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30 Jan 2014

Promoting Honesty to Those Not Valuing It

Promoting honesty in the workplace is a responsibility of leadership.

We often just look at honesty as a personal responsibility. There are ways of promoting honesty that make it a responsibility of leadership too.

A Twitter connection posed this question in response to my post “Lying About Honesty.” It dealt with promoting honesty in the workplace:

What arguments can we use at the office to promote honesty to people that weren’t raised to value it?

Promoting Honesty Begins with Right Expectations

First, we need to have realistic expectations of what lies ahead. This means knowing that:

  • Arguments will not work.
  • Patience will help us avoid frustration.
  • Discipline and persistence are our best allies.

This is an emotional challenge not a rational one. The logic of arguments will not work. Being honest begins with emotions. It is one that feels a need to be honest. It is one that feels safe in being honest.

People are not light switches (more). They do not change just because we think we gave a good reason. This is very true if they were not raised to value honesty. The effort requires patience.

We will need to repeat ourselves and follow up over time. We need discipline. We need resolve. We need follow up. After that, we follow up again.

Promoting Honesty Needs the Right Tactics

Second, once we firmed up our expectations, we apply ourselves. Word choice is key. Here are a few:

Phone calls and in-person interactions build relationships better than emails and text. Promoting honesty is very difficult without good relationships.

This does not mean stopping emails and texts. It just means these phone calls and in-person meetings are better at promoting honesty. When we need honesty, these work well.

This problem is worse when we pressure people. Some pressure is necessary. We can avoid much of it though. Pressure can be in the form of:

  • Aggressive timetables
  • Orders to do things a certain way
  • Expectations to say the right things such as, “Yes!”

Word choice matters too. Time words help honesty. Money ones do not. Here are examples:


Time (Honest)

Money (Dishonest)

  • Moment
  • Deadline
  • Period
  • Date
  • Duration
  • Finances
  • Budget
  • Expenses
  • Revenues
  • Funds

Promoting Honesty with Compliments

Compliments help too. They reinforce honest behaviors. They show value in their efforts and progress. It is as simple as saying:

  • Thank you for being so honest with me.
  • I appreciate you being honest.
  • Your honesty helps me greatly.
  • I value your honesty.

Emails pressuring people to work harder so we will not lose money raises the risk of dishonesty. In-person meetings to ease pressure, to discuss people’s time and to compliment them, reduces that risk.

Promoting honesty as leaders needs discipline, persistent and patience. We stay focused on the long-term goal. It is worth it.



5 Responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    This post really gave me a moment of pause. I resonated a great deal with the Truth About Authenticity post and my comments are hopefully self explanatory on that one.

    This one covers honesty from an uncomfortably different angle for me personally. Granted, even in one of my own posts, The Quest for Truth ( http://tweetconnection.com/2013/02/25/the-quest-for-truth/ )I wrote the following:

    ‘Along the way, I’ve also learned that lies and deceptions in other people are things I have absolutely no control over. And to this day, it is still more then frustrating when I run into it. However, I still have the power to question my own knowledge, beliefs, and negative programming. This is what I do have some measure of control over…’

    So given that honesty in others is something we really don’t have any control over. And I agree that it is beneficial to promote honesty to those not valuing it by modeling and practicing it as much as we can ourselves, it leads me to what seems to be the most important question of all, at least to me.

    WHY would a business knowingly tolerate and put up with dishonest employees? I can’t think of too many decent businesses where it would be advantageous for employers OR customers to knowingly tolerate dishonesty. Especially when dealing with an exchange of money or when it comes to safety issues, or even a persons life.

    Why would a business choose to tip-toe around an integrity issue with an employee who is knowingly dishonest rather then just terminate them (depending on the extent of damage the lies and dishonesty has cost the business and/or impacted customers, etc) as a way of demonstrating how important honesty really IS?

    Why the enabling?

    PS: Not meaning to put you on the spot here Mike. This is simply the question that came up for me as we continue to explore these important topics. Regardless of our value differences as humans and with an understanding that even though people may share common values, they may not necessarily prioritize those shared values in the same ORDER when making life choices and decisions, honesty and integrity is still a BASIC principle value that is critical to establishing and maintaining trust in our relationships. Both personally and professionally.

    Open to your additional thoughts on this one.

