Truth and Consequences

Once upon a time, in the early days of television, there was a show called Truth or Consequences where contestants always seemed to get the consequence because they couldn’t answer the trivia (or truth) question.  Seems a bit silly now.  But what about the consequences of truth-telling?

 In the nonprofit world there’s a huge emphasis on transparency although my observation is that term is mostly applied to financial dealings and board conflicts than anything else.  Transparency in terms of truth-telling can bear consequences for an organization, its reputation, and its future.  It’s why it can be difficult to stay true.

People lie or skate the truth or even put a positive spin on things to avoid the fall-out of truth-telling.  In a 2005 article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, four rationales for obscuring the truth included:

  •  to avoid pain or unpleasant consequences;
  •  to promote self-interest and a particular point of view;
  •  to protect the leaders or the organization;
  • to perpetuate myths that hold the organization or a point of view together.

(Nonprofit Quarterly:

I’ve seen the consequence of truth-telling in my home town.  Sometimes it’s an “emperor’s new clothes” situation where the truth-tellers (sometimes known as whistleblowers) have been ostracized and trash talked.  Sometimes people are ignored or worse.  You have to have courage in these situations, and the belief that what you are saying is for the good of the organization.

Telling a lie implies a deliberate obfuscation of the facts.  The same Nonprofit Quarterly article posed a continuum of  “everyday lies” ranging from bald-faced to nuanced.  One I’d like to talk about is the conscious (and occasionally unconscious) withholding of relevant information and material.   The author identifies this as  “a kind of power play to leverage the value and impact of information that you have. By not fully disclosing your knowledge, you are in fact manipulating people for your own purposes (whatever they may be).”

I remember clearly being guilty of this early in my career.  I was a newly minted ED of an organization facing serious financial difficulties.  So serious I decided to shield my board from them with the idea that I could pull us out.  Pretty much by myself.  My recollection after many years is that I was afraid that the board would all resign.  The financial mess was not of my making and  I had been on the job for less than two months.  But somehow I believed that sheltering the board from the truth was the way to go. 

I had experience with the consequence of truth-telling a year or two earlier. In another city, a small group of us, volunteers, called the organization to task on its financial accounting and decisions.  This bit of truth-telling led to total upheaval in the organization, resignation of key staff and  a period of instability that was difficult to surmount.  Was it a good thing to do?  At the time it seemed very important.  Yet the fall-out was substantial.  If I knew the consequences going in would I have been a party to this?  I think so because transparency in this collectively formed nonprofit seemed to be a core value and the organizational leadership was clouding the truth.  Had the organization folded I might think differently.

We withhold information all the time. We “bite our tongues”.  We attempt to smooth over bad situations by withholding facts.   And we withhold information to maintain control over a situation we feel we are “in charge” of.  We believe the consequences of truth-telling are worse than the consequences of telling lies.

Eventually, if we withhold information, our organizations suffer. Our boards cannot do the stewardship job they are entrusted with.  Our staff and volunteers may be unable to do their work.  We may position ourselves as the “go to” person,  but what if we are suddenly not there.

It can be difficult to hear the truth about our organizations (or even ourselves). But isn’t honesty really the best policy?