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Is truthfulness a competency?

As human beings, we tend to ignore the elephant in the room because we fear the consequences. Truth is a time bomb; the fuse is lit, and when it goes off we’ll all get blown to bits. Really?… It could just be that when it blows there’s nothing more than a lovely colourful (and perfectly harmless) foam fountain. Why do we fear the worst?

Duncan Brodie, a former NHS Director I interviewed for Undiscussables.com a while ago, questioned the logic of a health service that effectively works a Monday to Friday schedule when those who depend on it (i.e. require medical treatment) typically do not conform to an office hours only schedule when falling ill. I’ve also talked before about the notion that what is undiscussable in an organisation is, in and of itself, often undiscussable, and idea that stems from the work of Chris Argyris.

Reading a pointed (as ever) and thought-provoking post by Roy Lilley at NHSManagers.net recently, what struck me is that the two states of undiscussability that Arygris describes may need defining separately.

The undiscussable undiscussable

A subject that is taboo and has yet to reach the stage that it can even be alluded to.

Sexual and physical abuse, whether that alleged to have taken place by Jimmy Saville or within the Catholic Church, often seems to fall into this category. The difficulty that those who have been abused have in having their stories heard, let alone believed, might suggest that this pattern is particularly difficult to break. In organisational/work contexts, they can arise also.

The discussable undiscussable

The taboo alluded to, hinted at, ‘known’, tantalisingly out of reach

Writing that heading I question my logic momentarily, and it is this category that Roy Lilley describes powerfully in another post re mortality rates in the NHS. Analysis of three years of data and four million patient outcomes have revealed a statistically significant increase in mortality rates the nearer to the end of a working week you have elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgery.

It’s a bit like ‘Area 51’, the US Military…. It’s an open secret. Everyone knows it’s there but the US Government pretends it isn’t. Just like MI5. Everyone knew about it but it took the British government until 1994 to admit it existed. And, The Stig, BBC’s Top Gear test driver; apparently everyone knows who she is.

Elephant in the Room, Open Secret.

This is the ‘classic’ elephant: the thing we all know is there but do not want to acknowledge and/or discuss, yet there is tacit agreement that it exists. The undiscussable undiscussable is different: there is no agreement, tacit or otherwise, of existence because the consequences of doing so are too high for some of those involved. Or because those who witness what is happening cannot bear the consequences of even acknowledging it (the bystander effect)?….

There is no easy answer, although I am drawn to two suggestions, both sparked by Lilley.

Data, data, data… Give me more data

The mortality rate issue above was revealed and discussed in sharper terms because not only was there data available, it has been used to make sense of complexity to reveal an underlying pattern. With data, you get to a conversation that takes you closer to a decision based on reality rather than the shifting sand of opinion.

Truthfulness is a competency

In the post on mortality rates, Lilley laid out a challenge for leadership in and around the NHS, in the context of the recommendations in the Francis Report calling for a new approach to leadership practice.

Truthfulness emerges as a key competence when an organisation is faced with the unachievable. Soldiering-on, to protect reputations and careers, not confronting the real issues leads to an environment fertile for fraud, fictions and fabrications. Obsfucation, cover-ups and smokescreens disguise the actualite and defer the inevitable.

Relative to the NHS, and given my own experience working with people within the UK health sector, I would agree. What is more, I am not aware of any psychometric tests, competency frameworks or similar that explicitly seek to inquire into the capacity of individuals in organisations to speak the(ir) truth, relative to role and context (suggestions welcome if there are). And…

A challenge to leaders and leadership development practitioners

My experience of working with(in) organisations and with leadership teams is that the desire for simple answers and certainty undermines those who make the case for slowing down to seek more data in order to establish what is real and not real, what is fact and not opinion. This desire for simple answers and certainty, delivered in as short a time as possible, places a primacy on an illusory form of truth. ‘Directness’ and ‘honesty’ are not the same as truthfulness, the essence of which is grounding in fact or reality, and means you are exposed to the possibility that reality may not be how you imagine it. So a couple of questions, relative to the taboos and challenges in your organisation:

  • To what extent do you know what is true (real), and based on what data?
  • To what extent are you prepared for the truth, whatever it is, or to speak a truth?
  • To what extent is your organisation ready for the truth?
  • What are the consequences, all of them, of speaking out and not speaking out?

