Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Personal Strength of Honesty - Your Credibility Depends On It

The other day my wife was telling me stories about her time as a young commercial banker in Houston in the 1980s. Oil prices had fallen drastically, so her client portfolio consisted mostly of “work-out projects”—finding ways to help businesses repay loans before they defaulted. It was a stressful time.

She worked for a small community bank run by the founder. When she took over the portfolio, she reviewed the loans and discovered one that should never have been made in the first place. Her recommendation was to downgrade the loan, require additional sources of repayment and establish a timetable for repayment. She gave the chairman a list of actions needed to qualify the loan for renewal. 

When he told her to renew it as it was, she stood her ground. Otherwise, she’d have to tell the committee that the loan was acceptable as it stood, which wasn’t true. 

The chairman was upset and renewed the loan anyway. Several months later, a team of bank examiners questioned her about the loan. They told her the chairman said she was the one who approved it. She was outraged and produced her copy of the list of requirements she had given to him.

A few weeks later, he was fired.

Back then my wife was single, and she dated an attractive, intelligent young man who shared many of her interests, such as photography and running. The relationship looked promising.

One day he was showing her a stack of recent photos he’d taken. At the bottom of the stack was a picture of a woman’s hands holding an engagement ring.

She asked about the ring and the woman holding it. Looking at the floor, he said, “It’s my fiancé.”

Shocked, she replied, “But you said you weren’t married.”

“I’m not.”

“Are you going to marry her?”

“Yes, some day.”

My wife realized that she had been told a half-truth, which is just as insidious as a lie. “Why didn’t you tell me you were engaged?”

He mumbled his excuses, and she realized he had a serious character flaw and couldn’t be trusted. The relationship was over.

And so it goes.

Every time you open your mouth you have an opportunity to either give true, accurate information or misrepresent the truth in some way. You could leave out an embarrassing fact. You could make the truth seem better than it really is. You could say things that aren’t true, in hopes that the fabrication will give you a better chance of getting you what you want. 

The truth about the untrue…
  • Dishonesty does damage. 
  • You are the first to be damaged. You lose self-esteem every time you tell a lie. It’s automatic. You know you lied. You know you’re a person who tells lies.
  • The people you lie to are hurt because they’ve made commitments based on false information.
  • If you tell a lie, you have to maintain it. You have to keep track of what you said and tell follow-up lies to support your story. You have to remember those lies, too. Which is terribly difficult to do. Most of the time, lies are discovered. People eventually learn the truth.
  • All relationships are based on trust. Without the trust of the people around you, you have nothing. When they find out you’ve deceived them, they’ll stop trusting you. They’ll believe that if you lied once, you’ll probably do it again. And they’re right. It could take years to earn someone’s trust, but you’ll lose it in a single moment of betrayal.

The other day my wife asked me, “Wasn’t that the best coconut cake you ever had in your life?”

Well now. Was it? Actually, I had a piece of coconut cake a couple months ago, and it was pretty awesome. Was this better? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. But I knew what I should say.

“This is quite definitely the best coconut cake I’ve ever had,” I said.

You see, my wife wasn’t asking for the truth. She was asking for praise. She had worked hard to make this cake special, so I told her what she wanted and needed to hear. And my spirit was right. I loved the cake. It was wonderful.

Every individual has to make these judgments. Yes, it can be tricky. But knowing what to say is actually not that hard. Do people need and expect the truth from you? If so, give it to them.

Every time.

A Fortune Cookie...

Always tell the truth, and you won’t have to keep track of your lies.

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your reference to "half-truths" in today's blog post triggered a déjà vu from my legal career.

Early in my career as an in-house corporate securities lawyer, I had to learn what I initially thought was a rather arcane, maybe even silly, Securities and Exchange Commission rule. The SEC thought the rule was necessary to make sure that public companies would be accountable for always telling the truth, the whole truth, to the public.

Paraphrased from memory, that rule, which twists in on itself almost unintelligibly, is as follows: "It is a misrepresentation (i.e., a lie), if a statement is not made that is necessary to be made, in order to ensure that any statement that is made to the public is not misleading." This mastery of legalese obfuscation simply means that telling a half-truth to the public is the same thing as lying -- so don't do it.

I am retired now, so I no longer review drafts of corporate public disclosure documents. However, when I read or hear many commercial advertisements (and most political speeches unfortunately), I sometimes cringe and mumble to myself, "Com'on, tell all of it! You've only told half the story. If that were a disclosure statement for a publicly traded corporation, the SEC would put you in jail for misleading the public with such a statement -- a half-truth that is in effect a lie."

My comment has been about losing the public's trust within the context of the commercial (and political) marketplace by lying with half-truths. I believe that one of the bedrocks of all the personal strengths is honesty. Of course this includes business, commercial, and political honesty, but it is oh so much more critical within the contest of personal relationships -- unless of course you're called upon to evaluate your wife's coconut cake; mom's meat loaf; grandmother's pecan pie; or father-in-law's smoked beef brisket; etc.