How honest should you be?

On NPR Seattle (stream) right now is a show exploring the danger of white lies. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed lies, of any size, were wrong. But the NY Times ethicist Randy Cohen thinks that lies can be good in some cases, such as when they protect someone’s life.

So when working with other people, what are the ground rules? How do you decide how honest to be with people about:

  • Their performance / quality of their work
  • What you really think of their ideas
  • What your true motivations are
  • How you feel about how things are going
  • The reality of the project schedule

I bet there is a high correlation between how honest the average person on a team is, and how well that team performs.
Anyone agree or disagree? What factors contribute to how honest you are?

27 Responses to “How honest should you be?”

  1. Kevin Morrill

    Integrity is the most fundamental attribute required for just about any kind of work I can think of. I would define integrity as “honesty put into your actions”. If you’re not dealing with reality, it’s impossible to accomplish much of anything.

    The case for white lies or saying lying to someone with a gun to your head is that only people operating truthfully deserve to be treated with honesty. If you’re dealing with someone who is evasive, you do not owe them any honesty. You are in fact being honest, by recognizing the reality of the situation (this person is being evasive and is dangerous to me).

  2. Scott (admin)

    I agree about integrity – But the challenge is when you have information that you don’t think a) someone can handle, or b) doesn’t serve your or their best interests.

    I know for certain I’ve withheld information about a project, say the VPs threats to cancel it, from my team – my feeling at the time was that not only could the team not do anything to change this, but their knowledge of his lack of faith in the project would decrease the odds we’d meet our next deadline – precisely the thing I needed our team to do to change the VPs opinion of the project.

    Perhaps if I had a different team or if I knew a better way to convey the information I had in a way to benefit the team, I’d have passed it on.

    I guess you could call this a lie of omission – but I don’t know how to manage the complexity of politics in a reasonably sized organization without some filitering and withholding of things some people might want to know.

  3. Gary

    This exact issue is one of the reasons I left the corporate world. I realized that I was operating on a certain plane — one of honesty, ethics, hard work, and good faith — that was being commended on a surface level only. Over time I saw that those who were actually being promoted were those who “got the job done at all costs,” often by using bullying, lying, manipulation, etc. I also realized that it was the people like me were the carpets that the successful people were walking over to get above us.

    Of course, I know there are exceptions, but the sad truth is that most corporations often only care about results, not the route used to achieve those results. If you think otherwise you are probably naive.

    If you don’t play the game, you will lose. The real skill one probably needs to learn is how to appear ethical and honest while actually manipulating those around you. Whether you wish to become that sort of person in exchange for a paycheck is a personal decision each of us needs to make.

  4. downtown pm

    So telling a client, ‘Everything’s under control’ – when it’s NOT under control – but it’s what I need to do to buy the 24 hours to get the project under control again – makes me a bad person? NO way.

  5. Ethan Zlomke

    It’s these kind of questions that make managing a tricky bird. Of course, honesty is the best policy. Your honor and integrity are the only sure currency you have. Your actions and words speak not only for yourself, but your peers, products and company. But workers doing sub-par work due to personal problems? Or low motivation? Do you lie to get a little steam in the engine? Is it wrong?

    I agree with Kevin so far as “recognizing the reality of the situation.” But a dishonest/evasive individual, or a violent individual (extreme case), is still a person who deserves some measure of recognition and respect. Outright lying will get you nowhere. It only gives the evasive one ammunition to use against you in the future. Better to only answer what is asked PRECISELY, and then end the conversation.

    Perfromance reviews, and grading the quality of ideas, are often emotionally tinged. Being a good manager means being able to seperate emotion from objectivity AND communicating that to your employees/peers. If someone is terrible in a certain role, find the role they are good in. If they are a poor employee – fire them. There’s no excuse for sloppy work. Or sloppy truth.

  6. Scott (admin)

    Gary: As much as I’m happy to criticize the corporate world, don’t the same kind of problems arise in social life? family life? Do we really tell our mother in law what we think of her meatloaf? Do we tell a new friend what we really think of their haircut (or their poetry)?

