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Create a workplace where truth can reign

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Miri Zena McDonald attended the 2012 International Association of Business Communicators World Conference in Chicago and is providing coverage for SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership. She tweets @mirimcdonald.

Linda Dulye, founder of Dulye & Co., isn’t afraid to call people out on lying. She began her IABC session by asking the audience if their companies allowed meeting attendees to say “pass” when asked to provide an update in a team meeting. A lot of hands went up.

Dulye explained that this behavior is rooted in cultures where passively sitting back has become acceptable. She went on to say that this type of culture often presents itself in organizations where lying is happening and many employees, instead of speaking up, become what she calls “spectators.”

Dulye pushes organizations to create what she terms a “spectator-free workplace” — a company where everyone is obligated to speak up so truth can reign. In fact, Rolls-Royce adopted her firm’s “spectator-free” practices and, in less than two years, achieved  gains in operating income, productivity and morale through a more engaged and informed workforce.

Dulye discussed data she collected in 2011 though an online, anonymous poll on workplace lying. There were about 250 respondents, with about 90% coming from the U.S., about 35% from large corporations and a fairly even mix of men and women.

The poll asked three simple yet powerful questions that evoked the following responses:

  1. What is the single biggest factor that causes lying in the workplace? 50% of people said fear is the biggest factor that causes lying in the workplace, with 18% citing poor communication practices.
  2. What is the worst lie your manager, a direct report or a co-worker could tell you? 60% of responses focused on lies that involved their job or career status such as “your job is safe.” The remaining 40% were split between lies involving team performance and overall company performance.
  3. How do you create a workplace where truth can reign? 65% said better communications would do it. 30% cited workplace culture.

To address the root of these responses and create a strategy that companies can implement to make truth a priority in the workplace, Dulye recommends a leader game plan that involves four steps:

  1. Invest in data collection. Use polls versus surveys to get immediate results and tie assessment results to business performance. Establish an easy-to-understand visual, public reporting tool so everyone can be part of the solution.
  2. Create an action plan for conversations and connections. This means two-way communication. One example is to do what Dulye calls “workplace walkarounds.” Leaders physically visit a different group for 30 minutes each month and hold an open, unscripted and unfiltered forum to allow employees to voice concerns and perspective.
  3. Develop skills for open dialogue. Leaders should practice listening more than speaking, use twice as many open-ended questions than closed-ended and get comfortable saying “I don’t know” and taking down a question for follow-up.
  4. Demonstrate accountability. Make accountability part of the performance review and tie to compensation. Track data publicly. For example, track leader walkarounds on the intranet, showing “green” for complete and “red” for no-shows.

Other strategies recommended by Dulye to create an honest workplace include:

  • Have employees rate leader performance at events (such as the workplace walkarounds) and have leaders share the ways they’ll improve next time.
  • Make it safe to speak up by publicly rewarding those who voice dissenting opinions.
  • Create “face-time Fridays” — ban use of e-mail on Friday, forcing employees to speak face to face.
  • Require meeting participants to talk about what isn’t going well and how to fix it.
  • Send employee “action team canvassers” to periodically ask people about hot topics and quickly persuade leaders that an issue needs to be addressed.
  • Use whiteboards in places where low or no technology exists (such as warehouses) to collect data from all stakeholders and show you care what they think, too.