The Little Lies We Tell and the Consequences They Have

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Oct 2, 2017

If you ask, most people will tell you they are generally an honest person. We all tell the odd little white lie from time to time, but these small untruths are usually no cause for concern.

Why then, is there such a widespread problem with honesty in the workplace? And before you reject this out of hand, think about it – have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you thought twice about being completely honest?

It’s a fair bet that you have, and if so, that it wasn’t entirely your fault. There’s often an unspoken sense that the unadulterated truth may be less than welcome with certain colleagues or stakeholders, especially when there’s a business-critical program on the line. In some working environments, an honest assessment can be as well-received as news of a personnel file breach.

So what’s going on? We’ve taken a look at why some companies seem to be pervaded by a culture-wide distrust of honesty and how you can help yours avoid this misconception.

Does your team ‘green shift’?

If staff within a company are routinely economical with the truth, it can indicate a wider problem. However subconsciously, some company cultures are fear or blame-centric, creating an atmosphere in which mistakes or sub-standard results are met with condemnation and reprisals. In extreme cases, staff may even fear for their jobs when admitting a blunder.

When we sugarcoat the truth, we deliberately underestimate the gravity of an issue. The folks over at Mentor Europe, a consultancy specialising in strategy execution, call this “green-shifting,” re-classifying problems as less serious than they really are in terms of a traffic light system of severity. Really critical “red” problems become amber, and moderately concerning “amber” issues become innocuously green. When staff fear the consequences of revealing the full extent of a problem, they may comfort themselves and their colleagues with the assertion that it’ll all come out in the wash, so there’s no need for full disclosure to the powers that be.

Sadly though, all this tends to do is compound things; the underrated red problems are now too big to ignore and have the potential to do real, possibly permanent damage.

Positive cultures are at risk

If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking, it’s okay, my company’s culture is super positive, not so fast. Steadfastly upbeat organisational cultures can be just as allergic to the truth, especially when it doesn’t fit with a company’s “can-do” outlook.

When blind optimism rules, there’s no limit to the levels of brilliance a company can achieve. In the instance that someone ventures a more level-headed and realistic perspective, they can be admonished for not being a team player, and told to “get on board.”

Instead of listening to honest rationale that could shape a viable strategy, senior managers plow ahead with an unachievable plan that’s doomed to fail.

Leaders set the culture

We might be tempted to look closer at top-level management for a route cause of systematic organisational dishonesty, and if so, we might be pretty near the mark. Business leaders and CEOs in the habit of being less than honest with themselves can create a pervasive atmosphere of truth realignment.

Without exploration or analysis, a vision is just that – a vision. Those at the top may have a great idea they want their teams to make happen, but so often they neglect to really consider how possible it is, and to give their staff even the bare minimum in time and resources. It’s a poisoned chalice for the program delivery team; an impossible task they cannot hope to make a reality.

It’s also up to directors and CEOs to take past decisions and actions into account (both their own and that of others), when planning a new and major course of action. The business is in need of a critical change program for a reason, and if those reasons aren’t evaluated with honesty and humility, there can be little hope of real improvement in the future.

Building a culture of honesty

So, how can we help stop the rot and give honesty the credit it deserves? As we’ve already stated, a lot of it comes down to leadership style, so we need to encourage senior management to embrace candor as much as possible.

Trust is also absolutely essential; staff must trust each other and senior management not to dismiss honest opinions out of hand, and not to vilify those that simply tell it like it is. When that is understood, a culture of openness can flourish, in which staff can work more productively and cohesively.

This is even more important when a company is set to take on a large-scale program. Its success depends hugely on whether or not it is based on a feasible idea, whether feedback is taken on board and whether progress, or lack thereof, is reported honestly. Of course there will be problems along the way, but when they are raised in an open culture free from blame and judgement, any issues can be met head on.

However you approach it, make sure honesty has a place at the heart of your company’s value system.