September 17, 2013


There Is More To It Than Simply Not Lying
Frank J. Navran ©2012 Navran Associates
From Noah Brooks’ Abraham Lincoln1
“In managing the country store, as in everything that he undertook for others, Lincoln did his very best. He was honest, civil, ready to do anything that should encourage customers to come to the place, full of pleasantries, patient, and alert. On one occasion, finding late at night, when he counted over his cash, that he had taken a few cents from a customer more than was due, he closed the store, and walked a long distance to make good the deficiency. At another time, discovering on the scales in the morning a weight with which he had weighed out a package of tea for a woman the night before, he saw that he had given her too little for her money. He weighed out what was due, and carried it to her, much to the surprise of the woman, who had not known that she was short in the amount of her purchase.”
Honesty is among the most commonly noted of the “universal values”. It is prized in nearly every society, culture and organization. Of course, while we all “value” honesty there is a cultural dimension to honesty, such that total, bald-faced truth telling is rarely the reality. For example, there are expectations in “polite society” that tact will “color” what we say lest the truth hurt too much. And those exceptions vary from culture to culture – be it national culture or organizational culture.
The exceptions to honesty can be as simple as telling someone how nice they look when they really do not look especially nice at all, lest we hurt their feelings. Or, it can be as devious and deceitful as the lying, corrupt and totally untrustworthy politician (is there any other kind?) referring to his equally disreputable colleague as the “honorable gentleman or gentlewoman from the “great state (another lie) of….” Political campaigning may represent the epitome of dishonesty in public discourse – glorify the candidate, vilify the competition and don’t let the truth get in the way.
But our failing allegiance to honesty is not limited to politics. It is equally rampant in every aspect of modern society – and, perhaps, nowhere more so than in business.
Defining Honesty
There are several facets to being less than honest that play out in modern business life that are worthy of mention. We can start by agreeing that there is more to honesty than not lying. The following list is not all-inclusive. It is merely illustrative of some of the more common variants
1 Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He was known as “Honest Abe” in part because of the types of incidents illustrated in this story
of “not lying” that we all have observed, and that most of us have employed.
  • Remaining silent, thus implying agreement or acquiescence, with what we, in fact, do
    not think to be the best course
  • Saying enough the end a discussion on acceptable terms, while withholding some
    information, questions or concerns that might lead to conflict or disagreement,
    thereby masking those questions or concerns
  • Agreeing to support another’s position, implying a point of view that we do not
    actually hold/share, in order to avoid conflict
  • Acting in accord with another’s position, while privately sharing our disagreement
    with others
    Presumptive Honesty
    Presumptive honesty takes two forms. We are predisposed to believe that the people we deal are not lying to us. We also assume that they are not leading us to reach false conclusion by their silence. In the business arena we typically presume honesty absent any evidence to the contrary. Baaed on that presumption, there is an expectation of trust, at least within our own organizations, that overrules the caveat emptor caution associated with retail.
    The truths we don’t like to tell
    Telling the truth is easy for most of us. Most of the time the truth is something that we want to say. It is typically the path of least resistance. But there are times when the truth is something we wish we did not have to say. My favorite examples of a truth we don’t want to tell include when telling the truth would be impolite, rude or unnecessarily painful. I think of my mother-in-law. It was Mother’s Day. She was well into her 90s and was no longer fully in touch with some of the finer details of reality. I was picking her up and bringing her home to be with three generations of her family on a day when she would be honored. I arrived at her residence, where she was waiting for me. Her makeup was not just right. Her dress was a tad wrinkled. She looked as though she had not slept well.
