Children of course need clear rules to learn the difference between right and wrong. However as we get older, the truth becomes more nuanced — and there are times when a little white lie or the absence of some key facts might be appropriate. The problem is that all of us have different standards for when, why, and how we shade the truth. These divergent 'shades of gray' then cause miscommunication, breakdowns of trust, and other dysfunctional behaviors. That's why, despite the inclusion of "integrity" in almost every value statement, some form of lying is common in most companies.
From my experience, there are three fundamental concerns that cause people to shade the truth, either consciously or not. Being aware of these "lying triggers" can sometimes help to improve communication and reduce the feelings of mistrust.
Impact of the truth on yourself
It's human nature to want people to think well of us, particularly those who have influence over our lives and careers. At the same time we all make mistakes, so we create justifications and excuses — many of which are at best half-truths. I recall a manager whose key project was behind schedule, largely due to his lack of discipline and follow-up. Yet when asked why the project was lagging, he blamed a snowstorm (from six months previously) for slowing down the work.
Impact of the truth on others
One way to gain others' approval is to avoid pointing out things that may damage their self-image. As a result, many people withhold some or all of their true thoughts about others. For example, a senior executive complained to me recently that one of his managers never gave her people negative criticism during performance reviews. To justify that behavior, she said that it was better to reinforce positive behaviors rather than point out weaknesses — a strategy that also happened to make her popular with her team. The senior executive however was convinced that her drive to be well liked was doing the team a disservice, because they didn't know what they could do to improve.
Impact of the truth on business success
To be successful almost every organization needs to sell — be it a product, a service, a story, or a promise. But much of that selling is done without truthful disclosure of what it will take to fulfill the sale. That's why product salespeople will often take an order without revealing to the customer that there may be supply problems, or why a CEO will tout the benefits of an acquisition without mentioning the challenges of integration. Showing customers or partners what's truly behind the curtain could undermine credibility and threaten the deal. The wiser course in many cases is to limit the truth and figure out how to "deliver" later.
It's easy to be judgmental about all these situations and to insist on absolute truth at all times. But people don't work that way, and neither do organizations. As managers, the best we can do is to be more aware of why we avoid or shade the truth — and make sure that it's an appropriate time to do so.
Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.