  7. Scott (admin)

    I suppose the other common situation where honesty goes out the window is the executive review: I’ve never seen an exec review presentation that didn’t fudge over some rough bits, and polish up the turds.

    On the other hand, the good VPs often tolerate less bullshit and make it clear that they don’t want fantasyland presentations – but it takes awhile to sort out exactly how much BS different people expect or will tolerate.

  8. Skippy Wassermann

    To Downtown PM:

    Lying to a customer, even if it’s to buy 24 hours to cover your ass, is still fraud. You, whomever you are, are the reason why people don’t trust project managers, engagement leaders, relationship managers, or anyone else in the vast totem pole of assholery that stops people who want to do the right thing by customers from making their customers happy.

    Next time it comes up, how about you tell the customer the truth: things are not under control but will be because of A, B, and C. Tell them the plan to correct, why it will correct, and get to freakin’ work. Get up from your crackberry and ask those people who are about to make your promises come true if there’s something they want or need. Get the fuckin’ coffee. Do something useful or get the hell out of the way.

  9. Josh

    I couldn’t agree and disagree with Ethan more.

    I agree that “your honor an integrity are the only sure currency you have.” But it’s important to recognize that we’re in the realm of human relations here, and honor and integrity have surprisingly little to do with reality and everything to do with perception.

    With that in mind, I couldn’t imagine worse advice than to “only answer what is asked PRECISELY.” Not only is this more or less lying (it’s implied that the responder knows the underlying question, but chooses only to answer the precise question), but it reeks of smarmy self-satisfaction: it sounds like the responder in this case expects to be credited with “telling the truth,” when they obviously intended to mislead.

    The fact of the matter is that I would give greater trust to a person who told an outright lie and later offered an explanation than to someone who told a meticulous non-deceit and later hid behind a veil of technicalities.

  10. Skippy Wassermann

    Oh damn. Sorry about the language. My bad.

  11. kris

    downtown pm,

    Make you a bad person, no. Make you untrustworthy and unreliable when bad news is present, absolutely.

    I wouldn’t want to have you as a PM because it’s not you who spends the 24 hours getting the project under control – it’s your subordinates.

  12. blogopogo

    integrity is in one’s best interest, there’ll always be exceptions and it may be a bummer when it seems like deception is the undeclared expectation, but seriously, it’s not worth carving up one’s time, identity, reality, anything. the film The Player of course pokes at this all over the place but you can see how we’re all dealing with our individual perception to boot; concepts: truth, honesty, etc. we’re pressured to ‘fix’ things and start cutting off tips (desensitising), roto-rooting obstacles (destabilising); tools turn in the hand, the sooner and steadier one gets the swing of being what they are, doing what they do, the more sense it makes and demands for otherwise get less compelling. any smart demand would intuitively go for the most return on its time and want to engage the whole resource anyway. something like that, iterate at will; the logic conveys itself (maybe as a honker of an attitude ;) unmistakeably later.

  13. work

    If a client asks if something is under control and…
    – it’s not, but you think it will be anyway by the deadline .. or..
    – they would want to scream for hours and waste your time

    then, yes, sometimes lying is ok… if you’ll get the job done somehow by when you say it’ll be done.

  14. heather

    I believe in honesty in the workplace – especially when in a non-corporate, small environment.

    I work with 10 people, and in the past week have caught one of them lying to my face on 3 separate occasions, each one designed to further themselves and throw doubt and negativity on others in the office. And these weren’t deadline or project related either… It was more a ‘did you say x to y? No – of course not’ conversation… which makes me less likely to trust them with anything in the future!

    I’m not perfect by any means, and when it comes to projects, I’ve been known to stretch the truth, but things always get done on time regardless. I don’t, however, stretch the truth when it comes to my co-workers. It’s a small office and you can’t keep secrets in a small office.

    I also believe that when discussing the status of a project, only MAJOR setbacks need to be announced. If we told every client about every bump in the road they would see us as incompitent and unable to solve problems on our own. By riding out the bumps and only sharing positives or HUGE negatives the client’s trust increases and our lives become smoother. Think about it, how much work would you get done if the client thought you kept running into problems and they felt they needed to check up on you constantly.

