When the Truth Is Your Only Chance

A few months ago, Paul Franco* took a job working part-time for a company in the healthcare industry. At the time, Paul told me he thought the company had tremendous potential, both in the marketplace and for him personally.

So I was a little surprised when he called me, exasperated. “I think I’m going to quit,” he told me.

So we discussed it. The pros for staying were plentiful: he is free to work on his own time, from wherever he wants, doing what he loves, towards a goal about which he cares. Also, he’s making good money and a difference — both of which matter to him.

Sounds great, right? So what are the cons? There’s only one, really: His boss, the CEO/founder.

“He’s all over the place,” Paul told me. “Shifting from one vision to the next. He’s unfocused, unclear, unrealistic, and, most disturbingly, he’s burning bridges with potential investors as well as colleagues. He even reneged on a commitment he made to me, which I had already extended to other people. He’s hurting the business and I’m worried about my reputation by affiliation.”

Should Paul quit? Even with all the seductive pros, the answer seems glaringly obvious: Of course he should quit. And not just because the CEO is unfocused. He should quit because no opportunity — no matter how badly you need the money — is worth losing your reputation.

I was itching to share my advice but I held back long enough to ask one last question:

“Have you told the CEO what you’ve told me?”

He hesitated. “Not really. Not so clearly.”

Now my answer was very clear though not the one I had planned. “Leaving now,” I said to him, “is a big mistake. I have a much better idea.”

Paul is in a situation I see all the time: An organization or a relationship is either stagnating or deteriorating and no one knows what to do to fix it. Just in the last week alone I’ve heard people talk about unsatisfying managerial relationships, languishing business results, and unhappy marriages. The only two choices seem to be to live the depressing reality of an unpleasant rut, or leave.

Instead, I suggest a third option: risk truth.

Remember when you were a kid, playing ball, and the ball got stuck up in a tree? At that point, you had three options: You could stare at the ball, with growing frustration (stay in the job), you could walk away and play a different game (quit), or you could find a stick long enough to reach the ball and knock it out of the tree.

Think of the truth as that stick.

If Paul doesn’t risk the truth, nothing changes. If he leaves, he will end up in a similar position again — we always do — and then he’ll leave again. The ball will remain stuck in the tree.

But that stick of truth shakes things up. He’ll have to stretch beyond his own comfort to share his observations with the CEO. He’ll have to think about it, work on it, take his share of responsibility, and communicate carefully.

But however uncomfortable that is, it’s not the scary part. The scary part is the uncertainty of the CEO’s reaction. The CEO might lash out. Or sit in denial. Or fire Paul.

Here’s the crucial thing though: There’s no real risk for Paul, because he was going to leave anyway. Paul has nothing to lose.

And the upside? It’s limitless. He might be able to turn around the company. He might develop a deeply trusted relationship with the CEO. He will undoubtedly increase his ability to engage in difficult conversations. He will know he did what he could for the benefit of the company. And, most of all, he will shake things up.

Anything else he tries — political maneuvering, avoidance, stepping cautiously around the CEO’s challenges, speaking poorly about the CEO behind his back, defending the CEO even though he doesn’t believe it, living with things as they are — is soul-sucking and will maintain the status quo.

The truth is his only chance. Not talking about something keeps the ball in the tree.

This is true of any stuck situation. Languishing business results? Asking the hard questions and getting to the uncomfortable truth of the obstacles – whether the truth leads to people or process or something else — is the only chance we have of stimulating a turnaround. The unhappy marriage? Share the truth and either things will get better or worse — but at least they’ll move.

The biggest problem most of us have isn’t that things are bad, it’s that they’re not changing. The truth changes things.

The hard part is moving through the mystery of what will happen when the truth is on the table. It’s that fear of the unknown — the risk it represents — that leads us to keep the truth hidden.

So how do we get over that fear? It’s simple and hard: courage.

First, you need to ask yourself the hard questions about what you really see, think, and feel. Are you projecting? Blaming someone else for your issues? Or seeing things as they really are? In other words, seek the truth. Be honest with yourself, first.

Then, once you feel confident about what you believe — or even if you don’t — tap into your compassion and care for the other person and be direct. Don’t sandwich your truth with apologies, soft-pedaling, and contradictions. That would be hitting the tree so softly that the ball never comes out. On the other hand, don’t whack the tree so violently and indiscriminately that all the branches break off. Share your perspective as “Here’s what I see, feel, think.” Be clear and own it. Then leave time and space for the other person or people to respond.

Finally, let go of your need to have the other person reply in any particular way. You’ve done your part by being clear, compassionate, and honest. You can’t control the rest. But your stick of truth will have shaken the ball free of the tree.

I recently got a call from Paul who sounded more excited about his work than I had heard in a long time. He had spoken with the CEO. “This is what I see you doing that is making my job harder,” he told him. “This is what I hear you saying and how it feels to be on the receiving end of it. This is what I saw you do last week that hurt the company’s reputation.”

Initially, Paul was disheartened. His boss received it well but Paul felt like it was all talk. Not much changed.

