What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies then we won’t recognise the truth at all. What will we do then? – HBO’s Chernobyl

The UK’s (now former) Ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch resigned after confidential memos about the US President were leaked to the press. In the aftermath, there was concern that diplomats in other missions would censor their opinions for fear of further leaks. The Head of the Diplomatic Service was quick to speak up, “Ambassadors need to be able to communicate instantly and honestly with head office.” In a succession of interviews and all-staff meetings, Sir Simon McDonald reinforced the message that candor is imperative, and unvarnished thinking is needed to inform evidence-based decision-making. 

Countless organisations have espoused values of ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’. In fact, Booz Allen Hamilton and the Aspen Institute found in one study that of the 89% of companies that have a written corporate values statement, 90% specified ethical conduct as a principle.

So aside from the fear of leaks, what stops us from being completely honest at work and giving no-holds-barred advice? 

Honesty doesn’t always pay, but dishonesty always costs – Michael Josephson

Although every society condemns lying, it is still a common feature of everyday life. Some argue that lying may be prosocial because interpersonal functioning often requires the ability to mask one’s inner feelings – for example:

  • This is delicious
  • Your partner seems nice
  • That looks great on you

At work:

  • I have to leave work early for a [fill in the blank] appointment
  • It’s my top priority
  • The account is looking good
  • That was my idea!
  • I can have it done by the end of the day

Studies suggest that some people are better than others at lying. Apparently extroverts lie at a higher rate than introverts. Intelligent people can think strategically and plan ahead like a good chess player and handle the cognitive load imposed by lying. If you are adept at reading body language, you are probably also adept at sensing when other people are getting suspicious. And if you have a good memory, you are less likely to be tripped up by your falsehoods.

In political (small ‘p’) organisations, status-enhancing lies are also often used to establish or maintain close bonds with others, for instance by making empty promises (offering help you can’t follow through on) or framing oneself as an insider rather than an outsider. And in blame cultures, people will lie to self-protect. When someone is faced with the possibility of a real or perceived consequence for bad behaviour, they’ll ‘batten down the hatches’ and defend themselves against a threat by managing outcomes for self not the collective anymore.

Unlike most fictional stories that are designed to uplift or instruct, there may not be a good outcome if someone is honest. The right to belong is the most fundamental human need and, in unhealthy corporate systems, employees may experience the unhelpful desire to fit in and therefore not ‘rock the boat’. This plays out every day in offices around the world in the form of ‘meeting silence, corridor violence’. 

Daniel Goleman offers us this: 

Psychological and emotional safety is the understanding that being honest and open is okay and won’t have negative repercussions. When we feel safe, we’re able to shut down the brain’s hardwiring for defensiveness.

It is an oxymoron that healthy teams have more conflict. As Patrick Lencioni suggests, we should move our teams away from artificial harmony at one end of the spectrum and personal attacks at the other. He speaks about team members having ‘passionate unfiltered debates’ to get into the ‘truth zone’. 

Ron Carucci conducted a 15-year longitudinal study involving 3,200 interviews and 210 organisational assessments to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company would be honest. The research yielded four factors – not individual character traits, but organisational issues – that played a role, which are documented in his Harvard Business Review article 4 Ways Lying Becomes the Norm at a Company.

  1. A lack of strategic clarity – When there isn’t consistency between an organisation’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. As one interviewee put it, “Our priorities change by the week. Nobody wants to admit we’re in trouble, so we’re grasping at straws. We don’t know who we are anymore, so we’re just making things up.” When employees perceive duplicity between their organisation’s stated identity and actions, they eventually follow suit.
  2. Unjust accountability systems – When an organisation’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair, it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information. One interviewee captured a pervasive sentiment about how destructive these systems can be: “I don’t know why I work so hard. My boss doesn’t have a clue what I do. I fill out the appraisal forms at the end of the year, he signs them and sends them to HR. We pretend to have a discussion, and then we start over.” The study showed that when accountability processes are seen as unfair, people feel forced to embellish their accomplishments and hide, or make excuses for their shortfalls. That sets the stage for dishonest behaviour.
  3. Poor governance – When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organisation to rely on rumours and gossip. Meetings are often seen as a waste of time because it’s unclear why they are taking place or who gets to make decisions. 71% of senior managers viewed meetings as unproductive and inefficient. When effective governance is missing, organisations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.
  4. Weak cross-functional collaboration – Silos aren’t just annoying to work across (particularly in a matrix environment); they’re an impediment to honesty. When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organisation is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. Fragmentation, especially across divisional lines, creates dueling truths, resulting in one side having to prove they are right, and the other wrong. Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented or blamed, and in cultures of endless subcontracting, the people at the top end up having less and less responsibility.

The good news is that these factors are within our Circle of Influence. Improving them can make companies more honest, and help avert the reputational and financial disasters (think Volkswagen and Wells Fargo) that dishonesty can lead to.

Besides, it occurs to me that if you are part of a power structure that you understand to be suppressive in any way, there is the real possibility of someone cutting their shackles one day and speaking the truth. Power comes from the perception of power. The secret to power is people respecting and fearing it. Once you no longer believe in it, the power is gone.

It is said that the truth is naked. What will you choose to cover today?