Leadership Tip #1: Always Tell the Truth, Even When You’re Embarrassed

You're a middle or senior manager in an organization trying to hold on in these crazy times. And you just discovered you're shipping the wrong version of the product. (Or your product doesn't work or it has some kind of horrible defect.) Your customers are angry. Your employees are running around, trying to fix the problem. What do you say? What do you do?

Tell the truth. Take responsibility. Yes, even though you didn't ship the wrong thing, if you're a manager, you're responsible.

If you tell the truth, you'll embarrass yourself and the company.

If you don't tell the truth, you'll blame the people in the company who tried to do a good job.

What do you do?

Tell the truth. Always. Especially if you think it will embarrass you.


Because people always discover the truth. Always.

If you decide to lie or blame other people, you have to remember who you lied to, about what, and when. Lies weigh on you and create cognitive dissonance. You know one thing (the truth). You say another (the lie). How do you hold both ideas at the same time?

That's the dissonance.

The pain from the dissonance increases over time, too. This is a kind of management debt.

Lies Create Cost Over Time

Technical debt accrues when we consciously make short-term decisions that we suspect are not correct for the long term. However, we make those decisions now. (See Ward Explains Debt Metaphor for more details.)

Technical debt incurs many kinds of costs. I likened it to a balloon mortgage where it often comes due, all at once.

Management debt, where you lose the trust of the employees and the customers? I don't see that as a balloon mortgage over a long time. You lose the trust all at once when people discover the truth.

Losing trust costs you much more than you can imagine.

The faster you lose the trust of others and the more trust you lose, the worse your situation will be.

The people in the organization wonder if they can trust you, when you say, “This is where we're going.”

The customers might well look for another solution to their problems.

What if you're embarrassed? You can say you are. In fact, you might gain some of the trust back when you do.

Here are two statements. Which one would you rather say?

  • Answer 1: Please send us a stack trace of your problem. We haven't seen this before. No one's reported it. It's probably your machine.
  • Answer 2: Thank you for reporting this. We thought we fixed it. I'm sorry we didn't fix it. Can you please send us a stack trace so we can see your context?

Answer 1 diminishes trust. Who can possibly believe you?

When you say Answer 2, you increase trust. Is Answer 2 embarrassing? Of course. You might have to hear people say, “How could you do that?”

Answer 2 creates momentary embarrassment. Answer 1 invites your customers (including me) to look elsewhere for a solution.

Truth Works Everywhere

When you tell the truth, you might feel vulnerable. However, you're more likely to increase trust and respect when you do.

Have a project in trouble? Tell the truth. You'll then free yourself to find solutions you might not have considered.

(I'm planning an intermittent series of posts about leadership, loosely based on the Modern Management Made Easy books. Use the leadership-tip tag here to find them.)

2 thoughts on “Leadership Tip #1: Always Tell the Truth, Even When You’re Embarrassed”

  1. It’s ancient PR advice: Own your mistake, own it bluntly, own it quickly — and then immediately lay out the plan to fix it, and paint the picture of the brighter future after you fix it.

    1. Absolutely. That brighter future? That’s the story that can create new trust. (Not a guarantee. A possibility.) Thanks.

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