When leaders trade honesty for harmony

There is a growing crisis of trust in America. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta described how Facebook, Boeing and other major companies are losing the public trust.[1] However, it’s not just these companies, and it’s not just recently. This has been happening in business and in politics, and in the private sector for centuries.

Every leader knows what it’s like to wrestle with delicate dilemmas that could really embarrass the organization.  If you love what you do and the people who work with you, it’s only natural to want to protect your organization when it does something embarrassing. Every leader is looking for a situation where he or she can manage that damage or mitigate the fallout of ethical problems.

When these moments happen, a leader finds him or herself pulled between two very powerful forces: honesty versus harmony. The leader wants to create or keep harmony in the organization, and she knows that if the ugly truth gets out, it’s really going to hurt harmony or morale. Conversely, the leader also knows that by trying to cover up what really happened, if the truth ever gets out, it will be much more damaging.

This tug-of-war between harmony and honesty that leaders finds themselves in is so common, that I want to give a couple of things to keep in mind when navigating these challenging waters.

Manufacturing Harmony

I have seen corporations, churches, and civic leaders compromise their integrity for the sake of harmony. Their motives seem to be pure, and they really want what’s best for everybody. However, in hopes of trying to hide the raw, ugly truth of the situation these leaders try to manage the narrative. They act like the situation never happened or try to make it look less severe than reality.

When struggling to keep harmony after an embarrassing situation in an organization, a leader’s motivation really rises to the surface. Most of us start to wonder on the inside, is this leader putting a spin on the truth because she doesn’t want to hurt the bottom line of the company? Or, is the leader twisting the truth because she knows it’s going to be damaging personally, as well as for the organization, and she is only thinking about herself? 

Here’s the irony that I think all leaders need to keep in mind: By twisting the truth or putting a spin on the situation, you’re really about to sacrifice both harmony and honesty.  Even if your motives are pure, and you really care about the organization more than yourself, the irony is— You lose harmony and honesty when you put a spin on the truth.

Massaging Honesty

Embarrassing situations like this take leaders to the raw challenges of being in charge. Every leader wants to have both honesty and harmony in an organization after a crisis. This is what I refer to as “massaging the truth”.

When you start to try to work the truth in your favor or try to change the facts to make yourself look better, you’re playing with a bomb that will eventually go off in your face. Trust me; I’ve been there.The truth ultimately comes out in the end. There is no way to massage the truth and still come out on top.

In some embarrassing situations, it may not be possible to have both harmony and honesty at the same time. Now a leader has to make a choice. If a leader can’t have both, which is she going to sacrifice? — harmony initially or integrity?

After watching leaders make poor decisions at all levels, I agree with Sucher and Gupta that regaining trust is significantly harder than maintaining it. If you, as a leader, are forced to choose, always choose honesty over harmony. No organization can afford the cost of choosing harmony at that expense of honesty!

No one is above the dilemma that honesty and harmony can create for a leader. I’ve had this dilemma many times myself. I put great time and energy into my personal integrity.  I want to be known as a man of his word.  While I can honestly say that I’ve never distorted the facts of an ugly situation, nor ever tried to blame someone else to make myself look good, I have struggled as a leader with deciding just how much of the ugly details I should disclose. 

I have tried to protect the organization by keeping some of the ugliest details to myself, rather than sharing them with the world.  Because I didn’t make the details public from the beginning, when they came to light, it looked like I had something to hide. 

I realized only after the fact, that I was trying to trade honesty for harmony, and it blew up in my face. Looking back on it now, I would certainly respond differently in some of these leadership dilemmas. 

I want to challenge every leader to learn from my mistakes in approaching similar situations.  Or better yet, learn from the words of the Bible in Proverbs 14:25. “A truthful witness rescues lives, but one who utters lies is deceitful.” 

Leaders need to think about the honesty vs. harmony struggle like a life-or-death issue in their organizations.  You just might be rescuing your life or the life of your organization if you courageously face the details with honesty!  Don’t ever sacrifice honesty for harmony— You’ll lose both.  But, if you will deal with a situation honestly, you just might be able to restore the harmony over time.

[1] https://hbr.org/cover-story/2019/07/the-trust-crisis

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