Truth can cause so much damage to relationships, says Charles Handy. But if it is aired in an atmosphere of trust, creativity can blossom and productivity bloom.
The play Art has been playing to packed houses in London for over a year. There must therefore be more to it than some good jokes and witty repartee, I reflected, so I finally went to see it. The wit is there alright but, as so often, there is sadness at the heart of the comedy - a sadness that reflects some of the strains of modern life.
The play centres around the reaction of a group of friends to the purchase by one of them of a piece of modern art, a painting that appears to be a blank white canvas. The other two tell him what they think of it, and of him for buying it. This triggers an orgy of further truth-telling and the looming end of the friendship. What happens in the end is illuminating but it would spoil the play to reveal it now.
The truth at all costs?
I left the theatre wondering why something supposedly as good as the truth can cause so much damage to relationships. How much truth can we stand - from friends, colleagues or superiors? Is my Dutch friend right when he says that you only know that an Englishman is really your friend when he is rude to you, telling you an unpleasant truth to your face?
Is politeness, in fact, a veil for truth, concealing reality behind the conventions? At work, does the importance of the task override all considerations of hurt pride or sensitivity, so that it is the truth at all costs that is needed? Why do we resent well-meant criticism, even when we know that it is true? These questions lie at the heart of things, because relationships that are based on false impressions are unlikely to result in good work or happiness.
Truth is, of course, an elusive commodity. My truth is not necessarily your truth. Truth is more often than not a synonym for opinion, even when it is supposedly backed by numbers. If we don't like the opinion, it is easier to deny its validity or to devalue its source rather than accept it. That is why even the most objective of appraisal interviews seldom result in changed behaviour, for example. More often than not, the inevitable piece of unpleasant truth that is introduced in those annual meetings, and is meant to be so helpful, results in defensive resistance, lowered motivation and a strained relationship. Like most writers or actors, the names of the authors of my bad reviews are engraved on my heart and their lessons too often ignored.
A test of genuine friendship
Most of us are only prepared to accept, and act on, unpleasant truths when they are given to us by people who have a genuine care for us, 'unconditional positive regard' in the jargon, and whose opinions, or versions of the truth, we respect on past evidence. Our parents may qualify on the first criterion but can fail on the second - 'the world has changed since your day, Dad' - while our superiors and colleagues may pass the second test but fail the first. My Dutch friend was right, if someone can criticise you to your face and get away with it, she or he must be a genuine friend.
Teachers can also do it if they are perceived to be teaching the individual and not the subject. This is because your development is their primary purpose, something that is more common in primary schools than later in life.
Where the task dominates, however, we can usually afford to be 'economical with the truth', without worrying about how much we care for the other person or how much we are respected. There is no need to share your views of your colleague's bad breath or bad morals if you only need his accounting skills on that project. Nor is there any point in telling someone that you think they are ugly if there is nothing that they can do about it. In tightly task-focused organisations, it is perfectly possible to work efficiently and amicably alongside people whom you dislike. Your and their requirements for the truth are limited to the needs of the job and no more. It is a ring-fenced relationship.
The truth becomes more important when the relationship is more generally defined or when the relationship itself is the point, as in friendship or marriage or permanent teams at work where the tasks are constantly changing. Here, the challenge is to create the degree of trust and mutual support that makes it possible for each individual to hear the other person's view of the truth and to accept it without rancour if it does not concur with their version. When that trust or mutual concern evaporates, the relationship is held together only by the need to carry out particular common tasks. Many a marriage disintegrates when the children leave home and the shared responsibilities are removed.
In an atmosphere of trust
Shared tasks and shared conventions allow us to work and live together but they can also shield us from the truth about ourselves. That way, we never change, never grow and never know the comfort and assurance of a trusting relationship. Love does not mean never having to say that you're sorry, love means that you can say sorry, mean it and know that you will be forgiven. In a less emotive way, an atmosphere of trust where the different perceptions of truth can be aired, discussed and accepted is likely to be the place where individuals learn and grow, where creativity blossoms and productivity booms. Organisations that are families of friends are fun places to be, and useful too.
Most difficult of all, however, is to be true to oneself. To live a lie is the real sadness of life. If we protect ourselves from the full truth about ourselves, if we fail to listen or fail to experiment, if we barricade ourselves behind convention and tasks, trust only a few individuals enough to share our truths with them, then we miss out on all the possibilities of ourselves. Once you have glimpsed it, the truth about yourself really can set you free.
Charles Handy is off to work on a new book so this will be his last column.
He hopes to return to Management Today in the autumn.