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Can you handle the truth?

What is ‘Ground Truth’ and why is it important to understand before embarking on leadership development?

The term ‘ground truth’ typically refers to the objective and verifiable reality or facts about a given situation. I am always wary of the use of the word objective when discussing psychology, but as objective as one can be, although a subjective view in this case can still be an important aspect of the ground truth.

I often hear people say that ‘you can’t get to where you want to be if you don’t know where you are’. Whilst the intention may be positive, it is not exactly true. You may be able to see the mountain peak you are heading to from any direction at great distance but not be sure where you are. The point behind knowing exactly where you are allows you to find the best path, perhaps the only path.

In a past life, when teaching military helicopter pilots the art of map reading, it would become quite obvious when a student pilot was starting to become unsure of their position. Their senses would begin to close in, unable to cope with additional information. You may have experienced this yourself when you start to close in on your destination when driving; you turn the radio off, stop whatever conversation you were having, tell the kids to be quiet (if this doesn’t work, maybe get them to look out for a helpful clue-or a made up one to keep them occupied!). Of course, it is a little more difficult to pull over to a safe place and check the map when flying a helicopter, especially over a battlefield. To prevent the psychological spiral descent from turning into a real spiral descent, the student pilot’s first action is to acknowledge that they are lost. The longer we avoid reality and plough on regardless, the farther away we drift from where we truly want to be. The next action for the student pilot is to return to a last known point of certainty; it may well be that during this process they regain confidence in their position and they can continue on their intended route. Nowadays, with GPS and internal navigation systems, it is not often that a pilot is lost but that doesn’t mean they don’t find themselves off course, somewhere they didn’t want to be.

“The longer we avoid reality and plough on regardless, the farther away we drift from where we truly want to be.”

Of course, not everyone is lost, and we often work with incredible high performers, doing amazing work, just looking for that extra edge or that magic ingredient that allows them to stay successful. It is still vital to establish the ground truth and nail the specific start point.

How we find the ground truth is a collaborative process. It can be through assessments, self-reflection, 360 interviews, even performance management reviews. It is important for us to create the conditions for open and honest communication, to establish an accurate starting point. This is crucial and ensures the best possible development plan with several benefits:

  • Targeted Development. Providing a clear understanding of the current state of leadership within an organisation. Identifying the specific needs of the individuals and focus areas.
  • Alignment with Organisational Goals. Aligning with strategy and goals and identifying the critical moments when the leaders will need to perform.
  • Baseline Assessment. Serving as a calibration tool for measuring results and recognising growth.
  • Customisation and Personalisation. It is important to treat everyone as the individual they are. Everyone’s experience is unique so tailoring the approach to recognise this will increase the likelihood of success. It is possible to create individual development in a collective environment.
  • Realistic Expectations. Allowing leaders and stakeholders to understand the unique challenges and complexities faced. This helps to manage frustrations, set accountability and maintain commitment to sustainable change.

The ‘Ground Truth’ takeaways:

  • Time spent in establishing the ground truth is seldom wasted and will ensure the actions for development are focused where needed
  • The process of getting to the ground truth is an opportunity to develop trust and have a positive impact on culture
  • The action of seeking the ground truth shows a specific commitment to the individuals involved

As a final thought, the process of establishing the ground truth is an opportunity to develop trust within an organisation, creating a collaborative approach to targeted development. This partnership and holistic understanding are key to driving positive change.

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