Shackled Truth: Words Left Unsaid

Don’t shackle your truth. When you leave words unsaid. Your team loses, your world stays unchanged, and you know it could be better.

I worked this week with a mix of fantastic leaders across a spectrum of leadership roles and industries in a keynote I gave at the International Customer Service Association. 

Early in the game, I asked each person to write down a “strong leadership strength which they frequently hide.” I was surprised and saddened by the #1 answer.

Telling the Truth

Folks yearn to tell the truth, share their knowledge, and express their opinions but are slowed by fear of:

  • Authority
  • Backlash
  • Upset employees
  • Not being accepted
  • Failure
  • Consequences
  • Bosses
  • Losing my position

“What if I’m wrong?” or “my boss disagrees” “I don’t fit in.” “there are other strong voices in the room.” The fear of these vital leaders is also your fear, my fear, our fear.

Unschackled Truth

“Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
~ Mark Twain

We work so hard to unshackle truth. Scar tissue, dynamics, fear of losing the familiar, keep us cautious. Your team may be holding back more than you think. A few thoughts on unshackling:

  • Ask questions for which you have no idea of the answer
  • Tell the truth (up, down, and sideways)
  • Listen more than is practical
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Take deliberate actions on what you hear
  • Recognize the truth sayers

*Photo by Larry Kohlenstein

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Communication and tagged , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. In corporate life, I always tried to tell the truth but where I failed was softening my message and risked it being lost. When we tell the truth in service of others and doing exceptional work, it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

    I recently came across a funny tool to empower people to tell the truth and help them feel safe too. Will look at it again and give you the scoop.

    Great article, Karin!

  2. Curious when you come from a place of ‘fear’ how you don’t think so clearly and make decisions you might later regret.

    For a lot of your list Karin I might list ‘respect’ as the pay-off for telling the truth. Pity we don’t see that at the time. Agree, sad.

  3. The key to telling the truth, is making your statement in a neutrally charged fashion. No agenda. No judgement. Just the truth.

    “The truth ends every conversation.” ~ Jerry Seinfeld

    To learn the context of this statement, watch the Seth Meyers episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

  4. Steve, Excellent point. I’ve seen the truth go south when people let their fear turn into emotion as they blurt out “the truth.” How we tell the truth matters a great deal. Managing our emotions is part of that.

    Truth can end conversations (mostly debates), I’ve also seen it begin the conversation that must happen next. Thanks as always for bringing new ideas into the conversation.

  5. The truth will set us free, but we are often concerned it will set us free from a job. One of the most important questions leaders can ask is, “What can I do to improve?” This question should be asked to those you are leading. Another is found in the question, “What are my weaknesses?” Both of these questions make us vulnerable, but they convey the principle we can always be better and that you value the opinion of your team. They also set up to an understanding that you can handle the truth, even truth that is potentially negative against us as leaders. Thanks Karin!

  6. One common activity in manufacturing is the creation of benchmarks. I’m sure benchmarks are used in health care, education, and other industries that can measure growth. Regarding the truth – it should be relatively easy to not hurt your career (I am thinking about Dave’s post above) is by giving feedback based on the benchmarks. “Our goal was 12 widgets by 3:00 p.m. and an increase in quality by 10% over last month. Instead, we’ve produced ….” Then the leader can point to areas that might have affected the non-expected widget production.
    Of course, human growth is not measurable. “Bill, you’re 14% below your growth potential based on ….” That won’t go over very well. And it is directed at a person, rather than a measurable benchmark. Bottom line – avoid personal judgement.

    • David, using objective benchmarks certainly helps identify which areas need more focus. It then comes to identifying the behaviors that are impacting them. Thanks so much for adding your great insights to the LGL community.

  7. I did a survey recently of what frustrated people most about meetings and it was that important things went unsaid (this actually shocked me).

    I think that you do a great job here of suggesting ways to avoid those situations. In my experience a lot of it comes down to culture and the acceptance of vulnerability. This is a very touchy subject for many because our society makes it seem like being open, honest and authentic (vulnerable) is a weakness. I love Brene Brown’s work in this area, particularly given her own story of personal transformation and re-awakening to a new truth. I believe that it really does start with the behavior and practices of the leader. If the leader won’t embrace and share vulnerability social norms are such that team members will follow the behavior that is modeled to them. Ergo, truth shackles erected!
    Here’s a solution I’ve been experimenting with

  8. Really loved your post, Karin. I hesitated to comment because I’ve had to think a lot about speaking the truth in my past career as an FBI counterintelligence agent. Twenty years ago I would have responded that truth is either black or white. Now, I would say that truth is various degrees of gray. Our personal truth is sacred and valuable, but I firmly believe we can reveal our true feelings in the work environment in degrees that can assuage the concerns you mentioned in your post. It’s a little like walking on ice…take small steps at a time and stop long enough to listen to hear whether the ice is breaking or whether you’re on solid footing. I’ve had to do this enough times to know that it works…it takes the ability to get out of your own head long enough to observe what others are thinking before proceeding the next step.

    As always, love you stuff!

    • LaRae, what a perfect metaphor. Yes, I fully agree, treading carefully helps. What I’ve been finding in exploring this topic, is that many perceive the ice to be weaker than it is. And therefore don’t take appropriate risks.

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