How Leaders Can Get People to Tell the Truth

Guest post from Peter Romary:

Harry S. Truman once said,
“My definition of a leader . . . is a man who can persuade people to do what
they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.” If we
can be generous enough to overlook the sexist element of that quote, and
disregard for a moment the notion of labeling anyone as “lazy,” we can learn a
lot from the crux of Mr. Truman’s insight. We can even learn the secret behind
a skill that any leader would do well to master: getting people to tell the

If a leader is someone who
can persuade others to do what they don’t want to do and like it, what we have
found is that he can tap that quality to convince a person to reveal truthful
information, even when that person has a very good reason to want to conceal it.
No doubt, this is a feat that almost everyone considers to be extraordinarily
difficult to accomplish—the art of getting someone to disclose information that
he is strongly incentivized to withhold is the stuff of crime thrillers and spy
movies, and very few of us can easily identify with characters who are
challenged with that task. But think about it. As a leader, you’re faced with
that challenge every day. Is that job candidate being truthful about his claim
that he instituted processes for his previous employer that saved the company
millions of dollars? Is that manager being honest with you when he says he
never engaged in the harassment that your employee is alleging? Does the CFO of
the company you’re looking to acquire really have confidence in the revenue
numbers he’s projecting?

In our new book, “Get
the Truth: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Persuade Anyone to Tell All,”

we outline a methodology, born in the secretive world of the CIA and practiced
throughout the intelligence and law enforcement communities, that’s
inextricably linked to Mr. Truman’s definition of a leader. It’s a methodology
that compels a person to do something he doesn’t want to do—disclose truthful
information that he has a reason to want to withhold—and to feel good about
doing it. It’s all about getting the person in a state of mind that we call
“short-term thinking mode.”

To understand this concept,
consider that people tend to conceal information for a very simple reason: They
fear the negative consequences of disclosing it. The trick to getting the
information is to diminish that fear by distancing the person from the perceived
negative consequences. We can accomplish that by shifting his focus from those
consequences, if only temporarily, to a focus on why it’s OK to tell you the
truth—and why he should be happy with that choice. If he’s no longer thinking
about the long-term consequences, and is instead thinking about the sensible
reasons you’re giving him to tell the truth, human nature will likely prevail,
and he’ll base his actions on what’s immediately in front of him. To get him in
that state of mind, here are some of the key elements you’ll need to
incorporate into your game plan:

·    Understand that
up until the point when the person demonstrates a willingness to tell you the
truth, you don’t want his lips moving. The more you allow him to articulate a
lie or a denial, the more psychologically entrenched he will become, and the
more difficult it will be do persuade him to reverse course.

·   Since you’re the
one doing all the talking, start by ensuring that you maintain a very calm,
low-key tone and demeanor. Success in taking the person’s mind off of those
perceived negative consequences will require him to listen to you, and he’s
much more likely to do that if what he’s hearing from you is a sense of
understanding, empathy, and sincerity.

·   Give him
compelling reasons why it makes sense for him to tell you the truth. If he has
committed an act of wrongdoing, for example, rationalize the behavior by
assuring him that everyone is human, and that sometimes good people just make
bad decisions. Minimize the seriousness of what he did by pointing out how
important it is not to blow it out of proportion. Socialize the matter with the
observation that people in all walks of life have found themselves in the same
situation he’s in. Project the blame for his actions so he doesn’t feel so alone—also
at fault might be the economy, the system, management, political enemies,
unsupportive parents.

·    Choose your words
carefully. Remember that implicit language is more valuable to you than
explicit language—when you say you want to “resolve” the issue, let the person
infer that that might mean a slap on the wrist, when you’re thinking more in
terms of firing him. Never use language that invokes consequences—the money
wasn’t “stolen,” it was “taken.” And since you’re the one doing all the talking
up until the point at which the person is prepared to tell you the truth, don’t
hesitate to repeat yourself. Repetition is a powerful tool—the more frequently
a person hears something, the more likely he will be to accept it, or to at
least open the door to the possibility of accepting it.

This methodology has been
used to remarkable effect to get the truth from terrorists, spies, and
criminals, and to equal effect in dealing with the situations that leaders
encounter every day in their professional and personal lives. As Mr. Truman’s
insight suggests, a strengthening of these skills will yield stronger, more
influential leaders.

Peter Romary is general counsel and a partner in
QVerity, Inc., a Greenville, N.C.-based company founded by former CIA officers
that provides training and consulting services in the detection of deception,
critical interviewing, and elicitation. He is a contributor to the book, “
Get the Truth: Former CIA Officers Teach You
How to Persuade Anyone to Tell All
to be released by St. Martin’s Press on March 24.