October 20, 2009

What We Lose When We Lie

If you watch House MD on TV, House always says something sort of striking: “everyone lies.”

Today, an article in the Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2009, says something similar, that we all lie even (some, not me, would say “especially”) in our closest relationships, marriage.

“We fib to avoid conflict. To gain approval. To save face. Or just to be kind.”

Some claim lying is a survival mechanism because “they [lies] allow us to avoid conflict.”

Others feel that it’s okay to lie in order to be tactful with others. For example, a retired financial executive explained that “when his wife ask how she looks, he always tells her she is beautiful. ‘A bad hair day isn’t going to change your life. What’s to be gained by saying something negative to someone that is of such fleeting importance.'”

Even those who supposedly don’t lie, have all these little twists:

One man when asked about lying said: “I don’t lie, I tell the truth…slowly.”

George Costanza on Seinfeld used to say: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

In society, we’ve even come up with a terms for lies that are small or harmless and we call those “white lies.”

Even in court rooms, we don’t trust that people will tell the truth, but rather we have to literally ask them “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d?”

Many people have pointed out that even in the Ten Commandments, we are not commanded directly not to lie, but rather “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”—Hey, just for the record, that’s close enough for me!

Not surprisingly, the mixed thinking about whether it is okay to lie in certain “charged” situations carries over into our organizations.

On one hand, many of our organizations, especially in the public sector, have wonderful core values such as truth, justice, integrity, and so on. Moreover, for certain national security positions, we even give people lie detector (polygraph) tests to ensure their personal truthfulness.

Yet, on the other hand, we all have heard of project managers who lie in order to cover up failing or failed projects—and many implicitly accept this behavior.

I read that the Standish Group recently reported that 82% of our organizational projects are failing or seriously challenged i.e. they are over budget, behind schedule, or not meeting customer requirements. Moreover, we have for years, seen numerous projects end up on watch list for failing projects and even have websites that track these.

Yet, ask many project managers how their projects are doing and you get the spectrum of whitewash answers like “everything is great,” “we’re right on track,” “no problem,” “everyone’s working hard,” or sometimes simply “nothing to report.”

Perhaps, project managers are afraid to tell the truth for fear of retribution, punishment, or other negative impacts to their career, those that work for them, or others who are “implicated.”

As one psychologist says about little white lies: “If you don’t fib, you don’t live.”

How unfortunate this thinking is—rather than encouraging honesty, we develop cultures of fear, where cover-ups are routine and truth in reporting is a practically a misnomer.

By creating a culture where lying is endemic to reporting, we are harming our people and our organizations. Organizationally, we can only manage if we can measure, and we can only measure if people are honest as to what is working and what isn’t. Personally, we hurt our own integrity as human beings by lying (or being dishonest, deceiving, whitewashing or whatever you want to call it) and then justifying it in so many little and big ways.

Sure, there is such a thing as tact, but you can be tactful and truthful at the same time!

Some of this may come down to improving communication and people skills and this needs to be emphasized in our training plans. Of course, we need to work with each other in socially appropriate ways.

But at the same time, at the end of the day, people need to maintain what is really important—their integrity, and at the same time move the organization to make the right decisions, and this can only be done by being frank and honest with ourselves and with each other.

My suggestion is for leaders to surround themselves with those who are not only “the best and the brightest,” but also those with the most honesty and integrity around.


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