[Cherry Tree Chronicles] How to Tell the Truth – and Why You Should

We live in a world of spin: from embellished resumes to downright lies, people seem to have forgotten truth with their honesty manners. It’s hard to know if it’s always been this way, or if it’s changed over time. Certainly George Washington, whose birthday was celebrated last week as a US Federal holiday, would be appalled. George, as the legend goes, was the young man who voluntarily told his father that he had chopped down a cherry tree rather than lie about it.

For a number of reason lying sometimes works. And for a variety of other reasons I’ll mention, mistelling truths – a polite way to say lying – will work less and less moving forward. It’s true for companies, it’s true for people, and it’s true for you.

This post cover two points. First, how to tell the truth. Second, why should you.

Similar to the oath that comes from 13th century English courts (“the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth..”) truth for these purposes has three parts: all the relevant facts, the context for the facts, and any suggestion or inference of outcome that you believe to be accurate. Nail all three and you’ve told the truth. Ad lib on one or two and it’s fair to say that you fudged the truth. And this by the way, is not the “I’m being deposed and need to tell as narrow as factually I can truth.” This is truth, as in the whole enchilada.

Here’s two examples:

Example A: It started to rain. The water reservoir began to fill up to the top. With the spillage dam to the reservoir closed, I thought that water would flood over the top.

Example B: It started to rain. The spillage dam was shut.

In both cases some degree of truth is told. In Example B, context (the reservoir began to fill up) and inference (I thought it would flood over the top) are withheld. While a not false statement is made, the truth hasn’t been told in Example B: the speaker had information, and failed to transmit it.

So how to tell the truth, nail all three elements. Seems pretty easy peasy? Except when it’s not.

I once left a job after 97 days because I learned that the Chairman, who I learned had falsified the D & O coverage, was likely also committing fraud. I discharged my duty as an officer and told the CEO why I was resigning. What do I tell people initially why I left? I tell them that the job and role was different than described, and that I thought I would be more effective and successful in a different setting. All the grim facts? No. Honest? Yes. Only one person has ever asked me to go beyond the broad overview statement, and I told him in more detail what was behind the termination.

I’ve also worked with people who managed to claim other people’s work (considered scientific misconduct if you work in certain sectors), as well as conveniently withhold key facts and data.

But, it’s getting harder to lie and get away with it, and here’s a few reasons why.

First, while I’m not a big believer in Ayn Rand, I am a believer that people do things generally in their best interest. If it pays not to lie if you get caught, then I think folks will lie less if the likelihood of getting caught goes up.

Second, it’s getting harder to lie and hide truths – the likelihood of getting caught has gone up.

From Tiger Woods, to Eliot Spitzer, through to Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton,  doing things that you shouldn’t or lying about it is getting flushed out at an escalating rate. Thanks to Flip cameras (see related post here ), iPhones, and internet access, information surfaces faster, more accurately, and easier, making the strategy of lying not so smart. And since much if not most of what we do now is digital – as Bill Gates relearned in the Microsoft antitrust case when his emails surfaced as evidence – it’s simply harder to cover things up. Fast Company just posted an article stating that Googling someone is the new pre-interview. The short story: stuff gets surfaced.

Third, telling the truth has increasing merits. It keeps life simpler. Getting your factual news out early and often has become the best practice in corporate and personal life. As TechCrunch noted in a piece titled Why You Should Confess Everything Before You Get Caught, they disclose things in their publication as soon as they are sure of the facts. Reputations – as Toyota as recently learned the hard way – are viral. Screw up, and not own up, and the world knows.

Fourth, being honest with people is showing up in the research as one of the key leadership attributes that works. Employees value it, boards of directors increasingly expect it, and peers want it. People who fudge the truth have fallen out of fashion: with any luck they will stay there. BusinessWeek columnist Patrick Lencioni touted Domino’s Pizza candid and vulnerable approach to their shortcomings in a piece called The Power of Saying We Blew It. Candor, authenticity and honesty are peas in the same pod – use them.

Last, and on a personal note, it’s the right thing to do. At worst it helps you sleep better at night, at best it means you can look folks in the eye and not flinch.

So there it is in honor of George Washington and his cherry trees: how to tell and truth, and why you should.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.