The Best Way to Find “the Element of Truth” in Every Story

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As CEO, I hear a lot. Of course, there’s a lot I don’t hear as well.

A while back I caught wind of a budding rumor about one of our employees. Supposedly this individual had wasted company resources and, in the process, had really put off a handful of employees. The messenger was quite annoyed, rolling her eyes and advocating for the professionalism of those who had “stood their ground” when tempted to participate.

Over time I have learned an important lesson. There is “an element of truth” within each and every story.

What’s often difficult to discern is which and how big the truthful element is.

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In order to prevent politics, I have found that total transparency is essential. Whenever I hear a story, I deliberately share the information with the person affected.

Sometimes the story requires immediate action. Other times you can afford to do a little fact checking. Either way, I make it clear what aspects of the story I know as fact and which are clearly conjecture. I remind the subject that there’s an element of truth within the story and that it’s our job to figure out what it is.

For my “wasteful” employee, I first initiated a very casual investigation.

It turns out that several of the facts behind the story were accurate. The employee had deployed the resources as described, but with the benefit of context it was clear, without a shadow of doubt, that the spending was anything but wasteful. In fact, it was rather inappropriate and detrimental for the “put off” employees to not participate.

Despite debunking any wrongdoing, I still chose to disclose the gossip to the individual. The person deserved to know how their actions were perceived, that I had uncovered the truth, and had dealt with the issue.

Of course, I also confronted the messenger. It was essential for both the source and the messenger to understand the facts and how damaging their gossip could have been.

Transparency is also important when the spirit of the communication is accurate.

Last year I heard a different story about our team’s performance from the client than I had from my team. Our team perceived a “delighted” client. In reality, while ’satisfied,’ there were a couple of unaddressed issues that had spoiled the client’s ability to be truly delighted.

Again, I confronted the issue head-on, sharing with the team leader the exact words that had been passed along by the client and the perception they had because of it. I made it clear that while it represented only one data point, it was a valid data point that directly contradicted what she had previously shared with me. By confronting the disconnect and addressing the perception head-on, the employee was empowered with information and able to address the perception.

I am deliberate about being transparent with the feedback I hear and information I gather. I have seen firsthand, how holding back feedback — especially when it relates to a specific individual, or team — can be a driving force behind bad assumptions and politics. Too many leaders hold back, fearing that they do not have the complete picture. Rather than “protect” those that you lead, try trusting them and involving them in the process of discerning the “element of truth.”

If your employees don’t know what you know, trust will deteriorate, assumptions will grow, the left hand won’t know what the right hand knows, and silos, politics, and turf wars will creep in.

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