Americans broadly agree that knowing what is true and what isn’t is an increasingly tough task. According to a Gallup survey last October, only 7% of Americans have a “great deal of trust” in the news, and Pew Research Center found that nearly half turn to social media apps like Facebook for updates. Without a common source for information, how are companies supposed to navigate communications?
Navigating the “truth crisis,” the latest challenge of the information age, is an imperative for businesses and organizations of all kinds who inhabit an environment of ever more uncertainty and less trust—including within businesses themselves.
Much ink and column space have been devoted to the idea that Americans, and citizens around the globe, increasingly live in separate worlds with their own maxims, accepted tenets and realities.
Businesses, in their own way, are citizens, too. But their primary function is to provide a product or service, fill a niche and be a good neighbor all the while. An individual organization can’t possibly address everything people are facing. However, there are things they can do to lead by example, creating space within and around them that is more transparent, grounded and, most of all, trustworthy.
There are three core ways to get started on tackling the truth crisis in your own backyard. If there’s any overarching message, it’s to be who you truly are as an organization and carry this determination wherever you go.
1. Embrace radical transparency.
Certain things, such as intellectual property, obviously need to stay protected for your own safety. Being radically transparent is more about consistency and approachability. It means doing what you say and saying what you mean. When things fall short, or when you face a crisis, seek solid answers. But above all, lead with honesty.
In our closest relationships, we tend to cut one another slack when we make mistakes or say the wrong thing, so long as there is accountability involved. We acknowledge the problem, take ownership of what happened, apologize if appropriate, then share our plan to avoid the same behavior in the future.
For businesses, the situation is largely the same. It’s less about a mistake or misstep than what you are willing to do for others to make it right and change the path forward.
2. Make access to information easier.
There’s a difference between objective truth and subjective perspectives. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate these since so much in the world is subjective, ambiguous and shaded with gray—particularly when it comes to human relationships. That said, your job as an organization is to make the facts easily accessible. This also means resisting the temptation to bend the story.
For employees and internal audiences, this means company policies and working expectations that are clear and upfront. It is also important to conduct transparent surveys, going beyond impersonal, quantitative annual assessments to embrace qualitative conversations.
According to a recent article in Forbes, 81% of people fake happiness at work. Qualitative research can help eliminate traditional surveys’ acquiescence bias—this is the term used for the fact that even in anonymous surveys, employees respond how they think they should, not how they actually feel. Tapping into the truth about your company culture will require a willingness to be vulnerable and authentic.
For external audiences, this means ready access to sustainability policies, hiring plans and achievements and community relationships. It also means resisting the urge to inflate your progress toward a goal like adding more diversity or increasing sustainable practices or community engagement. Instead, accept the truth: “This is where we are, and this is where we’re going.”
3. Take a stand on issues that matter to you.
While businesses cannot solve all the world’s problems, they can be forces for change and for good. In a way, this is a form of “originalist” capitalism imagined by thinkers like Adam Smith in his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which partly emphasizes the community responsibility of an organization.
What matters to you and your team? What are the topics you can speak authentically about? What lived experiences can your team members share? And what are some pressing problems around you that your organization would be well positioned to address? This could be anything from a restaurant providing extras of their delicious meals to organizations addressing food insecurity to a law firm that encourages partners who can do so to take on pro bono work.
Focus on what you can control.
In business, you can’t always control the variables in the political, environmental and social landscape around you. But you can control the ethics and principles you hold, which shape your decisions, and the way you communicate those principles both internally and externally. This can help you—and by extension, your team members, clients and customers—feel more empowered in a time when truth can seem exclusive, distorted and qualified.