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People Often Don’t Want to Hear the Truth

An excerpt from Hard facts, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense : profiting from evidence-based management / Jeffrey Pfeffer, Robert I. Sutton. (Harvard Business School Press)

The phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” contains an enormous amount of truth, namely that delivering bad news is not something that typically wins you many friends. People like to deliver good news, regardless of its validity, in large part because most people seem to prefer hearing good news. The important insight here is that a lie takes two parties-the person who tells the lie and quite frequently the listener who signals in a number of ways that she or he wants to be lied to.

As Gary Loveman explained to us, say he goes to a casino that isn’t doing well. If the leadership at the facility tells him that they understand the problem and know how to fix it, he can fly off feeling good that things will get better. If instead they tell him that they’ve tried a bunch of things, basically everything they can think of, and the casino is still losing out to the competition , Loveman and his team have to actually fix the problem, possibly deliver bad news to their bosses, the board of directors, and can’t go off into the sunset content and secure. But the important thing is that they can fix it, because they’ve been given the facts. Building a culture of truth telling and acting on the hard facts requires an enormous amount of self-discipline in order to not only be willing to hear the truth, however unpleasant, but to actually encourage people to deliver bad news. Kent Thiry, the CEO of DaVita, told us that senior managers at his company actively seek out problems and bad news. That’s because the good news doesn’t require any decisions or action;  it’s the bad news that creates the need to do something to fix the failure. And you can’t fix things or bring advice and talent to bear on problems unless you know about them.

There is really only one way around this reluctance to confront the hard facts, and that is to consciously and systematically understand the psychological propensity to want to both deliver and hear good news and to actively work against it. To practice evidence-based management you first need to know the real truth. And it’s better to know the truth early, when situations can be remedied, than later when it may be too late to do much.

Jan 2012

What kind of Business Ethics do I advocate ?

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