The truth, the whole truth... and anything but the truth

The truth, the whole truth... and anything but the truth

By Mike Toten on 10 October 2018

On average, we lie about once every seven minutes, either by saying something that’s untrue or saying nothing when the truth really does need telling. In a business, lies can have a direct cost, a hidden cost and a snowball effect if they are allowed to continue.

The damage that lies at a workplace can do, and some techniques for ensuring that the truth overrides them, were discussed at a seminar this week by management consultants Integrity and Values.

What is a lie?

Jennifer Elliott, CEO of Integrity and Values, said that the scope of lies was broader than the term “fake news” currently in popular use. A lie can be:

  • saying something that’s untrue
  • saying nothing or omitting information/facts, in order to avoid telling the truth – referred to as the “violence of silence”
  • trying to justify things that can’t be justified, or using distractions to avoid the truth
  • painting things to be rosier than they really are – “sugarcoating” and giving false praise
  • collusion by co-opting others, eg “I won’t say anything if you don’t”

Ms Elliott summed it up with the acronym FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real).

Why we lie

Fear is the main reason we lie, but with a variety of motives:

  • to avoid unpleasant confrontations or conflict, or at least delay them
  • to make ourselves look better
  • to manage our own image, eg avoid being disliked
  • to try to protect other people’s feelings
  • to cover up our own mistakes and faults
  • fear of consequences, eg being ostracised or labelled as “not a team player”

Why we shouldn’t lie

Lying, whether openly or by omission, props up a defective workplace culture and allows counterproductive behaviour to continue, usually until there is a major crisis. For example:

  • mistakes are repeated and problems can snowball
  • bad/wrong decisions are made
  • good employees who perceive nothing is being done may leave
  • employees learn not to trust managers and/or co-workers, and
  • morale and productivity deteriorate.

Ms Elliott added that every project/budget overrun, defective product, poor service, etc must have been preceded by at least one lie. By the time the truth finally comes out (if it ever does), a common response is “I wish you had told me that earlier”. The time lag can be very long before something is done towards fixing a bad situation – sometimes so long that it is hard to identify the original link between cause and effect.

More acronyms from Ms Elliott: a LIE Licenses the past, Ignores the present and Extinguishes the future.

When we lie, we are trying to protect ourselves, not others, although we often don’t realise it. We lie instead of holding others to account. We are too NICE (Nothing In me Cares Enough).

We may perceive a cost of telling the truth now, and it is often obvious and easily calculated. The cost of not telling the truth may not surface until later on, but it is likely to be much greater. Therefore, the truth has a “compound interest” effect.

To summarise, the lies told and accepted at a workplace will determine its culture. You should care for your employees who do the right thing and pull their weight.

How to tell the truth NOW

“The truth will set you free” is a popular saying, but it may also scare you at first. It does provide others with the opportunity to improve, move away from a problem situation, and grow on the job.

Inoculating people

The truth requires saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said. Ms Elliott recommended an “inoculation” style of approaching employees. It involves telling people the truth with compassion and while maintaining their dignity, and starts with seeking permission to “inoculate”. Don’t use it as an opportunity to attack or blame.

Some recommended “inoculation” opening lines include the following:

  • “I want to tell you something and you may not like it”.
  • “I am going to be tough on you”.
  • “I am worried that what I am about to say may upset you, so I apologise in advance”.
  • “I have been putting this off and it’s been building up”.

Ms Elliott said that most employees already knew when things were wrong and many were waiting for something to be said and done. She said that a common response was “oh, is that all?”

However, she warned that the fear of conflict that caused many people to lie in the first place was often difficult for them to overcome, and needed a supportive work culture (ie no punishment for doing the right thing). Overcoming those fears might require training and plenty of practice.

Further information

Integrity and Values provides online tools and coaching services to assist with developing the “inoculation” approach. For further information about this seminar, click here.


No comments yet. Be the first.