Real Leaders

Lessons From the Coronavirus: If You Don’t Tell the Truth, Technology Will

coronavirus and technology

Ask 100 people if they believe in transparency. Every hand will go up. But practicing transparency is another matter.

We seem to have an inborn instinct to conceal the truth when the facts may not smile upon us. In this era of profound interdependency, we need to unlearn that instinct, and we need to do it quickly.

Case in point: COVID-19, the coronavirus crisis. China’s initial reflex was to conceal the outbreak. Bad move. As a result, the world is being systematically tutored in the reality of human mobility, global supply chains, and capital flows. Could the coronavirus have been prevented? Probably not. Could it have been better controlled in the beginning through transparency and collaboration? Absolutely.

The same principle applies to life and business. Be transparent and be transparent early. Overcome the instinct to hide.

Sometimes we’re noble and kind to each other. Sometimes we’re criminally irresponsible. Our track record as a species is, for the most part, a chilling history, a pageant of war, and a chronicle of conquest. We can be benevolent, compassionate, and kind. We can also be, as the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes put it, “stinkin’, low-down, mean.” Hiding the truth is mean.

It’s time for us to conduct a searching personal and institutional inventory. Why, after thousands of years, are we technologically advanced and yet still sociologically primitive? 

Technology Is Dragging Us to Transparency

The irony is that technology is dragging us to transparency. What we’ve made with our hands is forcing our hand. The era of big data, AI, mixed reality, and sensors are disinfecting the darkness with light.

Perhaps the most significant unintended consequence of the technological revolution is the unanticipated death of the very concept of hiding. There are simply fewer places to go to. You can’t hide a virus. You can’t hide malfunctioning software in commercial aircraft, as we saw in crashes involving Boeing’s 737 MAX. You can’t hide a missile strike, as the world witnessed when two Iranian missiles hit Ukrainian Flight 742. If you don’t confess the truth, technology will eventually confess it for you.

This is a good thing because we could use some help telling the truth.

Truth-Telling in Your Organization

As I work with leaders, I encourage them to foster psychological safety and tolerance for candor in their institutions. I encourage them to abolish the concept of hiding. This is not easy. It requires moral, emotional, and intellectual capacity.

Asking your employees to be transparent—and to scrutinize the status quo—normally injects a degree of conflict, confrontation, creative abrasion, constructive dissent, and chaos. When telling the truth is followed by criticism or punishment, when the intellectual battle turns into interpersonal conflict when fear becomes a motivator, the process collapses, and people go silent. They retreat into personal risk management.

This is a dangerous place to be because the enemy of transparency is arrogance and fear. In a fear-driven environment, we’re prone to conceal mistakes. We try to hide. And then we get stung.

A leader’s most important job—even above creating a vision and setting strategy—is to act in the role of a social architect and give people the respect and permission they need to speak truth to power.

Here are three practical suggestions to cultivate this type of transparency in your organization:

Reward vulnerability. As a leader, you must protect individuals and teams when they are most vulnerable. Ask for specific, honest, and diverse perspectives—and even disagreement—in ways that avoid emotional escalation and destructive social friction. If you reward vulnerability, it will become the norm.

Ask for the bad news. This may seem counterintuitive, but asking for bad news is a way of speeding up the process of identifying areas for correction, experimentation, and even innovation. When there’s bad news, it allows us to challenge the status quo more easily because something is already broken or not working right.

Don’t blame or shame. People make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are due to complacency and carelessness. Even in that situation, don’t correct with anger, blame, or shame. Any kind of public ridicule is off-limits. Instead, coach the person to understand his or her mistakes and take responsibility for them. Even candid, corrective feedback can be given respectfully.

The next time your team encounters an organizational coronavirus, overcome the instinct to hide.

Learn more at Leader Factor.

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