    She smiled at me, anxious to go home to be with our family and said, “How do I look?” My reply, “Sandy, you always look beautiful.” It was not a totally honest statement. Subjectively, the smile on her face overcame all the other little things I had noticed. Objectively, earlier in her life she would not have wanted to be seen with her hair mussed or her makeup not quite right. When asked how she looked I chose “a little white lie” justifying the choice with both my concern for her feelings and getting her back to the house at the appointed time. I didn’t like lying to Sandy. But I was able to rationalize it with the argument, “No harm. No foul”. So in this instance, since a rationalization, by definition, is a lie we tell ourselves to give us permission to do something we know we ought not do, there were two lies: the lie I told Sandy about how she looked and the lie I told myself, that it was okay to tell the first lie.
    In the business context, a common parallel example of lying as “the easy way out” is dishonest performance reviews. Supervisors often give their worst employees “passable” ratings, ensuring that they are not candidates for significant raises or promotions. This is deemed the “easy way” because the superior lacks the skills, courage and/or confidence to tell the employees the truth he
deserves in a way that will be both comfortable for the supervisor and likely to produce a positive outcome for the subordinate and/or organization.
Alternatively, they might tell a lower rated employee that they “wanted to given them a higher rating” but the system forces them to grade on a curve. They had no choice. It is not their fault.
In sales there are more examples than we can count. It is not that salespeople are inherently less honest than the rest of us. It is, in part, a function of how sales compensation is structured and in part a defensive perception that my competition will lie, so I have to lie, at least a little bit, just to stay even”. That, of course is a rationalization. A rationalization is, by definition, a lie we tell ourselves to give us permission to do what we know is wrong. “It’s OK to tell this specific lie in this particular case because…” Fill in the lie of your choice.
The reasons for choosing to lie (and lying is always a choice) are often evident. To tell a customer about known product flaws or limitations, to give an honest and meaningful review with specific strategies for performance improvement, to admit to a costly error that might go unnoticed if not brought to the attention of others, can be a real challenge. It may require a level of honesty and/or courage that is beyond our reach. It may demand skills in telling the truth in a way that will not cause us harm that, we don’t possess. It may be beyond our competence or outside our comfort zone to honestly discuss an employee’s performance and/or potential. It may simply be a reflection of how we are treated by others and what we perceive to be “the way we do things around here”.
Telling the truth in these instances could also be viewed as an “unnecessary complication”, if there is no expectation it will produce a positive outcome. The rationalization in this case would be that. “Since it won’t make any difference what I say, I am justified if I opt to keep it simple and avoid a confrontation or embarrassment.”
That rationalization is, of course, still a lie. Even if the premise is true, even if it won’t make a difference, the possibility of the truth adding complexity to the situation does not justify lying. Honesty is always worth the effort, especially when there is a chance it could possibly improve the situation we are facing or set the stage for future improvement.
The truths we don’t like to hear
There are also times when we know we are being lied to and allow it to pass. In fact, we may prefer being lied to in these cases. How many times, when asked, “How are you?” have you answered with a generic “Fine”? Sometimes that is a perfectly appropriate and accurate answer. Sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t accurate and the person chooses it anyway, there are usually good, defensible reasons. Often, when we choose to lie, it is because our ego is trying to protect our self-image / self-esteem. Or, my sense of privacy might be such that I do not see that how I am feeling is anyone else’s business as long as it doesn’t interfere with my job performance. Yes, I may be struggling with a personal problem, a family illness, or a financial challenge, but so long as my work is not affected, I have no reason to share that information.
And on the receiving end of what we know both to be a less than truthful answer, we may choose
not to press. To do so may cause either or both parties discomfort. And, in our minds, may not have any “upside”. In colloquial terms, “the juice is not worth the squeeze”. It is easier to let the lie pass.
There are also times when we are being lied to and elect to avoid hearing a truth we don’t want to hear. Maybe we don’t want to hear it because we don’t have time for an extended conversation. Perhaps we don’t want to hear the truth it because hearing it could result in us incurring an obligation or responsibility to do something about a situation where we have neither the time nor inclination to do so. Whatever the reason, we sometimes allow, perhaps even encourage, others to tell us less than the truth because we know, and we let them know, that we do not want to hear the truth, at least not in this instance.
