Truth Telling in Business can be Dangerous, but When in Doubt–Tell the Truth: The Brutal Truth on Truth Telling in Business…

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. ~ Mark Twain

What is truth, what (if anything) makes it truth, and does it matter… In two national surveys conducted by ‘Barna Research’ they found: By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation.

The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of who said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute. In a recent series of more than twenty interviews conducted at random at a large university, people were asked if there was such a thing as absolute truth (absolute truth is defined as truth across all times and cultures for all people). All but one respondent answered along these lines:  Truth is whatever you believe… there is no absolute truth… If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is? Yet, in spite of the pervasiveness of these attitudes to truth, voices are being raised in protest. ‘Michael Novak’

in an article in the ‘Reader’s Digest’, declared that ‘the most critical threat to our freedom is a failure to appreciate the power of truth.’  According to ‘Kristin Zhivago’ says; when you manage others: What do they depend on you for, more than anything else? Yes, the truth. You sell a product or service: What do your customers depend on you for, more than anything else? Yep, the truth. Nothing is more valued in the business world, nothing matters as much, as the truth.

Employees eat it up when it’s given to them, and, when it isn’t, conspire among themselves to find out what it is. Customers demand it, and stomp out (warning others to stay away), if they don’t get it. Those you report to, and other managers, board of directors, investors– expect the truth. If you deliver something else, they will find out sooner or later, and they will never trust you again.

In the article Why We Don’t Always Tell the Truth” by Ron Ashkenas writes:  When I was growing up, one of the principles in our house was that we had to tell the truth, no matter how painful it might be. Lying, we were taught, wasn’t something you could get away with. 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.

Being aware of the lying triggers, can sometimes help to improve communication and reduce the feelings of mistrust. From my experience, there are three fundamental concerns that cause people to shade truth, either consciously or not: Impact of the truth on yourself; Impact of the truth on others; Impact of the truth on business success…

In the article When in Doubt, Tell the Truth” by Dean Rieck writes: Mark Twain, an entrepreneur, writer, and relative of mine (through a convoluted family tree) once said, “What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if he can; honestly if he must.” I’m not as jaded as that, but I know it’s too often true. In fact, in my very first job, I learned the pitfalls of creative fibbing from a car dealer.

When you’re in the business of selling, you don’t always have the luxury of pushing the very best product. It would be nice if our products overflowed with superior features and meaningful benefits… We would be swimming in sea of ‘Unique Selling Propositions’ (USP) and ‘Big Ideas’; and, promotions would virtually write themselves.

However, in reality, most products are fairly humdrum, with lots of competition, and they need an experienced hand to turn features into benefits– i.e., find the USP and create the Big Idea– that will send the sales curve through the roof. In doing so, it’s easy to  get caught up in our own patter, to lose touch with what’s real and true when we’re under the gun to sell, sell, sell…

When in doubt, we reach into our creative toolbox and pull out techniques to hide the flaws and twist the features into what we hope will pass for relevant benefits. Let me give you another quote from the irrepressible Mr. Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”  Now, if there ever was a creative formula for all of us who create marketing messages– it’s this: Every product or service has at least one central truth. Find that truth and frame your message around it. Why? Because telling the truth is easier and more direct than telling an untruth.

This is similar to the USP or Big Idea approach. The difference is that you don’t ask yourself what is unique or what is the big idea, instead, you just ask: What is the truth about the product? The benefits of this approach are enormous: In the heat of creativity, it’s easy to come up with a selling idea that’s not entirely true, e.g., a USP that’s a bit convoluted or a Big Idea that’s just a bit deceptive. This just makes your selling job that much harder, since you’ll have to work harder for your message to be attractive and believable.

As my grandfather says, that’s taking the long way around the barn. Telling the truth is simple and direct, and all you have to do is find the truth. I’m not suggesting you throw away your USP or Big Idea approach, just that you travel down one more avenue as you’re looking for your selling message.

Finding the truth– the honest-to-goodness truth– can often open up creative doors for you… So, the next time you’re faced with a difficult promotion; forget the jargon and the well-worn sales babble, the preferred techniques, and what the client or product manager says– then, just for a moment, ask yourself: What is the truth about the product? As my dear cousin Mr. Twain would say; “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

In the articleThe Truth Is, the Truth Hurts by Anna Muoio writes: Witnesses in court proceedings swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” So why is candor in business still so rare? According to ‘Jim McCann’; Telling the truth means many different things: delivering bad news to the boss; giving a negative performance review to a subordinate; disagreeing publicly with a colleague. But most people think it means something else– risking your future. In a survey of 40,000 Americans, 93% admitted to lying regularly at work.

Of course, for leaders, the flip side of telling the truth is hearing the truth. How can you make the right decision if you can’t get accurate information and honest opinions? The ‘Fast Company’ asked 11 plainspoken business leaders to provide advice and techniques to help people tell and hear, the truth. Truth is about actions as well as words.  Of course, words count too.

My first rule of communication — whether it’s an email, a memo, or a half-day briefing– is; Tell me in the first sentence what you would have told me in the last sentence.” So much of corporate life is about spinning the facts… I don’t want to be spun… that simple rule helps stop the spin.

According to ‘Michael Wheeler’; Think back to the last time someone in the office proposed a truly hare-brain project. Your public response was probably something like “That’s interesting. We should look into it.” Your private reaction was “Yeah, we’ll do it when pigs fly.” The truth is, it’s easier to speak truthfully to strangers than to colleagues. Which means you’re more likely to get the straight story from someone you don’t know than from someone you’ve worked with for years.

There are lots of good reasons why truth hurts. A colleague may be a friend, and no one likes to disappoint a friend. Companies that embrace a can do spirit often frown upon even well-intentioned criticism. There are political calculations too: Vetoing someone else’s project may invite retaliation against your project. But the more you avoid the truth, the steeper the price that you are likely to pay in terms of wasted effort, frustration, and even cynicism. It’s a vicious cycle. Face the truth about the truth. Be honest with yourself …

According to ‘Mark Cuban’; Let’s be honest: we lie, and  colleagues lie to us. That’s how human beings operate. People prefer to tell other people what they want to hear. I don’t worry very much about whether everything I hear in a meeting or read in an email is the unvarnished truth. I don’t need perfect people. I need successful people– people who can think for themselves and get the job done.

If they need to tell a little white lie, once in a while; well, I can live with that. But, there are few areas where truth is mandatory: When it’s customer service, never tell even a little white lie. In general, I care more about the big picture: Are we being honest with ourselves about the condition and course of the company? If we’re honest about big things, little things will take care of themselves, even if that means telling an occasional white lie.

According to ‘Jerry Hirshberg’; Even people who don’t mind telling the truth have mixed feelings about hearing the truth. It’s like a chemical reaction: Your face goes red, your temperature rises, you want to strike back. Those are signs of the two D’s: Defending and Debating. Try to fight back with the two L’s: Listening and Learning. Many of the best ideas are communicated through whispers– in the hallway meetings that happen after the official meeting.

That’s because people worry about how the boss will react if they speak the truth. What’s remarkable, of course, is that these whispered ideas are what companies are most hungry for. So the next time you feel yourself defending and debating, stop – and start listening and learning, instead… you’ll be amazed by what you hear.

To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.” ~ Edward R. Murrow