 and has been CEO there since 1988. She helped found the Committee of 200, an international organization of women business leaders.

William Rosenzweig
Managing Director
Venture Strategy Group
San Francisco, California

Why are people reluctant to tell the truth? Because so many of us take the most well-intentioned criticism personally. The only way to unleash open communication is to convince people that honesty is about group learning, not individual criticism.

That’s not an easy change to make. In fact, it requires having someone inside the organization who can create an environment where people feel free to tell it like it is. Full-time employees are too attached to the existing power structure. Outside consultants are too detached from the day-to-day realities of business life. You need an objective listener who has deep ties to the organization and enough independence to be trusted by everyone. I call this person a Wisdom Keeper.

We have such as person inside our firm. He is a semi-retired executive with lots of experience in how partnerships work. He writes books and coaches businesspeople. He has become our mentor, witness, and guardian angel. He attends many of our key meetings. He’s not attached to any specific outcome. His only role is to reflect on and clarify what we say and how we reach our decisions. Most people underestimate how much time and effort it takes to tell the truth and to learn from it. You can’t do it over a beer after work. We’re trying to make it a business discipline.

William Rosenzweig was cofounder, president, and “Minister of Progress” for the Republic of Tea. Venture Strategy Group’s investment portfolio includes Net-based companies such as Infoseek and HomeShark Inc. and food companies such as Jamba Juice and Sweet Charlotte’s.

Jerry Hirshberg
Nissan Design International Inc.
San Diego, California

Even people who don’t mind telling the truth have mixed feelings about hearing the truth. It’s like a chemical reaction: Your face goes red, your temperature rises, you want to strike back. Those are signs of the “two D’s”: defending and debating. Try to fight back with the “two L’s”: listening and learning.

Many of the best ideas are communicated through whispers – in the hallway meetings that happen after the official meeting. That’s because people worry about how the boss will react if they speak the truth. What’s remarkable, of course, is that these whispered ideas are what companies are most hungry for. So the next time you feel yourself defending and debating, stop – and start listening and learning instead. You’ll be amazed by what you hear.

Jerry Hirshberg is the author of The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World (HarperCollins, 1998). Nissan Design has created such cutting-edge vehicles as the Nissan Pathfinder and the Infiniti J30.

Robert Rodin
President and CEO
Marshall Industries
El Monte, California

The more you insist on hearing the truth, and the more often you act on what you’ve heard, the more often people will give it to you. But most leaders do precisely the opposite. Their companies systematically distort the truth – by design.

So many CEOs run companies by the numbers. Salespeople get bonuses tied to individual quotas. Division managers get promotions based on quarterly P&Ls. Then CEOs are shocked – shocked! – when they discover that their people manipulate results to make those numbers. When it comes to the truth, you get what you pay for. Which is why, six years ago, we eliminated all commissions, contests, and prizes.

It’s human nature to avoid conflict. That’s why one of my favorite questions to ask employees is “Do you like my tie?” It’s lighthearted, but there’s a serious message behind it. If you want to hear criticism, you have to invite it. At least once a month, I convene a forum called “Marshall Live.” I gather people at one of our sites; no managers are allowed. I start every meeting by saying something like “This is your company. Tell me what’s wrong with it.” I get amazing feedback. And then I promise to deal with the feedback in two weeks or less. We don’t always do what people want: Companies aren’t democracies. But people know that we haven’t just heard their criticisms – we’ve dealt with them.

Rob Rodin is writing a book on leadership and change that Simon & Schuster will publish later this year. Marshall Industries is an electronics distributor with annual revenues of $1.2 billion.