Sometimes it is less subtle. I’ve worked in organizations where the boss was intolerant of bad news. So no one ever told him bad news. If there was bad news to tell it became our obligation to fix the problem before he learned about it while making every effort to prevent his learning about it before we had it fixed. This was learned behavior in an organization where telling the truth, when the truth included anything other than positives, would be punished. Lying was a simple means of avoiding punishment. If the problem was fixed before it caused any real damage that would easily justify the lie as, “No harm. No foul.” itself, another lie.
You’ll note that the lies we tell ourselves to justify the lies we tell others is a recurring theme. The “No harm. No foul” excuse is such an integral element of our self-defense psychology that it often goes unnoticed or unrecognized. If there is a harm or is there is a foul we don’t want to tell ourselves nor do we want to hear about it from others. Ignorance is bliss.
Teaching Honesty
The way we act
There are times when the honesty or dishonesty of a situation does not require us to say anything. Sometimes doing nothing is all that it takes. We see something wrong. We choose to act or not to act. We are observed by those doing the “wrong”. Having observed what we have done or not done about it clearly communicates that what they did was or was not acceptable to us. Silence can communicate what is tolerable, what we will allow to go unaddressed. If we say northing than the safe assumption may be that what occurred is acceptable to us, or that we expect it to be remedied without our intervening. Our inaction may also inform future decisions by those who took part in or observed the situation, regarding its significance to us, and our willingness or unwillingness to tolerate similar decisions or actions, going forward. That is a subtle case and usually reserved for people who are in a long-term business relationship who have learned to reliably “read” each other’s non-verbals.
The congruence between what we say, do and believe
Congruence is a simple concept. It is about agreement. Most of us first learned about it in Plane Geometry class. Two figures were deemed to be congruent when they were “…identical in form, coinciding exactly when superimposed.” Outside geometry class congruence is about our words
matching our deeds and our deeds matching the expectations we have created. When we act as we have led others to expect us to act we are being congruent. That demonstrates honesty and leads to trust. And, it need not be positive. If I have previously acted like a jerk, and you expect me to act like a jerk and I act as expected, I am being congruent. You can trust me to be a jerk.
Similarly, if I have always been honest, and you expect me to be honest and I continue to be honest, I am also being congruent. You will continue to expect honesty from me until the first time I violate that expectation, Then, no matter how many times I had previously been honest when expected to be, the trust is broken, the promise voided and the expectation changed. Dishonesty will now be the expected behavior and restoring that former positive expectation is a slow and laborious process. It is possible, but extraordinarily difficult.
Why We Lie
What motivates dishonesty? The easiest answers are laziness and cowardice. Sometimes telling the truth is hard. It can be uncomfortable, awkward and can produces undesired consequence. Dishonesty can be more attractive to us when it is perceived as the path of less resistance. While we may argue that the lie is the lesser evil, it is also the easy, lazy and cowardly way out of a situation that calls for courage and integrity. Saying it is a lesser evil does not make it so.
Lying is a skill learn in childhood. We misbehave and, to avoid punishment, find whatever excuse we can to deflect the responsibility for out actions. As children we call upon such time- tested strategies as feigning ignorance, simple denial and blaming others. We do this because as immature children we have yet to truly understand and accept the notion of personal responsibility and accountability.
Children are ego driven – if it feels good do it. They are not thoughtful or deliberate in their decision-making. If it turns out that a decision has negative consequences, they are quick to find reasons why it is not their fault. That becomes their defense. If “I didn’t do it” fails them, they may switch defensive strategies: “ I had no idea it was wrong”, “I had no idea it would cause this unacceptable outcome”, “It was an accident” and my all time personal favorite, the Nuremburg defense “Johnny told me to do it”.
But, we are mature, responsible adults. So why do we lie. See the above. We continue to rely on the same, lame excuses. The only honest, mature and responsible response to the discovery that what we did was wrong, or that what we knew was wrong has been discovered is to ‘fess up. More on that later.
