By Max Newlon, Ed.M.; President, Brain Co.

“I don’t want to look bad,” and “I don’t want to get in trouble.” Are these excuses, or signals that your culture needs an overhaul?

We don’t always share the whole truth for fear of looking bad. Our boss might think we’re not good enough. We don’t want to risk our job security.

Though this may feel right, it’s not as true as one might think. At least, it shouldn’t be. This line of thinking is not only bad for you, it’s bad for your team. If the truth is not on the table there’s no chance of coming up with the best plan to solve the challenges you’re facing. 

Imagine this. You’re trying to improve the way your team invests their time so they can get better outcomes with less effort, but they only paint a picture that everything is great. Always great. You want to help but they are afraid to give you the truth about what’s really working and what’s not. Or worse, they are inflating certain aspects of their work to make themselves look good. 

This is understandable from a certain perspective, yet clearly detrimental. 

Too many workplaces operate like this. The team is nervous to share the whole truth. They are afraid of the consequences of not “killing it”. But the truth is it takes constant execution, revision, and iteration to make progress. 

Teams with higher levels of trust benefit from higher energy levels, engagement, joy, purpose, sense of accomplishment and less burnout (Zak, 2017). And higher trust is related to better financial outcomes (Covey & Conant, 2016). Telling the truth and a culture of trust go hand in hand.

Celebrate Truth Telling

As a leader, I respect the truth. And I trust the person who can bring it to me. We can’t solve a problem if the truth, or accurate information, is not available. 

Don’t cover it up, it won’t help. It won’t help me help my team, and it won’t help my team get the help they need. 

Bring me the truth. If you missed the target, tell me why, and let’s get to work on improving. 

I want my team filled with people who share the truth so we can focus on shared improvement. I want the type of people who care enough to give accurate information, people who aren’t worried about looking bad. 

We want progress not perfection. Our jobs are to get better, not to be perfect. 

If you celebrate truth-telling your team will share accurate information and be focused on working on the challenge, not covering up their shortcomings. 

If this is new to your team, it may take time for someone to open up. They’re used to protecting themselves from looking bad. It’s something we all do to different degrees, but we can drop our guard, not be overly self-protective, be more open – this will ultimately lead to objectivity and focus on the real challenges we face. 

The culture has to support this initiative. Once they open up and put the truth on the table, praise that behavior and make it clear that now you can work together on solving the problem. 

You will still need to hold people accountable. There is always a point where someone may need a different role,find a different team, or leave your company. But if someone can be objective, intellectually honest when it comes to tough decisions, and willing to bring you the hard truth, that is someone you want to keep.  

Next Steps

Here are 3 things you can do to make this change in your company or team right now:

  1. Practice it yourself. Share the whole truth with your supervisor, CEO, or board of directors. Leadership is setting an example.
  2. Practice it in your 1-1’s. Hold your direct reports accountable for using the best information available when making decisions. Ask for clarity if something sounds like it’s not the whole truth. 
  3. Practice it publicly. Praise people when they show this quality in meetings. When you give presentations to your team, bring a level of realism into what you share. Reinforce this value publicly.  

Practice, practice, practice. It won’t happen on its own.

If you celebrate truth-telling your team will be less defensive, make better decisions faster, and trust each other and you because you’ll have created a culture where getting to the right answer is more important than looking good. 

Don’t give up your tact in sharing information. I don’t suggest going around sharing information that isn’t going to motivate good action, just because it’s the truth. Use your judgment. 

Higher trust leads to a better culture and even better financial outcomes. Truth builds trust. So celebrate truth-telling. It will push you and your team to execute better, faster, and with more purpose. It’s the only way.


Zak, P. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review.

Covey, S., & Conant, D. (2016). The Connection Between Employee Trust and Financial Performance. Harvard Business Review.

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