Honesty: not just something for the flower-arrangements.

The New York Times has recently published two articles that caught my attention in the comment they directly and indirectly pass on the culture of our times – at least if you’re reading this in the Industrialised West (and quite possibly beyond). Essentially critiquing a world where we are so accustomed to wanting everything ‘talked up’ and so addicted to wanting a silver lining for every one of life’s clouds – although given the events of the last 72 hours in New York, NY Times staffers might be forgiven for that – that an ‘unspun’ version of reality is not just shocking, it’s distinctly unpalatable.

The first article that snared my attention was, as almost everything currently is, plainly inspired by the closing days of the 2012 Presidential Election. It sought to imagine a candidate whose presentation of the situation was entirely unvarnished, who reminded their country that it ranked 34th of the 35 most economically advanced countries on child poverty, 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and 49th on infant mortality. That’s the kind of reality check that would gird a nation to tackle its real issues, surely? Well, probably not, as the NYT points out:

How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Nowhere fast. Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.

A few weeks earlier, Bruce Weinstein (the author of “Ethical Intelligence” – his blog is here) contributed a NYT article, Sunday Dialogue: Daring to Tell the Truth, and posed the question “Why can’t 2012 be the year that ethical intelligence rather than unbridled ambition fuels the race for the White House?” My inner satirist was already bouncing up and down on the sofa shouting “It’s the candidates, stupid!” – the best satire is always even-handed: anything is game – and had to be suppressed forcibly while I read on. The readers’ responses took the argument beyond the later piece’s focus on what the writer called ‘American Exceptionalism’.

A more practical solution may be for the population to treat political campaigning as a variant of commercial advertising and learn how to read for gaps and distortions. Advertisers and campaigners will shade the truth, or worse, until we have developed the skills that make that kind of speech ineffective.

I suppose as someone who works in what some will see as a loosely-connected limb of marketing I could easily stand accused here, although I’d like to think I’m fond enough of the ‘Yes, but …’ construction to attempt an even-handed review in at least the majority of cases. (And any arguing of any case depends on selecting your evidence. It’s good enough for barristers, which I hope is still an example of a profession considered slightly more lofty than blogging.) But … – and feel free to say ‘Aha!’ – there is a business world tendency to ‘talk things up’ that isn’t so far removed from soothing a need to be reassured. Even, perhaps, when the need for reassurance is what the speakers likes to think characterises their audience? When the audience would prefer to forego the varnish sometimes?

Esteemed – and I’m not making that up! – blogger, Sharlyn Lauby commented recently on honesty and its relationship to best policy and its relationship to behaving like a grown-up in a grown-up world. Quentin Crisp once said, probably with undue honesty, that:

There was no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, lies – even tiny weeny little white ones – don’t behave like dust. They continue to blanket what lies underneath ever more thickly as time goes by. And in environments where honesty is not quite frowned upon but possibly best described as ‘not actively encouraged’, the behaviour can be highly infectious. I’d wager that as a species we have a greater desire to be accepted and to ‘fit in’ that we do for the truth, and our behaviour can easily reflect this. As Mr Crisp said in a different context:

Health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbours.

But we no longer live in Quentin Crisp’s cusp-of-the-digital era, even as individuals – and certainly not as businesses. We may live in an era that feels utterly riven with scandal, but scandals emerge only when that hoary cliché ‘truth will out’ delivers on its promise. And it may have been unpleasant reading – and looks sets to remain that way – but a lot of truth has been outing in 2012. (And long may that continue.) I’m not sufficiently automatically pro-social media to see a case of chicken and egg, although I can recognise a powerful communication tool when I see one, but Peter Bregman’s HR Blog Network article (referenced by HR Bartender) does contain a handy reminder about dishonesty:

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.

It’s a theme Patrick Lencioni picked up on in his book Getting Naked (reviewed here earlier). By failing to make ourselves vulnerable in this sense, we do ourselves a disservice, but we do a disservice to these we are supposedly working or trading with. How many organisations need to employ third-parties as ‘Trusted Advisors’ on a given topic? And how often is that implicitly an admission that those within the organisation have simply never been able to be sufficiently honest with each other? (If your best friend won’t tell you, don’t rely on the guy in the neighbouring office cubicle …)

Being honest may require a few preceding lessons in delivering constructive feedback, in awareness of personal impact and in handling difficult conversations, but leaving ‘the problem’ to fester quietly under the carpet tiles isn’t going to make it smell any better in the long term. And it’s not a new lesson either. Lencioni may have delivered his version as a fable, but dispensing with the Emperor’s New Clothes was a lesson WB Yeats was passing on as long ago as 1916 when he wrote his poem, A Coat:

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

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