The Truth Pipe: What Managers can learn from Anthropology

"Pass that Pipe along, and I'll tell you what I really think about that proposal"

Galway Gig: I was working in Galway, the city of tribes (which perhaps should be re-christened the ‘City of the Magic Roundabout’). A senior team in a major multiple-national had come together to review where they were today and where they wanted to get to tomorrow. We’d completed a lot of preparation work and the meeting was broadly going to plan. The only downside was the room we were working in had no natural light, a no-no for an all day meeting, unless you’re working with Al-Qaeda.

Social Loafing: My buddy John O’Dowd, who also works with Tandem Consulting, makes the point that generally it’s more difficult to facilitate small groups because of the absence of the possibility of ‘social loafing’. In small groups, there’s no place to hide and these sessions can be quite intensive. Larger groups lend themselves to daydreaming, a form of escapism (people daydream to hide from boredom or social interaction). There are zero daydreaming possibilities in a small group, which makes facilitation particularly skillful and intensive.

Fun Injection: The group were reflecting on the progress made – and there was loads of good news to report; this talented team had delivered huge change within the business. But something was not quite right. The progress charts were full of ‘ticks’ demonstrating movement, but somehow it felt a bit relentless. Last months success was quickly replaced by this months ‘to do’ list. Then one participant suggested that the group had lost its sense of fun; the craic had been engineered out of the system. It was both insightful and brave – said while the boss was present – a version of The Emperors New Clothes. The comment opened up a difficult but highly productive conversation and allowed us to plot a different way forward.

Safe Place: In facilitating these meetings I normally have 3 broad objectives. The first is to take an appreciative inquiry approach – finding out what’s working well rather than simply focusing on what’s broken. It’s all too easy to make yourself look smart by making someone else look stupid. Consulting is about building confidence – leaving the person or the organization in better shape than you found them. The second is to ensure fog clearance – confusing topics get bottomed out and understood. You can’t fix something that you don’t understand – so understanding is key. The immutable rule in organizations is as follows: ambiguity leads to anxiety and anxiety lowers performance; all good consultants are in the job of ‘fog clearance’. The final point is to create a safe space, allowing people to feel comfortable discussing socially awkward topics. That’s where the idea of the truth pipe comes in.

Truth Pipe: Historically, several tribes used a version of the ‘truth pipe’. In tribal meetings, the person holding the pipe was tasked with expressing what they felt and the other members of the tribe had to listen to this – even where what was being expressed was difficult. While we do not use a physical ‘pipe’ – facilitators essentially deploy the same idea, creating what one writer (Annette Simmons) described as ‘a safe place for dangerous truths’.

Difficult topics don’t disappear just because they are not discussed. In the worst cases, undiscussable topics become a cancer that implodes the organisation from the inside out. Small talk is grand – in pubs and on airplanes. But in management teams, when you swim away from awkward discussions, you are running away from the job you’ve been paid to do. The next time your senior team gathers to discuss something important, ask yourself if this idea of a ‘truth pipe’ could add value.

Paul Mooney

PS: Recent article in a newspaper in Toronto was based on the following question posed to children: HOW CAN A STRANGER TELL IF TWO PEOPLE ARE MARRIED? Derrick, age 8, suggested the following: “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.”

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me and we’ll add them to the mailing list.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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