Honesty in Hierarchies

In organizations, it is commonly recognized that truth does not speak to power.  This means people below cannot express an authentic voice to those above.  What is less recognized is that people above often lack the courage to speak the truth to those below.  In situations where the truth goes unspoken, it is difficult to co-create social excellence.

A friend recently retired as the head of nursing in a large hospital.  She shared one of the most important learning moments in her career.  As a new director of a set of units, she learned that a downsizing was about to happen.  HR instructed her on what she could say.  Following the instructions meant withholding information; the organization was teaching her to be inauthentic.  She complied and this eventually created tragedy.  It also left her with a legacy of distrust.  She vowed to never again follow conventional, fear-based, hierarchical assumptions.  Instead, she committed to provide people with optimal control over their destinies and to always tell them what was going on.

She indicates, “It took a long time for the nurses to trust me again, but eventually they did.”  A few years later, another downsizing was looming:

This time, everyone was informed and involved and something happened that demonstrates how people so often do what is in the best interest of our patients, even when they themselves are suffering.  The nurses that were going to lose their jobs asked if they could still participate in the planning of the newly configured unit and of course, I welcomed them.  This enabled them to bring their expertise to the situation and feel that they were making a contribution to our patients (which they were).  It was a difficult but empowering experience for everyone involved.

What was the long-term impact of her change?  “I am known for communicating the ‘good, bad and the ugly,’ and it has led to a great deal of trust in the nursing community.  To this day, 28 years later, any nurse that was there in the 90s would follow me anywhere.  They have remained my strongest supporters through all these years.”

Here is a critical claim: “They would follow me anywhere.”  In systems of social excellence, this condition becomes generalized.  Everybody in the system is willing to follow everyone else anywhere.  In social excellence, everyone is a trusted leader.



  • Of what value is trust in an organization?
  • Why does hierarchical logic so often lead to withholding information?
  • Why does the courage to trust, empower, and inform undergird positive leadership?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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