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Does Management Really Want The Truth?

by David Brock on January 24th, 2009
I’m a great fan of Michael Wade’s column in US News and World Report. He just published a provocative article: On-Staff Whistleblowers Can Help Companies Prepare for Disaster. The article was interesting, but I found the comment from “Chris of NJ” most interesting.

As many businesses see disaster striking all around, Michael suggests that large organizations charge a small number of bright “maverick’s” chartered with the task of identifying potential disasters within organizations, before they strike, bringing them forward to management so they can pre-empt them and act. Interesting idea, I’ve seen some organizations do this with internal resources, and many doing this with external resources.

Chris’s comment is interesting, I get the sense he speaks from deep experience. He identifies two flaws with Michael’s ideas:

The first: Is there an audience for such a critique? Stated differently, does management really want to hear or see evidence that they are falling down in even the smallest regard? I am often called in by executives to do these assessments. Many execs seem sincere in understanding their challenges and stepping up to them. Some are, frankly, going through the motions. Regardless of the starting point, too often there really does not seem to be an audience or appetite for the critique.

I’m often reminded of the Jack Nicoholson line in the movie “A Few Good Men,” where as Tom Cruise challenges him “I want the truth!” and Nicholson responds, “You can’t handle the truth….you don’t want the truth….”

As Chris points out, does management really want to see or hear the evidence that they are failing in even the smallest ways? In my experiences, despite all assurances when challenging them on this, it is only the most special leaders that really do.

Chris identified the second problem: The plan versus react mindset. Too many times, particularly in this very difficult economy, the knee jerk reaction prevails. We see evidence of this in many of the bail out programs, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Too often, organizations fail to take even the shortest amount of time to think about the issues, developing corrective plans that create sustainable improvement and advantage. Consequently, organizations careen from one set of actions to another, leaving in their wake, laid off people, confused/demoralized employees, wasted resources, and lost opportunity. Some people will argue that fast action is required to survive. Fast action is does not conflict with thoughtful action that produces sustainable results.

This economy presents tremendous opportunity for those leaders that really seize it. It requires a critical and honest look in the mirror. We all make mistakes and fail, we need to recognize that and move forward. In moving forward, we must take the time to select a path, not one that gets us to tomorrow, but one that creates a sustainable future. Some of the results may be deferred, but in the end, I believe those organizations that act in this way will emerge the strongest.

What is your view? Does management really want the truth? Are they prepared to act in a planned and thoughtful manner when they have recognized the truth? What kinds of leaders are needed to drive this?

By the way, “Chris of NJ,” if you read this, thanks for your great comment on Michael’s column!

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