    Ignorance is Bliss!

  15. Al

    If a client asks for a status update and you still plan on having the agreed upon deliverable by the agreed upon deadline despite current setbacks… well then can’t you just say you’ll be done on time?
    But this is a digression from the topic, which seems to be closer to: When is it OK to tell someone (perhaps a superior) that their ideas suck and could cause other aspects of the organization to falter? There are appropriate times and ways of telling someone his fly is down – is that true of other issues like your comfort with how things are being run/decided?

    There was once a great philospher whose name has escaped me. He believed that to lie was an absolute wrong. He also believed that there is no god and no afterlife. For his entire life he was quick to speak what he truly thought when his opinion was asked. One day an old woman came to him. She said “Oh, sir, I have lived a long life and it will soon come to a close. I have believed my whole life that there is purpose in life and that that purpose is found after death. But now I need to be sure. I will trust whatever you say, tell me was my life a waste, is there an afterlife?” And the great philosopher, atheist soothsayer of course responded, “Be sure there is a great god that waits for you.”

    If anyone can attribute this story, please do.

  16. Scott (admin)

    I liked Josh’s point – I think I could accept certain kinds of bold lies from someone who had good reasons.

    Another classic situation is this: How can you provide cover fire for a project (or person) without some kind of lie? Like when the boss asks “how is the project going?” and you know it’s a disaster, but a disaster your team is about to turn the corner on. Do you say “it’s going fine”, betting that your team will turn the corner, or do you say “they’re way behind, but I’m hopeful they’ll recover”?

    It’s tricky tricky stuff. I think I’d be more prone to stretch the truth if my boss couldn’t handle the hard stuff. But if I felt he’d go ballastic, get unreasonable and do all kinds of useless, distracting things, I’d withhold more.

  17. Scott (admin)

    I liked Josh’s point – I think I could accept certain kinds of bold lies from someone who had good reasons.

    Another classic situation is this: How can you provide cover fire for a project (or person) without some kind of lie? Like when the boss asks “how is the project going?” and you know it’s a disaster, but a disaster your team is about to turn the corner on. Do you say “it’s going fine”, betting that your team will turn the corner, or do you say “they’re way behind, but I’m hopeful they’ll recover”?

    It’s tricky tricky stuff. I think I’d be more prone to stretch the truth if my boss couldn’t handle the hard stuff. But if I felt he’d go ballastic, get unreasonable and do all kinds of useless, distracting things, I’d withhold more – on the belief that what he really wants is success, and I truly believe that odds go up on my team suceeding if I don’t tell him the whole story.

  18. Danielle Clark

    I think there are rare cases where lying is something that is in one’s own interest – I think I would reserve that for situations of life or death. That being said, in business it often feels that urgent, but rarely really is. I have never worked for a manager or customer who I was not able to deliver the truth to. If he can’t handle the truth THAT is a far greater problem than the current state of the project and will impact the project (and possibly product and company) beyond the range of this one moment.

    IMO Skippy’s approach is ideal. I think their is a lot of emotionalism revolving around how to tell someone you are working for (customer or manager) something unpleasant; and having been on both sides I definitely think that presenting an unemotional and objective picture of the situation is always the way to go. If you’re fortunate, your manager or even customer might offer you the solution you’ve been searching for or reveal to you that what you have actually will satisfy the requirements and that you don’t need to worry about that extra feature afterall.

    I think heather makes a very good point in her last paragraph. Part of presenting an objective landscape of the project is essentializing what the customer needs to know, as opposed to presenting absolutely every detailed bump along the way. The customer is hiring you to do the job, and this means he will need to stop micro-managing and trust you to deliver on the schedule. As this applies to lying or not lying, it’s not an issue of fudging or blurring the details of the project – it is about essentializing the core attributes of the project’s status and making THAT what the customer sees because at the end of the day results matter, and not just in the corporate world.