Presumptive Dishonesty
We cannot presume that those we hire, supervise, lead, serve or report to will understand honesty the same way we understand it. Lying is a part of human nature and it will occur when the conditions “demand” it. Depending on our respective roles and/or relationships, any/all of the following will inform what honesty means and how it is acted out in any specific context.
Teaching Honesty
We may presume that parents, teachers and other role models fulfilled this obligation long before any of those with whom we work entered the organizational arena. In reality that is a flawed and risky assumption. We can be reasonably confident that the concept of honesty was taught, but cannot be as certain that the specific behavioral boundaries others were taught are consistent with our expectations. Certainly, everyone has at least learned the difference between a lie and a truth. But, as was discussed above, we cannot be certain what cultural and/or behavioral parameters surrounded these lessons about if/when it is acceptable to do less that tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth without reservation, internal editing, the imposition of political correctness and/or coloration.
Given that the behavioral expectations of “honesty” can be different for different people in different contexts it is incumbent on each of us to “teach” those with whom we interact in our work environment what assumptions and expectations we have regarding the honesty of our interactions. And, I suggest, that is as true in our dealings with those above us in the organizational hierarchy as it is with peers, subordinates, suppliers, competitors, customers, et. al.
Teaching what we mean by honesty and what others can expect from us, as well as what we expect from them, is not an especially difficult conversation. “Since we will be working together on ‘X’, I thought it might be useful to let you know a bit about how I operate. Here is what I do. Here is what you can expect from me and here is what I expect from those I work with.” In my own experience, I can recall numerous conversations with managers, colleagues, subordinates, customers, suppliers and clients with whom I worked, where I simply detailed, early in the working relationship, “Here is what you can expect from me, and, here are a few key things I hope I can expect from you”.
I learned that lesson very early in my career and had it reinforced a hundredfold. While I was predisposed to act this way, I was empowered and emboldened to do so with rigor by a dear colleague, Peter Block, the author of “Flawless Consulting: A Guide To Getting Your Expertise Used”. I have continued to have that conversation with bosses, colleagues, suppliers, competitors, internal and external clients and it has never failed to increase the level of trust and lay the foundation for a relationship that presumed honesty from the very beginning.
Honesty is a subject that has to be broached and it is foolish to expect that the other party will make the first move. Teach those with whom you deal and upon whom you rely what honesty means to you, what you expect from them, what they can expect from you and why it matters.
Modeling Honesty
Talk is cheap. What we say matters, but what we do matters more. Honesty cannot abide a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude. Modeling honesty is simple but that does not mean that it is always easy. Honesty requires courage. It requires us to hold ourselves to a high standard even if/when those around us may choose less for themselves or prefer less from us.
The test of our honesty is that we do not set our standards to the lowest common denominator. Rather, we maintain our standards where we believe they ought to be. And we expect others to rise to meet them. The challenge is that we have to consistently strive to meet those standards. There cannot be any exceptions. “Usually honest” is an oxymoron. Honesty is an absolute and demands consistency of motive and action. We need not go out of our way to “appear honest”. It is about what we say and do, not what image we try to project. If we are honest it will be recognized, just as if we are less than honest it will be noticed.
Commanding (Insisting on) Honesty
In the case of some of the organizational values we discuss there may be an expectation that the behavior associated with a value must be earned. Trust is a good example. Until you have proven yourself trustworthy I will carefully determine how much and with what responsibilities and/or information I choose to trust you. It is said that “trust is the residue” of promises fulfilled. As we develop a history or mutual fulfillment of commitments to each other trust builds.
Honesty is different. Unlike our experience with trust, the presumed “starting point” is the total absence of dishonesty. With time, as our confidence in each other’s integrity grows, our mutual expectations will mature. Our expectations re honesty will most likely evolve from not misleading or dissembling (lying) to a point where we are comfortable with a significant degree openness and candor.
