Don’t throw out the lightbulb just because it showed you an uncomfortable truth

Published by Peter on

Ignorance is bliss, amirite? No one wants bad news or negative information.

You don’t have to worry about something you’re unaware of. You don’t have to deal with the negative feelings, the disappointment, the fear. You don’t have to fix it if you don’t know about it.

This is why many people put off going to the doctor when they start feeling something is “off.” No one wants to get a dire diagnosis.

But of course, being ignorant of a fact does not make it less of a fact.

Someone with an illness has that illness whether or not they get diagnosed. An organization with dysfunction has that dysfunction whether the leaders know it or not. A system suffering from corruption has that corruption whether it’s been exposed or not. A partner with simmering resentment has resentment whether they tell you about it or not.

Yes, knowledge and transparency really are good things

On Friday someone told me that “corporate transparency isn’t doing what everyone promised it would.”

I asked them what they thought the promise of transparency was.

Transparency, they said, was supposed to make everyone trust corporations more, but it has only made people lest trustful. We live in an increasingly untrusting society, they said.

I was struck by their premise that transparency is a trust-builder.

I don’t think that’s true. Transparency does not build trust. Actions build trust. Transparency improves awareness and knowledge by exposing truth; what you learn, and what you do with that learning, is what matters.

As it was with my first homeownership experience.

Oh great, now we have cockroaches

It was 1990. As a fresh college graduate and just 23 years old, I knew nothing about anything. So of course when I decided to buy a condo (seemed like the right idea at the time), I trusted my real estate agent to guide me through the process.

“It’s a condo,” she said. “You don’t have to pay for a pest inspection.”

(By now you’ve already concluded that yes, indeed, I should have paid for that pest inspection.)

When I toured the empty condo, to my naïve eyes the place looked great. Needed some paint and new carpets, but otherwise seemed fine. I bought it. Moved in with a bed and a desk and not much else.

One night—it might even have been my first night there—I went into the kitchen and turned on the light.

Cockroaches everywhere.

Image generated by Adobe Firefly

It wasn’t just a couple of scouts coming up to meet the new guy. No. Scores of them, all skittering away into the shadows when the light came on. And not the smallish, innocent-looking, cute cockroaches, either. These were tough, hardened condo cockroaches. The size of my thumb. I think they were wearing some kind of armor festooned with gang symbols.

So of course I did what every smart person does in this situation.

I turned off the light and I threw away all the light bulbs.

After all, it was the light that made all the cockroaches appear, and the light bulb created the light.

The light bulb was supposed to make me feel safer and more comfortable. But all it did was gross me out and make me feel like I was under attack in my own home.

Astonishingly, this is what a lot of leaders do

No, of course I didn’t throw out the light bulbs. I called my real estate agent (who rebuilt a little of my broken trust by paying for a pest control treatment), scoured everything I could reach, and bought airtight containers for all my food.

Pretty much what everyone would have done, right? Ok, maybe some of you would simply have burned the place to the ground, but you get my point.

Then why do we so often blame the truth-tellers for telling us truths we don’t like?

It’s astounding how many leaders would prefer not to hear about the things eating away their organizations from the inside. They want engagement scores to be high. They want employees to be happy. They want turnover to be low. But when those things don’t happen, there’s usually more blame for the employees (or the middle managers) than what’s truly plaguing the company.

Let me be clear: Employees are NOT the cockroaches in this metaphor.

The cockroaches are poor practices, inefficiencies, miscommunication, lack of resources, poor tech, bad pay, bad management, unethical behavior, misincentives, and much more.

When I ran multimillion-dollar programs for a big bank, everyone else seemed terrified of program audits. I welcomed them. I wanted someone else to come in and turn on the light for me so I could fix the things I didn’t know were wrong.

Auditors are like pest inspectors. The pests are there whether you know about them or not. Isn’t it better to find out so you can do something about them?

Keeping people in the dark doesn’t build trust

We may, as my friend said, be living in a time of decreasing trust. People do seem to express less trust for institutions and companies.

But let’s not be too quick to blame the light bulb. That’s like blaming a whistleblower for an organization’s corrupt practices. That person is not the cockroach. That person is the light bulb. The cockroaches are the ones trying to skitter back into the shadows.

Transparency is not the problem. The problem is that we often don’t know what to do with all the new awareness it creates.

And that’s something we all need to work on learning together.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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