The Truth Is Closer Than You Think


Leaders get together frequently to exchange ideas and share information. They network for career opportunities, speculate on projects, and commiserate over troublesome employees. Why is it, then, followers are not afforded this same opportunity to gather with their counterparts?

Employers seldom set aside the time and space for followers to compare notes and share their concerns. So, they gather in locations of their own making. Dirty Ernie’s Beverage Emporium is just such a place.

Dirty Ernie’s is a symbolic hangout or hideaway where people feel free to say what is on their mind. Like the famous bar in the TV sitcom Cheers, “It’s where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” People drop in to hear what’s new, have a beer or two and moan about the latest ambiguous directive.

Dirty Ernie’s is not always offsite. In fact, it is more likely to be located in a break room, copy center, or parking lot—anywhere follower know their leaders cannot overhear what is being said.

Dirty Ernie’s also functions as a code or cover word that signals the need for an off-the-record, don’t-tell-anyone, you-didn’t-hear-it-from-me occasion to share opinions. Participants are likely to test reactions or generate support just before or just after a leadership meeting. If there is any dysfunction in the upper levels, Dirty Ernie’s is often the only source of accurate, useful information to those whose work is impacted.

If you really want to manage smarter, find a way to tap into the “conversations” at Dirty Ernie’s. Start by acknowledging that such a “place” exists. Let people know that you would like to work with them to shift the contents to a more open and honest forum.

Help them to recognize Dirty Ernie’s for what it really is—a dysfunctional form of hearsay that only thrives because followers do not trust their leaders to tell the truth. Let them know also that you are a trustworthy person and that they can share their truths with you in confidence. They will expect you to prove yourself by carrying their viewpoint to the upper levels and by speaking sincerely in their behalf to your colleagues, which is something they are afraid to do for fear that telling the truth could land them in trouble. Make sure that does not happen.

If your followers are going to advance their cause, ultimately each of them must be able to tell you the truth. Critical information only contributes to the common good when it is shared openly where everyone concerned can validate it. People confide in others because they know from experience that a trustworthy person is good at keeping secrets. That is a great quality to have when the goal is to make friends, but it does not foster teamwork because it represses the truth, limits understanding and discourages collaboration.

Two of the most important principles of truth telling are to speak without blame and share only what you know firsthand. Sharing confidential information in private when it should be stated in public, violates both conditions and it sets you up for blame when others find out you knew something that could have helped them and you deliberately chose not to share it. Striving for openness is the best way to restore functionality and regain the respect you and those who follow your lead deserve.

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