We can “demand” honesty to the extent that we can insist that what we are told is truthful. But if we are to “command” honesty, we have to earn the trust of those we lead. Our integrity and motives must be trusted.
As with the other values discussed in this series, we establish our standard and then earn the right to expect that behavior by the example we set. When others are confident of what they can expect from us, we can then set the expectations we have of them.
And, as with the other values, the natural tendency may be to think that our standards can only be imposed on those we lead, that we cannot set the standards of honesty for our peers or those who “outrank” us in the organizational hierarchy. I suggest that those assumptions are patently false. We can insist on honesty from everyone. To be sure, insisting does not guarantee the outcome. But failing to insist almost certainly does. If we fail to establish out expectations we ought not be surprised when they are not met. It may take a bit of courage (another core value) to demand honesty, but it can be done and it and be done respectfully. It need not be as dramatic as the climactic courtroom scene from the movie “A Few Good Men” where the Tom Cruise character confronts the Jack Nicholson character and gets the “You can’t handle the truth” speech. If we model truthfulness with others we also demonstrate that we have the character to “handle” truthfulness from them.
Personal, Positional and Organizational Honesty
As a general rule we might consider that the higher we are in an organization’s hierarchy, the
higher the standard for honesty. That suggests a “sliding scale” of honesty – higher-level responsibility demands higher levels of honesty. Or perhaps the converse is true. Higher-level personnel need not be totally honest but lower levels, those reporting to he higher-ups, must be totally honest. I suggest that any variation of the sliding scale for honesty is based on a false assumption. While there is often a valid basis for discretion there is no legitimate basis for dishonesty. As a leader I may have access to information that a subordinate employee does not. If asked about that information by that employee, “I am not at liberty to discuss it” or “There will be an announcement concerning that on Tuesday” is the more honest and more appropriate approach.
In the law an organization is a legal “person”. That is why we can sue an organization. It is an entity. We are also entitled to a reasonable expectation of ethical conduct from an organization, just as we are from any other person. An organization’s press releases, sales and service processes, product/service claims, advertising, policies, procedures, performance reviews, ethics programs all have a “promise” component. They all create expectations and they are all bound to the standard of honesty.
We have a right to expect honesty from the organization as a whole and from every level and every person within it. And, that expectation is not just limited to the legally mandated truth in advertising. Nor is our expectation of honesty satisfied by “check the box” ethics training. Honest ought to be a “real” expectation – not a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?2” promise that we to pretend to respect but are expected to ignore.
Building a Culture Based on Honesty
All of the standards and expectations discussed above presume a culture where trust3 is valued. While trust is often treated as a “value”, I prefer to characterize it as an “outcome”. My favorite description of trust is that it is “the residue of promises fulfilled.”4
In understanding how leaders create a culture of trust we have to conclude that adherence to the other core values precedes the development of a culture of trust. And, of all the values contributing to trust, honesty may be the most significant. Honesty is the fulfillment of a fundamental promise in human interaction. That promise is that I will tell you the truth. And because I speak the truth I can be trusted. And because I can be trusted you can build your expectations accordingly with little to fear.
From a leader’s perspective this means we have to go beyond reliance on positional authority. We have to earn the confidence and trust of those we lead.
From an employee’s perspective this means we have to go beyond simple obedience. We have to
2 From the Monty Python "Candid Photography" sketch
3 In this series of articles on the seven most common organizational values, we consistently treat trust as an
outcome. There are some who arguer that trust is a value. Our position is that trust is an outcome. It is the “residue of promises fulfilled”. It is what we experience when people act according to their professed values.
4 I have used this quote for more than 30 years. I attribute it to a science fiction book I read, but both author and title are long forgotten and any internet search comes back to me, since I have used it frequently in prior publications.
trust those who lead us, and the others with whom we work, enough to be honest. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Take the risk of being honest until it fails us, rather that chose the more “defensive” posture of assuming the worst about “them” yet expecting others to assume the best about us.
