I first came across the term Ground Truth while I was serving in the military. It means the pure, unadulterated truth – information gathered by direct observation rather than by inference or second-hand.

Often we come across the antithesis of Ground Truth. This is the filtered, doctored version that can be produced by the dynamics of hierarchical office politics, spin-doctors or a command and control business culture.

There is of course always a place for diplomacy, being tactful and measured in what we say. However the danger, especially when an office has a senior manager who is bad at receiving unwelcome news, is that three terrible things can happen – dilution, deletion and distortion.

The accumulative effect of these 3Ds gradually cuts the manager off from reality. In any context – military, business or otherwise – good management depends on having accurate and comprehensive information as the basis for correct decisions.


So being detached from reality is a significant problem. Managers need to have real time ground truth by having their ear to the ground – with information unadulterated by the divisions and mistrust cause by having a network of spies or informers.

What are the 3Ds?

Let’s have a brief look at the 3Ds

1. Dilution

The strength of the message you need to hear is diluted before it is presented, so managers may not know just how serious, urgent or bad any situation really is. For example, the senior manager may be told that the ‘troops’ are a little jaded but okay, when in reality they are stressed and close to burn-out.

2. Distortion

This is depicted so well by the cartoon above, where Dilbert gives his manager a different version of events than he expresses to his colleague.

This dynamic can be the result of a company trend of ‘shooting the messenger’ who brings unwelcome news, or just a general fear of the manager. This only accentuates the sense of ‘us and them’ between teams and their management within a company.

3. Deletion

For example, there may be three problems or issues with something but, because the manager reacts so badly to the first one, people only reveal one or two of them.

So how can the 3Ds be avoided?

The 3Ds are at work everywhere, so I wonder how much they are affecting your effectiveness? Here are some coaching questions to ask yourself:

  1. How did I react the last three times people brought me unwelcome news?
  2. How do I tend to react when people disagree with me?
  3. How often do I go ‘back to the floor’ and listen to the people doing the work at the sharp end of the business?

If you do poorly on questions one and two, your answer to question three becomes almost irrelevant. Even if you do listen closely to your team, they will not be honest with you if they fear an adverse reaction.

But all is not lost! Slowly but surely, you can alter your reputation.

How? By going to where the Japanese call Gemba. I translate is as “the real place”, where real people do the real thing under real operating circumstances.

In other words, you need to find out what the ground truth is. In technical terms, you can call it participative and affiliative leadership based on Management By Walking About (MBWA).

Go on, leave your office and get back to the floor. I dare you. If you watch Undercover Boss on TV, you will know that it can be very enlightening.

Do you have any experiences of finding Ground Truth in your workplace? Please share them with us.

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