Now, though, a month later, things do seem to have changed. Some of it was the CEO — he seems to know more about his limitations and is sticking closer to what he does well.

But it’s not just that. Paul has changed too.

Speaking the truth loosened him up. He’s not as frustrated as before. He’s more committed, more willing to take risks with the CEO and in other areas of his job and life. Courage begets courage. That’s one of the gifts of speaking the truth.

“Today was an amazing day!” he told me on the phone. “The CEO is setting up great meetings for me and I’m doing really well in the meetings. We’re both in our sweet spot.”

That ball is back in play.

*Names and some identifying details have been changed.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review.


  1. KAren Moore says:

    Thank you Peter,
    I always feel that when I have to put on the “boss” hat and have a talk with someone individually, it jeopardizes the team feel we have built. In reality I see that it can build the team up one player at a time.
    I have to be careful that I don’t care so much about hurting feelings as I do about growing the team. I grow as well, when the team grows.
    I love the words you wrote “Courage begets courage”
    I want our team to be able to speak freely to me about things that they see that I cannot. I have had short meetings before asking what do you see that we could be doing better, (my behavior included in that analysis). I hope that allows them the freedom to speak up, or at least thing about talking with me privately.

    Thanks I think I needed to hear your message today.
    Karen Moore

  2. KAren Moore says:

    Man I hate typos when I am passionate, can you edit that?

    Karen Moore

  3. I love this article. For me this is all about leadership. You may decide to flee and nothing really changes, or you are prepared to take a risk and go for it. Honestly telling the truth in this kind of situations is definitely far outside the comfortzone of most people. And as you probably know….. real changes are always out of your comfortzone.

  4. Lee says:

    Good article, great timing. What you’re describing is in part my definition of being Heroic.

  5. Joe says:

    The Truth is always the best way and the mechanism is enlightened communication. A truth is a proven fact and we always have to try for each person to reach that goal but much of the time ego, false statements and a diverse sense of issues come into the picture. I have had challenges like your friend and choose to step away and wondered what if…in the end it may be that the ball in the tree may be left because the owner of that ball doesn’t ultimately know how to play and better to change the game than to keep using that ball and go along at his terms…not always the case and every case is different. I still like your thoughts and the Truth indeed will set one free :)

  6. Ellen Shell says:

    Great post Peter. I think you definitely hit on a lot of good points here, especially the reason why we don’t often speak the truth, and instead opt to stew, usually for too long, and this helps nobody. The scary thing about speaking the truth sometimes is not being able to predict or manage the reaction you might get, which may be one you don’t want to get, so many of us do a dance thinking it somehow gives us more control of the outcome when in reality all it probably does is just delay the inevitable while fostering increased frustrations and ruined relationships. Buying time can be helpful sometimes, but as you suggest, not always. You definitely give some good food for thought here.

  7. Pam says:

    Wow, I needed this message today. Thank you for the reminder that truth always wins and truth changes things. I especially like the visual of the ball in the tree and the stick!

  8. 11/20/13 – From David B Meyers
    123 Chestnut St Clifton, VA 20124

    – Review: Wrenching and humorless, thank god & vey nismeha!

  9. Linda Tyer says:

    For me the timing of this post seems like divine intervention. Thank you for always being brilliant and insightful.

  10. Sean says:

    Great article, Peter. It really is all about keeping the ball moving. It seems much easier to avoid feeling the difficult feelings but then we stay in a viscious circle and nothing changes. I love the point you make about Paul changing because of his willingness to speak up. Thanks for all you’re doing to bring consciousness to the corporate world!

  11. Jay E. Valusek says:

    I had a similar experience years ago, when I worked for a boss who was so abusive, I turned in my resignation on Friday and walked out the door. The next Monday, the CEO called in up and asked me to explain myself. I had nothing to lose, so I met with him, and told him the truth. I had nothing to lose. My boss was so abusive, I said, because that’s what you model as CEO. Technically my boss was not the problem, the CEO was. You need to stop charging around screaming and swearing at people. And you need to reign in people like my boss. Everyone is quitting. You’re destroying your own company. I sat, sweating a little, and wondering if I’d ever find another job. But he took it in stride, admitted, amazingly, that he had a problem with alcohol…and then asked me to stay. In fact, begged me to stay. I set my terms and conditions: either he would fire my boss, or bring in a mediator for our department. He agreed. We brought in a mediator, went through a painful truth-telling, and along the way, my boss actually broke down and wept. She admitted she hated knowing everyone hated her. She got counseling. She changed. The CEO stopped abusing his direct reports. One day, not long after I did what I did, employees applauded me in the hallway. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I stayed eight more years, and it made my whole career. So take the risk.

  12. Mahtab Syed says:

    Thanks Peter,

    Very nice article. I like the analogy of the ball in the tree.

    And the ball got stuck up in a tree? At that point, you had three options: You could stare at the ball, with growing frustration (stay in the job), you could walk away and play a different game (quit), or you could find a stick long enough to reach the ball and knock it out of the tree.

