The Reality Gap

The higher you go in your organization the greater the risk that you will lose touch with your people. That risk has less to do with you as a leader than it has to do with with your followers. 

Positions at or near the top of an organization come with power or at least the perception of power. The people at lower levels of an organization believe that the people “at the top” have substantial control over their jobs and livelihoods. That belief drives a respect for those people at the top. I say respect but the truth is that far too often it’s not really respect, it’s fear and intimidation. 

To be clear, that fear is not necessarily driven by anything the leader says or does, it is driven by the insecurities of the people they lead. 

The best leaders are aware of those common insecurities and the behaviors they drive. One of the most common behaviors is a lack of candor. Most people are careful with the information they share with leaders at high levels of an organization. They have no interest in even appearing to “rock the boat.” 

So they withhold information that their leaders need to lead effectively. That can easily create a reality gap for the leader.

You may think you’ve done nothing to cause your people to shield you from the truth and you may be correct. But it’s not just you they shield from the truth, it’s your position. It’s kinda like having a meeting and telling people to forget you’re the boss…they can’t and won’t forget, they will always be leery about sharing real world information. 

In the worst cases they will either tell you only what they think you want to hear or they will outright lie. 

Here’s what makes this challenge so difficult to overcome: most leaders do not believe that a reality gap exists. They think they are “plugged in” to the pulse of their organization and certainly to some extent they are. The question is to what extent. A very large percentage of leaders are far less connected than they think. 

That’s why every leader, let me repeat, every leader needs at least one truth teller. Their truth teller is part coach, part confidant, and secure enough to risk the consequences of not withholding the information their leader needs. 

If you’re at or near the top of your organization then you need access to accurate, timely information. To ensure you have it you must find the people within your organization who have the confidence to tell you what’s what. 

Search out those people or that person and stay connected to them; let them be a second set of eyes and ears for you. Use them to verify the reality that you think you know. As a leader you can never have too much information. More and better information means a smaller reality gap and when it comes to gaps small is definitely big!


7 thoughts on “The Reality Gap

  1. Just as every monarch needs a court jester (I wonder who the Queen has?), so every leader needs someone that can speak truth to power. I actually think this is a vital skill that doesn’t get taught enough when people start on their leadership development journeys. After all, once you know how to do it and understand why it’s important, you’re far more likely to want to have your own court jester when the time comes

    1. I agree 100%! Having someone who will tell you the truth is vital for a leaders success. It is nothing less than astonishing how many people in leadership positions miss this fact.

      1. And I think that’s because they are so often not invited/given the chance to speak openly about, and then learn to deal with, their personal insecurities. I’m a coach and a trainee counsellor amongst other things, and I’ve long thought that the types of conversation we have at work (and in general, tbh) need to be focused far more around feelings and emotions to begin with, if we want to enable people to achieve the best possible outcomes.

        Imagine the strength that would come from the vulnerability involved in the following exchange:

        Leader: so that’s your next project. How do you feel about tackling it?

        Deputy: Well I’m excited about the opportunity to show what I’m really made of and the impact it could potentially have on our client base. I’m also a bit nervous about whether I’ve got the skills I need to take it forward. If I’m honest part of me wants to do it all myself to show everyone that I’m superwoman but I also know that it would be a great opportunity to get X and Y on board because they have so much to contribute and it would be a great way for them to develop. How about you?

        Leader: Same! This is the biggest thing I’ve ever tackled and I wanted you to lead because frankly the technical aspects are beyond me. I see my job here as being your sounding board, so you’ve got somewhere to talk through how it’s going for you and work through your worries, and also as getting you access to the people you really need to talk to so you don’t get stuck in the politics of the thing.

        Deputy: That sounds good. How about I put a plan together and we both think about exactly what help and support we need to make it happen?

      2. That would be a great conversation…I’ve actually recently been involved in a conversation almost identical to that.

        It is an uncommon conversation because of one word: feel. People struggle to share their feelings and it’s an even bigger challenge in the workplace. I think it’s a combination of insecurities and lack of trust.

        When leaders consistently work to build trust those conversations will be far more common.

  2. One of my favorite quotes from Eric Hoffer sort of fits this topic- I try to stay a perpetual learner and that seems to guard against some the tendency to see things as I wish them to be; “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

    1. That is a great quote. Positively true. The biggest waste of time is becoming excellent at doing something that doesn’t need to be done. Using yesterday’s information to make today’s decision is a short path to failure.

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