I wrote recently on this blog about Radical Candor (sic). I’m still as English as I was when I wrote the original, where a degree of sarcasm may not have escaped your attention. But a lack of not just candour, but something closely related – honesty – is really not a laughing matter.
You may have noticed a strapline on this website. Truth matters. Without truth, there is no credibility, no trust, no faith. Lies are quick, cheap and easy, but the bill can be pretty big when it does arrive. And it will. Have a read of a recent article from the US press, and ponder for a few seconds the impact on the credibility of Kellyanne Conway. If you’ve not glazed over yet, bear in mind her job title. Counselor to President of The United States. Her job is to speak on his behalf. And if she’s not credible…
We may live and work in an era when examples or allegations of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ – a phrase that Ms Conway herself ‘popularised’ recently – seem to be everywhere, and where echo chambers digitally amplify them at the speed of whatever it is the Internet travels at. (The extent to which people may believe fictional news stories has led Facebook to introduce revised software in Germany ahead of this year’s elections.) But we are also in the age of the camera-phone, the server log, the CCTV camera, key capture software and many other little technological wonders that track and monitor a remarkably percentage of everything we do. If it happened – or if it didn’t happen (the size of President Trump’s inauguration crowd, anyone?) – there’s a very high chance the evidence exists to prove or disprove it.
Dishonesty has never been the best policy: in 2017, it’s also very stupid. With such a high chance of evidence being available, there is only so far that truth can be stretched before it not only becomes dishonest but transparently so. Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? You might think you’ve got everything covered so to speak, but other people’s view could be pretty off-putting.
In a world where the Attention Economy increasingly holds sway, the sensational soundbite and the attention-grabbing manoeuvre is very tempting, but the impact can be regrettable. Consider the following snippet from a recent article on the BBC website:
“Sometimes people just want new followers or shares on social media, and either invent a quote or (naively or otherwise) lift a questionable one,” says James Ball. “Others invent quotes as a hoax or parody to show up people they disagree with, or to fire up their own side – or simply to make money from adverts on fake news sites.”
The internet means fake quotes can spread very quickly.
“It’s easier to fabricate things than it is to debunk them,” says Rasmus Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. “As communication gets easier, there is going to be more and more of this stuff floating about online.”
You should be encouraging people to perform better and more productively, not leading them to believe it would be in their interest to spend an increasing amount of their time fact-checking.
If you need a crumb of comfort about now, reassure yourself that life does still exist offline, right here in the here-and-now and the face-to-face. Then again, people do have memories – particularly of occasions when they know or feel that someone else has been less than honest with them. And they conversations as well as memories. The problem with honesty isn’t a new one: the following quote comes from a blog post the Peter Bregman wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2012:
“People know the truth. They can sense it. And even if they are momentarily fooled, they won’t be for long because other people won’t be fooled and they’ll all talk. If not in person, then on Facebook or Linkedin or Twitter or some Google group.
Even though we know that, we still try to make things seem different than they are because it takes great courage to be honest. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable.”
Our reasons for failing to be honest may be well-intentioned: we may want to minimise the chance of hurt, or we may feel embarrassed to be candid. To which we would counsel that your working relationships are just that: we may or may not be friends, but we are paid to interact and to perform. Issues that need to be addressed are about the issue, not the personality: tackling them should feel the rules that apply to tackling on the football pitch – play the ball, not the player. There may not be referees present in appraisal meetings, but the red card moments will be remembered.
Anyone in a leadership or management position might want to bear in mind that:
a) avoiding one hurt can cause a greater one
b) leadership and management require courage, and showing some is part of the job description
c) the pay rise that came with the elevation is partly in compensation for the increased vulnerability that you will be experiencing.
If you’re finding it lonely at the top, you have our sympathy. Where you are willing make good choices – and opting for dishonesty over honesty is a choice – you have our support. But remember the following words from Graham Greene. Not just an author but, in his time, an MI6 agent, he offered the following nugget of advice:
“It is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.”
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