  19. pat

    Correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

  20. Prescott Indigo

    Inappropriate questions are the trickiest, I think. About eight years ago, I interviewed for a sales job and the sales manager asked me what I like to do on the weekends. Being young and naive, I told him that I spent a lot of time with my daughter, who had just started first grade. It changed the tenor of the conversation: we’re a young group who works hard and plays hard, we’re looking for someone with the time and energy to invest in a demanding job, thanks so much for meeting with us today, etc.

    Consistent honesty sets the stage for realistic expectations and more productive … more genuine professional relationships, but when someone catches you with a question that’s designed to probe areas where they don’t belong — either from an interviewer or from a project stakeholder — full disclosure can bring more problems to the table than value. Is evading the question any better? Stalling? Pleading the Fifth?

    I suppose there are artful ways to get around trick questions without sacrificing one’s principles, but if I were in the same situation again: “I spend my weekends doing professional development self-study … when I’m not out rollerblading with my other young, hard working friends.”

  21. Stacia

    Oh come on. Half of Marketing and Sales is lying. They may be little white lies or “wishful thinking” or “forward statements”…but it’s all lying to some extent. Who doesn’t lie to their kids if they know their kids can’t handle something at the time? It’s the same with clients or bosses. Lying at work is only out of control when you lie about your abilities (“oh yeah, I can build that application in a week!”) or what you have done in the past. Business and capitalism is based on lying and then working to prove that your lie isn’t a lie.

  22. Matthew S.

    If humans could not lie, then there would not be any humans left very soon.
    It is an innate and natural ability we refine as we grow up, and develop our social skills (i.e. yes dear mother-in-law, I would love some more of that superb meatloaf).
    The real problem is defining when in that grey area of social finesse does a white lie turn into a black lie? And maybe, what is a lie?
    I think there have been some examples above that could arguably be stated as not being lies, but omissions of detail or elaboration (i.e. I sometimes have had situations where I have answered a question as “Short answer Yes, long answer No – do you want to here the long answer?” when I am unsure if the person is into details or directional answers – this could be used in the example of the PM with short-term issues that appear manageable answering the question of “is the project going ok?”).
    At the end of the day, intent is a real measure of a lie’s ethical value, and the relative circumstances under which a person is doing the lying (i.e. telling a police office you saw ‘nothing’ when you just arrive from a totalitarian state and just witnessed a crime could not be considered a lie of poor ethical choice – especially when you suspect the police are implicit in the crime). Lying (within reason) to boost a person’s confidence vs. lying to manipulate a person are two very different intentions, yet could involve the same words, actions and circumstances.

  23. Steven D'souza

    The best way to work in a team is to be “as honest as” the team.

  24. blake

    Lying, by my definition, is stating something that you know is untrue. Giving your “opinion” on an outcome is not lying in my book, unless you know it’s based on false information/pretense.

    I try to be as honest as I can. Is omission of information considered lying? Not necessarily. I think it depends on the situation and the amount of information withheld.
    The factors that contribute to my level of honesty are determined by the person I am dealing with and, like Scott mentioned earlier, how I perceive that person will react to the information provided.

  25. Dan

    Status honestly, right? Isn’t that a given if we were to list the fundamentals of coordinated work with deliverables and documented goals? It’s so basic many people don’t think twice about the fact that they aren’t actually doing it.

    Good faith communications are essential. And not just “so we can sleep at night.” It’s practical and efficient and productive and makes sure everybody is enough on the same page enough to accomplish a goal. Without good faith communications, work and projects become increasingly untenable as the a spiral of CYA overhead gradually expands.

    As for buying time…why buy it at the cost of your credibility? If the situation is that dire that it is unacceptable to say something like, “I need 4 or 12 or 24 hrs to touch base with implementers and stakeholders so I can give you an accurate, detailed answer,” it’s time for a “come to the mountain” discussion anyways. And if you think you’re not at that point, you haven’t been statusing honestly with yourself even.

    The practical reality that folks even with the best of intentions behave as if these issues are flexible enough for fudging that euphemistically gets called “spin” is what makes managing the communication in a group or project as challenging as accomplishing any set of business or technical goals.



Leave a Reply

* Required