Your move.

(Ed: This post was initially published on Undiscussables.com)


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It’s no good being conscious in your business if some topics are un-discussable…

Being conscious in business, or life in general, involves taking risks, and it is surprising how common it is for us to shy away from those conversations that, whilst hairy, may be exactly what is needed.

I spent last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona (niiiiice), where I met up with 25 other practitioners who take a complexity-based approach to organisational change and development. All of us are certified Human Systems Dynamics Practitioners, which a) lets us use extra letters after our names, and b) gives us more long words to bamboozle and confuse clients with if we don’t watch it. The purpose of the conference was to help the group develop more tightly coupled relationships in order to grow our practice, and foster collaborative working. Overall it was a success, and I walked away having both learned stuff (good), met some top people (excellent), and added a number of things to my ‘to do’ list (not so good).


One moment stands out for me as being the point at which the conversation shifted from being useful to generative. Or to put it another way, when we shifted from being polite to each other and got down to what mattered…

Playing with similarity & difference

At the heart of all relationships is a dance between sameness and difference: the more similar we are, the better the ‘fit’ and the greater likelihood we want to  work or play together; the greater the number of differences, chances are we move apart and/or end up in conflict. So far so obvious. What is less obvious, yet typical of what happens in many relationships, particularly in organisations, is what is left unsaid, unspoken, unnamed and ultimately becomes un-discussable. I have touched on this theme before (Intent(ion): the missing link?…, Is Gordon Brown’s ‘bullying’ behaviour a symptom, not the problem?, Collaboration: 10 tips for success, with a relational bias), and the un-discussable is not something that is easy to bring up. To suggest to anyone, particularly in a group context, that there may be something that they are avoiding talking about can evoke fear, anger, shame or simply plain discomfort. It requires, as a minimum, courage and curiosity on the part of the person raising the question, and a level of trust that can hold the impact of that intervention and any resulting. The rewards are huge if you can go there, and here’s why.

About an hour into the conference, we were invited to go into small groups to explore how we were same and different, and what this might mean for the relationships in the room and the weekend as a whole. My group of three contained some meaty differences, which we explored, and it led to one person noticing that she wasn’t sure how safe it was to share aspects of her self and her values that marked her out, in her view, as different to the majority. Whether this was true or not is not the point.  The discovery and potential rich learning lay in the (shared) realization that the group felt somehow un-safe and that some topics felt taboo.

Pick a door, any door…

This moment was a beautiful decision point for us. Many groups/organisations face these without realizing it, and, I believe, more often than not opt for safety. I can understand why, but we didn’t. Back in the big group, our feedback was framed around a central question:

“What is un-discussable in this group?”


Heart in mouth, I illustrated this by sharing how I felt (feared) my (Brighton, UK, liberal) values might mark me out as different from my US hosts, and how our relationship would change the more I revealed those differences.

Nothing is un-discussable, the only thing that changes is consequences…

From that initial risk-taking, something amazing happened. Person after person revealed questions/thoughts that they hold been holding back. In our case – and it will not be the same for every group or context – the territory we ended up exploring was primarily the questions and issues people felt unsure about raising in the context of the work we were there to do. There was some talk about how we were different individually, but as a group our focus was on the work. The trust in the room, and relational awareness of the people involved, was such that we held our differences lightly, and respected them. This particular exchange set the tone for the weekend, and got us quicker to where we wanted to go than would have been possible otherwise, in my opinion and it is important to say that.

Do I believe there were places we didn’t go, questions that were not raised? Yes, I suspect there were, if for no other reason than I get curious when a group of people spend so much time together without getting into any decent arguments! And that may say more about me than the group.

So the question for you is …

What are you not discussing in your organisation, team, group, board? How are your similarities and differences driving the conversation, and what is stopping you from saying what is really on your mind and gets in the way of work? For me, a relational approach leavened with models and methods from complexity works wonders. What works for you?