The Truth About Honesty

The topic of honesty is somewhat unavoidable. That’s a likely product of a couple of obvious things: First, we inevitably face choices everyday which challenge how we define our notion of honesty. Beyond that, issues related to honesty, or more prominently, the lack thereof, serve as constant fodder for the news media-drenched world in which we live. The examples are easy. Think Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, or the recent tragic fatalities related to the use of force in law enforcement to start. There’s something or someone daily across the spectrum of society, politics, and, of course, business that invokes discussions of honesty and truth.

In the business world, Enron is still a poster child of transgression relative to honesty, but one wouldn’t have to think to hard to come up with many other examples to add to the list. Ask Bernie Madoff’s former clients or clients affected by the infamous banking “London Whale.” So, the lesson in all this is clear, isn’t it? Honesty is the best policy and the concept of what is honest and what is not is quite clear, is it not? In most cases of life and business, it is. Consciously changing numbers in a report that you know to be false, or blaming a peer for screwing up a project when you knew that it was your own doing are classic case examples of dishonesty. But what about the less obvious, the so-called “grey” areas we face as business people?

Having been in various businesses and management roles for over three decades, I can attest to the fact that it’s a complicated, often messy, world that too often seems to blur the lines of honesty and ethics. Reflection is a wonderful thing, but usually not an option during the moment of dealing with the constant crises and pressures of day-to-day decision-making. That not withstanding, experience plays a role in all this. We hopefully learn from our mistakes – I believe I have – and they provide a framework for reflection and the development of a few guiding principles that I thought worth sharing on the subject of honesty:

Honesty is the best policy, really

Yeah, it’s a cliché, but do you really follow this simple rule? As a leader at any level, how many times does someone – from the ranks above or below – come to you with a dilemma and you find yourselves debating options and nuances of the situation and potential solutions: Business is off or there’s been a setback with a major client. How much should we share with the staff? Should we share any of this? Or, how about this one: Project x is falling behind and we may not hit the launch date. Hey, we may be able to recover over the next week or two, so do we need to surface this? And if we say anything, it’s going to raise questions as to why and who did what to cause this?

Does this all sound familiar? Been there, done that, and I can make it easy. Forget the debate and the list of solutions that basically do an honesty end run. Communicate to those appropriate the truth as soon as possible. Are there consequences – or possibly some pain involved? Possibly, but that’s the short run and I learned time and time again to play the long game. Tell your team an expeditious half-truth and start counting the days for the reality to emerge and morale and performance to erode. Conversely, you might be equally surprised to see in many cases how quickly honesty yields quick benefits, including your getting a badly needed good night’s sleep.

Beware of what you don’t say

Like all executives, I’ve had to fire people, a number of people over the years. And that includes many people of whom I was personally fond. It’s one of the most difficult and usually stressful aspects of business and leadership – and one of the most important. When done for the right reasons, it serves what I always call the “greater good.” A poor performing employee is a disservice, if not a threat, to other great, hardworking employees and the health and potential growth of a business,

When I reflect on those unfortunate events, I realize I don’t really have many if any regrets. In most cases, those let go were clearly not getting the agreed work done. In some cases, those involved did something blatantly unethical or illegal. The latter is a clear case of dishonesty, but I would make the case that underperforming is its own form of dishonesty.

If there are any regrets involved in the aforementioned firings, it wasn’t the actually firing, but potentially what I didn’t say well in advance of the firing. Was I always completely open and honest about that employee’s shortcomings? Could I have been a better mentor to turn an underperformer around? Did I simply not act quickly enough for a situation that wasn’t fixable? This isn’t about the obvious performance issues that are part of a legally-vetted dismissal process, but the more subtle but important cues upon which leaders must pick up and coach. Just like saying “no!” is often the harder path, figuratively patting someone on the back – or avoiding surfacing a shortcoming – when constructive criticism would be much more beneficial, is a potential problem. In effect, dishonesty often involves what we don’t say as much as what we do. Tell people what they need to hear and not what they want to hear.

Don’t let grey be your new black

And this is not a good thing. How often do we debate what is the truth, when deep inside we know it’s quite obvious. It’s the equivalent of asking someone for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and getting the long version of “maybe.” How often do we take questions or issues that are quite black and white in respect to what is the honest vs. dishonest path, and find ways to make them grey. It’s a form of rationalization at which one can become quite practiced – despite what the facts dictate in addition to that tension in our gut. It’s the difference between “We have a real problem here and need to act quickly” and “We have noticed some flaws in testing but you never really know, it could be random and we’ll keep an eye on this and update as needed.” Practice doesn’t really make perfect in any pursuit – as humans we are essentially flawed. But practice and experience can make us better business people and human beings. So, practice getting at and stating the truth – and forget those tempting shades of grey.

Honesty is contagious – and so is dishonesty

One of the most powerful management lessons I learned over the years is the importance and impact of culture on a company’s growth and success. And I would argue that integrity is a mandatory on any list of values that underpin a company’s mission and culture. The honesty exhibited by company leadership at every level will ultimately drive whether that value is a success factor or simply one word on a meaningless document posted on a company billboard.

A 2012 Harvard Business Review study “The Data’s In: Honesty Really Does Start At The Top” quantified that the perceived level of honesty and integrity shown by leaders at the top of an organization set the standard for all other levels of management below. This may seem intuitive, but it’s so often forgotten.

Have you ever observed how even the phrases or mannerisms of a leader often get adopted by those whom he or she leads, even in larger organizations? As a leader in an organization, do your part. If it is obvious that leadership above you is not setting the appropriate standard of honesty, then let your voice be heard. Be honest. If being a change agent for honesty isn’t working in your organization, work hard to find a new organization. And that’s the truth, honestly.