  13. great article,excellently presented.
    “truth alone triumphs”is the net message that clears entire misunderstanding,darkness and whatnot?
    truth is always a proven fact.what matters is the courage to speak/come forward and do what the conscience says and that’s the TRUTH….-
    THEREFORE ,LET US NOT risk truth.—-

  14. Your title for this post grabbed my attention. What struck me about what you shared is that sometimes/most of the time; you can’t not speak your truth.

    Paying attention to what my intuition is telling me is important to me. When I ignore it, I pay the price later. I’ve learned withholding my personal truth harms me…and others. The challenge is being grounded in reality, as opposed to being in denial.

    Examples: I was hired for a job that I was not qualified for – I was very clear with them if they trained me, I could learn. AND I did, then I reached a point where I realized that I needed to take a course to really get the finer points of this work I was doing. I began expressing my concerns to my manager. Finally, out of concern for the integrity of the work I was doing, the customer, and the company; I said you have to hire someone who has extensive experience in this work. If you don’t, it is only a matter of time before I will make a mistake that will harm the customer and the company. Ideally, I suggested that they hire someone who I could apprentice under. If not, then hire the new experienced person and fire me. I knew enough to interview candidates and help them find a qualified person. I taught her the software program we used. Brought her up to speed on all the client files and status of their retirement plans…and 6 weeks later, despite their promise they would keep me, they “laid me off”. :) While I would have liked to have stayed an learned under the new person, I could not have stayed without more training. I was gone either way. I left knowing I did the right thing.

  15. Tom says:

    Dear Congress, Please read this article.

    Thank you!

  16. Ariane says:

    Honestly, I don’t know how you did it, but your timing is *perfect.* Paul: c’est moi!! Working hard on the courage part, and the compassion, too, and I feel better already having spoken the words that needed speaking. THANK YOU. This piece is one I’ll keep and refer to when I need a reminder. xo

  17. Peter Matthews says:

    Excellent and apply able advice as ever. …..and the truth shall set you free.

  18. Deirdre Coleman says:

    Hi Peter

    I just shared your article ‘When the Truth is Your Only Chance’ with my husband. He recently summoned the courage to do exactly what you discussed. He approached his boss, whom he’s worked for for 20 years, with an honest assessment of what he’d felt for a long time was hamstringing the firm he works at. I helped him draft an initial email, which he sent to his boss while he was on holiday – it was the only way he knew he could get his boss to take the time to read and consider everything. Usually he’s so busy and stressed through micromanaging his company, that’s he’s just not open or available to listen to his employees.

    My husband was ready to leave what he otherwise considered to be a great firm, but he decided to go the honesty route and give it one final shot to see if he could get some fundamental changes happening (eg regular office meetings so that employees would be held accountable for their projects, placing limitations on private internet use during office hours – many staff spent most of their day mucking around on YouTube or Facebook and not working – better processes to help streamline workflow, and he even encouraged his boss to look carefully at every staff member – himself included – and consider what they brought to the company and whether or not they were a good fit).

    Well, the upshot is that his suggestions and observations have been very well received and major improvements are now happening within the company. The entire culture has changed because staff now have a clear understanding of the expectations. There’s no more surfing the net at work because they were told it’s not acceptable. Everyone is pulling together to improve productivity, bring in new business and make the company more profitable so that they might all benefit in the form of bonuses etc. My husband is now part of a new management team of 4 key employees who are being trained to take over the company in the next couple of years as the CEO plans his succession strategy.

    I’m very proud of him for what he has set in motion, and his confidence and enthusiasm have grown enormously as a result.

    Thanks for your articles. I do quite a bit of business writing as a freelancer and I’m always interested in your take on leadership and business relationships.


  19. Gloria says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thank you for this post! I’m currently facing this situation in my organization and this was just the advice I needed :)

    I truly appreciate the articles that you publish, they’re really helpful and insightful.


  20. Alis Firmino says:

    Great great post! Sometimes we need to tell the truth, we don’t need to keep all the informations with ourself, we need to share with co-workers or superior.
    Thanks Peter!

  21. Surendra says:

    This is an article that every employee should read irrespective of their role in the organization. Every day we face similar challenge. May it be about a decision that has to be made in a project or working with a college. The most common is about the boss. The biggest challenge for people is if you don’t know how to communicate or the right balance it can rock the boat. This article just reaffirmed what I believe. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Deepa says:

    Couldn’t leave without posting a thank you note. For your timing and intuition. Coming to the advice…you are advising counseling a CEO on his job by his sub-ordinate. That makes me wonder how such people-“Shifting from one vision to the next. He’s unfocused, unclear, unrealistic, and, most disturbingly, he’s burning bridges with potential investors as well as colleagues. He even reneged on a commitment he made to me”, got there in the first place! And you have to be the angel, counseling and advising your boss so that you can keep your job! That really calls for oodles of patience and being ‘gooood’. Easier said than done. Difficult to show angelic behavior on the physical plane. You are amongst the lucky ones Peter, ‘coz you work for yourself! I wish i could do the same!

  23. Maria says:

    Awesome.. This is inspiring.. Thank you for sharing it.

Comments are closed.