How Good is Your Word?
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.” (New Jersey Governor Christie in his 1st public statement on the “bridgegate” scandal)
“We do not market food to kids.” (McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson in response to a protest by food advocates at the 2013 annual shareholders meeting)
“This position is going to another candidate who has more experience, but as soon as another comes available, I will contact you.” (A recruiter unwilling to tell an anxious job-seeker the truth)
“I’ll get back to you after the meeting on Wednesday.” (It’s Friday and I am still waiting)
“Great to see you, things are crazy now but let’s get together after the holidays.” (Neighbors, who haven’t socialized in years, running into each other at a local restaurant before the holidays)
From the unethical to the prosaic, most of us fallible humans exaggerate or even lie. We make promises and commitments we don’t keep. The gap between intentions and action is growing. It seems like more of us are willing to stretch the truth these days and that “good old-fashioned” virtues like honesty and responsibility are imperiled.
Many of us still believe that the moral high ground is being trampled on out there – while we keep up the illusion of our own rock-solid personal integrity. The forces of self-deception are powerful and our inability to come clean about our own moral fault lines is understandable.
The truth about why we lie (to ourselves and others) is complex. It’s bound up not only within the labyrinth of our personal psychology, but as part of the social nexus we inhabit. In his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves, author Dan Ariely points out, “Very few people steal to a maximal degree, but many good people cheat just a little here or there. We fib to round-up our billable hours, claim higher losses on our insurances claims and recommend unnecessary treatments and so on.”
Who me? While some of you are protesting Ariely’s generalization declaring exemption from the weaknesses of the masses – few of us can (honestly) claim to be scrupulous – in all our deeds, actions and thoughts.
It’s the Culture, Right?
In an era of ubiquitous sales marketing, zealous branding, hyperbole, pseudo-psych dictums, absence of public humility and abuses of power it’s difficult to seem vulnerable or dare I say – wrong.
Exaggeration, verbal embellishments and cognitive mind-games are all-pervasive in what author Ralph Keyes calls a “post-truth era.” Keyes writes, “At one time we had truth and lies. Now we have statements that may not be true but we consider them too benign to call false. Euphemisms abound. We’re economical with the truth, we “sweeten” it. The term deceive gives way to spin. At worst, we admit to “misspeaking,” or exercising “poor judgment.” A liar is ethically challenged. We don’t accuse others of lying; we say they are in denial. In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies and honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction.”
Does Keyes have it right? Are the lines so blurred that we can’t tell, or even worse, care, whether we are lying or being lied to?
One casualty of escalating deception in the culture is a serious decline in trust. Polls taken over the past few years show a growing mistrust of leaders within organizations; more employees now believe their leaders lack authenticity, harbor hidden agendas and are primarily self-interested. The erosion of trust in leaders is not new but the steep decline in Americans trusting each other – is another serious signpost of cultural conflict. An AP GFK poll conducted in November 2013 showed that “a record high of nearly two-thirds polled say “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”
In my informal surveys with clients – the idea of “unconditional trust” is nearly completely rejected – an artifact of some former generation’s naïveté? When we get deeper into the discussion, the difficulties of working in a low-trust environment become quickly apparent. Who do you trust and why? Do you trust my credentials or me the person? What do I have to do to gain your trust?
Low-trust breeds expectations of deception (even in minor forms); both are a destructive combination in workplaces and in societies in general. Our lowered standards and expectations – of self and others – also stem from a growing tolerance for lies and lack of courage in taking and demanding responsibility for them.
While Keyes is right to admonish us – call a lie a lie and don’t try to soften or excuse untruthful behavior by reframing it as denial – the truth is when we lie to ourselves or others – we are in denial. Unless there is some deeper pathology that prevents our “rational” minds from accepting the truth of our lies, at some level we know we are telling ourselves a story to avoid psychological pain.
Why We Lie
Mostly we lie – fabricate, fib, exaggerate, distort, avoid, omit, distract and defer the truth – because we are driven to maintain emotional equilibrium. Usually the emotional discomfort of the cognitive dissonance we experience when we disregard our values either moves us in the direction of deeper mistruths or towards greater awareness.
In short, we lie to protect ourselves emotionally – even when we lie to ourselves. We justify many of our lies in dozens of ways that ennoble the motivations; we don’t want to harm or hurt others with the truth. We lie out of convenience, laziness, fear, guilt, love, embarrassment, anger, worry, concern, innocence, ambition and hubris.
Whatever our motivation for mistruths, however creative or clever our reframe – we must ultimately live with the stories we tell ourselves. If those stories do not match the values we hold most dearly, there will be more emotional discomfort. The justification gets harder and the internal conflict intensifies.
Three critical factors will determine your motivation and ability to safeguard the integrity of your word:
- Greater Self-Awareness. Your ability to be aware of the untruths you sell yourself is the key to respecting your word. Understanding the areas where you are vulnerable and tend towards self-protection is important. No one knows this like you. Much of this honest self-scrutiny is uncomfortable – but ultimately freeing. The more you start cleaning up those lies, the harder it is to tolerate your insincerity.
- Respect of Others. “Respecting” others means you extend the same level of regard for them that you expect yourself. Your respect of others is not contingent upon whether you like or agree with them or condone their actions. It simply means you recognize your mutual person-hood and honor their rights the same as you expect for yourself. In today’s culture judgment is often immediate. People’s ideas and behaviors are demeaned without any knowledge of their real motivation. We need a new code of conduct if we are to restore – even elevate social trust.
- Face the Truth. It takes courage to tell the truth. This starts with your own personal truth. If you have developed certain patterns and habits that tend towards fabricating or “fudging” the truth, face it. This is not who you are. Everyone has thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are “unattractive.” Those thoughts and behaviors often don’t match the identities we construct.
Regardless of what is going on out there – the lies, cheating, distortions and broken promises, we must keep our own counsel. How much of our self-protection is our attempt to control the chronic uncertainty around us? How much does our self-protection keep us separate from others? And likely the most important reckoning – how much honesty and authenticity do we want to experience? If we are not willing to trust, what do we expect to get? If we break our promises and renege on our word, what kind of relationships can we expect to have?
Brave New World author Aldous Huxley famously said, “There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”
So I ask again, “How good is your word?”
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants