Can your company handle the truth?

“I want the truth!” That’s the famous line from Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men — to which the fearsome Colonel Jessup responds, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Thirty years of research at VitalSmarts shows most organizations also can’t handle the truth. And it costs them in every way from customer retention, profitability and diversity, to employee engagement and safety. In fact, our general finding is that you can pretty much measure the health of an organization by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing concerns.

The pattern is repeated everywhere from the board room to the shop floor. Employees assume their boss, peers and even direct reports can’t handle the truth. So they stay mum. They withhold ideas and concerns most every day of their work life.

The lever that changes the world

There is one aspect of your company’s culture that deserves disproportionate attention. The question that should occupy leaders the most is, “Do our employees think there is something more important than the truth?” If the answer is yes, here are some of the ways it is costing you. And here are four things you can do to change their answer.

Talk. First and foremost, make silence discussable. Point out the tendency and consequences of withholding the truth. Start by letting people know you care more about truth than comfort — that your ego is less important than your mission.

Ask. Ask for feedback. Make time for questions. Learn to ask questions in a way that demonstrates your sincere desire for truth.

For example, after making an impassioned pitch for one of your cherished ideas, plead with people to poke holes in it. Many leaders think they can’t share their opinions without shutting down debate. This isn’t true. The only limit on how strongly you can argue for your own view is your willingness to be even more passionate about encouraging people to disagree.

Model. You have no moral authority to ask people to take social risks unless you do the same.

Teach. People mistakenly assume that when others don’t speak up, it’s because they lack courage. Our research shows it is more often about competence. We often want to say something but don’t know how.

In one experiment, we tested whether people spoke up when someone cut in front of them in line. Few did. That reluctance changed dramatically if the victim had previously heard someone else confront another line cutter — in fact they even used almost exactly the same words they heard the previous victim use.

The best way to change a culture of silence is for leaders to not only model the skills, but to also teach them.

The health of your organization is a function of the lag time between people seeing problems and people discussing problems. There is nothing you can do as a leader to have a more profound impact than to create an organization where nothing is more important than the truth.

Joseph Grenny is a bestselling author, speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is also the cofounder of VitalSmarts. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. www.crucialskills.com