As both leaders and followers, we decide how honest we choose to be. We assess the risks and rewards of creating an expectation of mutual honesty. The risks are well understood. Some might not like hearing the truth and therefore choose to “shoot the messenger” when they do not like the message. If that happens, it is a lesson learned and we will adapt accordingly. But, surprisingly to many, even in cases where truthfulness is not the norm, it is usually welcomed. As humans our preferred state is one where honesty is the norm. Dishonesty is a sign of distrust and disrespect. We do not typically appreciate our value being “dissed”.
Rewarding Honesty
This might also seem counterintuitive. Why should we have to reward something when it ought to be the norm? In this case, “reward” might be a misleading term if we think rewards are necessarily tangible. What we are advocating is “psychic” rewards. It is the acknowledging and visible appreciation of honesty, especially when it represents new, desired behavior or when the situation is “difficult”. A classic example was when I had recently taken on a new assignment as a “line manager”. After announcing a number of proposed changes, one of the supervisors reporting to me came to me and explained that what I had asked them to do might not be the best alternative. He respectfully made the case that another approach was better, and I immediately saw the merit in his point of view.
I not only thanked him for the suggestion but also acknowledged that it represented the kind of candor and support I truly valued. He and his peers knew more than I about the technical aspects of the work they did. I was brought in to change the leadership culture. I followed-up the next day at our staff meeting by publicly thanking him and encouraging my other direct reports to come to me whenever they saw ways I/we could be more effective. That simple “reward” was a significant first step in creating a more collaborative culture that served me very well for the three years I managed that group.
Why Bother?
The answer to the “Why bother” question should be obvious. At its most basic, we should be honest and encourage honesty in the organizations we lead because it is the right thing to do. From a practical point of view honesty facilitates effective decision-making, leading to better, faster and cheaper resolution to problems. The reasonable and realistic expectation of mutual honesty in any relationship reduces tensions and allows for greater efficiency and efficacy. It also makes our live more pleasant.
The more difficult question is “Why not?” Why is a standard lower than total, absolute honesty in the business arena even considered. The only answer I can find is fear. We are human. We make mistakes. We fear the consequences of those mistakes if they are discovered. We are human. We make mistakes. We are also proud. We fear that people will think less of us if they
know what we did. We are human. We make mistakes, but we can embrace the lessons learned, rather than shun the mistake and the learning it holds.
There is a common theme throughout this series of seven “values” articles: It doesn’t cost a penny to change the culture of an organization. It takes effort. It is hard work. But it isn’t a budget “line item” that needs approval. It is simply a choice you make.
The benefits, on the other hand, are innumerable. They are measured in morale, efficiencies, motivation, communication, personal pride and self-esteem, productivity, quality, safety… just about every measure of success that exists in an organizational context.
Why so many have not chosen to apply this lesson escapes me. The power of honesty is no secret. It is not magic. We see it, know it and yet so many choose to ignore it as a management and leadership tool. For some it is ignorance. They just do not recognize the inherent power of creating an organizational culture built on the expectation of mutual honesty. For others it is an ego thing. It may also be a matter of personal confidence or insecurity. If I am confident, I will dare to be honest with others first. If I lack confidence, I will wait for them to be honest with me first, and only then reciprocate.
If you want honesty from others, then you have to be honest. Going first has its risks. But waiting for the other to go first is a losing proposition. The risks are intangibles. The only real risk is to our egos. The rewards are both intangible and tangible. The rewards feed both our egos and our bottom line. There are no viable arguments to support anyone in a leadership position being less than honest or accepting less from those they lead – all the way down to the lowest rung of the organizational ladder. Honesty facilitates improved communication and builds commitment, self-confidence, self-esteem, group cohesion, information and resource sharing and a sense of purpose and enthusiasm for success. And they feed the bottom line. Which of those benefits of an honest workplace are you willing to do without? 
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