Honestly mistaken: TSB, Paul Pester and trust in a world of selective truth

by Colm Hebblethwaite

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What is the difference between a truth and a fact?
April 2018 saw an IT meltdown leave thousands of TSB customers locked out of their accounts. CEO Paul Pester scrambled to reassure the bank’s customers that normal service would soon resume, but by July the bill for repairs and compensation had reached £176 million.
Now Pester is gone, a loss of trust in his leadership cited as the primary reason for his departure. The underlying problems were all on display during a bruising encounter with the Treasury Select Committee in which Pester made statements like:
“The underlying engine is doing its job.”
“I have data showing almost all customers are getting online.”
“The IT migration went smoothly.”
No one is denying that Pester truly believed what he was saying and no doubt he could point to data to support his statements. The problem was that it didn’t match up to the experience of thousands of customers. In the face of huge disruption to his clients, Pester’s words appeared complacent and evasive, destroying any remaining trust in his ability to lead the company.
The TSB crisis teaches us a powerful lesson about communication in the modern world. Facts and truth are different things, but both must be harnessed to create lasting trust.

Separating truth and facts

Many people were quick to mock Rudi Giuliani’s recent statement that “truth isn’t truth”, but he was not entirely wrong in his assessment. Truth is a relative concept, and not just in the fractious Trump-era.
While facts cannot be denied, a truth is a judgement of a fact. A fact cannot be disputed once it is established, but truth is dependent on an individual’s experience and perspective. Trust often comes from the perception of facts and truth working together in harmony.
And when it comes to money, trust is everything. In a sector as scrutinised as finance, CEOs need to earn trust through honesty and authenticity.
This is not something that Paul Pester managed. Although not misleading the public deliberately, his truth was not an authentic one, and led to him losing his job.
So, how can communication be truthful when truth itself is a relative concept?

Trust and belief

Facts and truths need to be treated as different entities, accepting that truth is often based just as much on individual belief as it is on facts or interpretation. A common thread among CEOs that fail in a crisis situation is the presentation of beliefs as truth. This can quickly create a quagmire where the words chosen are broadly right but precisely wrong. Anyone that watches the evening news will see countless politicians and public figures trying desperately to avoid getting their feet caught in the swamp.

Clarity in communication comes from separating facts from beliefs and presenting them differently.
Facts are there to be delivered, unfiltered and untampered. They might be uncomfortable, but the consequences of trying to mask them will be worse. Truth is the aspect of communication that can be managed. How you choose to interpret facts is each person’s truth.

Building clarity

At Stratton Craig, creating a truth for our clients that is rooted firmly on a bedrock of facts is a central part of our process. It has allowed us to help our clients communicate honestly and authentically in even the most complex of situations.
If you are having trouble distinguishing between fact and truth, contact our team today.

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