    Thanks in advance. 🙂

    1. Mike Lehr

      As always, Samantha, your questions hit the mark and overturn the rocks covering all the bugs. To answer your question directly, it’s often about plausible denial or said in more common terms, covering your butt. Honesty, in its pure form, often requires responsibility. Once, you know the truth, you must act on it or suffer some form of cognitive dissonance that will justify not acting.

      For instance, consider a situation in which an employee delivers to his boss a result in his business line that was unparalleled in the recent history of the department. The boss is suspect and could question him on how he did it, but if the employee did it dishonestly then the boss would have to negate the result by reporting it. It would also hurt the boss because he is also benefiting from the results. Now, if he doesn’t question the results and it’s disclosed that the employee achieved them dishonestly, then the boss can claim he didn’t know about it and didn’t approve of it. In effect, the boss can enjoy the outcomes without risking anything if he doesn’t question them. In other words, he can “plausibly deny that he knew.”

      It’s not unusual for bosses to pressure subordinates for results using a “just get it done” attitude without becoming enmeshed in the details. Why you ask? It’s simple. Everyone looks good and it makes the company money. Why would businesses tolerate this? Simple, because businesses really don’t exist. They are merely a collection of individuals each acting upon their own self-interest. That’s why, when we have leaders who don’t dive into the details, they don’t uncover these things and can’t be held accountable because they could plausibly deny things. Many leaders don’t like people who turn over the rocks having all the bugs.

      The question is not why would a business tolerate someone they KNOW is dishonest. It’s really about why don’t leaders and bosses spend more time finding out who is being dishonest? To pursue and discover the truth as you define it means that 1) someone has to be willing to take action if dishonesty occurred, and 2) likely lose money, status or other benefits in the process. Remember, capitalism in its pure form works because everyone pursues his or her self-interest. When you are talking about a business, you are taking about a group of individuals each pursuing his or her self-interest. You are not talking about a monolithic entity acting as one. Moreover, does it really matter to some of those individuals if they make a killing at the expense of the business? We’ve already seen that many individuals don’t even care about making a killing at the expense of the U.S. economy and its economic well being.

      As far as controlling whether someone’s honest, you’re right. We cannot control that. However, we can influence it. The sun doesn’t control our lives, but it does influence it. Promoting an honest business culture will encourage others to be honest, not all, but 70-80%. However, once they see someone getting away with dishonesty, and even profiting or benefiting from it, then the vast majority will behave dishonestly, again about 70-80%.

      In the end, you’re right again, honesty and integrity is a basic principle. The problem is that the determination of honesty and integrity is subjective, and often what we determine as honesty is in the end simply what we want to hear . . . especially if it helps us avoid responsibility and work, in effect making our lives easier.

      No, from my perspective, it’s very easy to see why individuals in businesses tolerate dishonesty.

      Again, thank you for your comment. You never miss the elephant in the room.


  2. Thanks for such a great reply Mike!

    It really does sound like certain occupations/fields are more susceptible to that then others. Coming from a healthcare background, it is most definitely not in the employer/organizations best interests to tolerate lying/lack of integrity in employees. The health, welfare, and safety of our patients are on the line. One mistake in the operating room or one medication error from the nurse could potentially kills a patient. Mistakes happen but there is little room for error when it comes to specific aspects of healthcare.

    I can also think of financial institutions where it’s critical for that business to give the customers peace of mind that their money is safe. If the institution is tolerating dishonesty in their employees when it comes to handling the money, they won’t be able to give their customers peace of mind.

    I suppose whether it’s the top tolerating dishonesty in its employees or the other way around, it seems to come down to payoffs.

    What are the payoffs the employer receives for tolerating dishonesty in the employees? What payoffs do employees receive for tolerating dishonesty in their leadership?

    Those payoffs could be as simple as wanting to avoid conflict. The need to please. Or needing to keep a paycheck because there is nowhere else to go.

    As for the sun analogy, I’d say it has more control then we might initially think! Imagine it it were to be snuffed out? We’d die. If it gets any hotter? Or closer? We die.

    The sun has quite a bit of control over all of our lives! haha

    However, I do understand your point on influence.

    The big takeaway from your comment is this: It’s important to address dishonesty right away. Don’t sweep it under the rug. Find the courage to deal with it.

    Granted, I imagine that is far easier said then done, depending on the circumstances and just how much a persons survival is being impacted.

    Thanks again for great examples and providing some different perspectives.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for your comment, Samantha. I would say this: The major takeaway is that in order to understand honesty and dishonesty in business we need to look at it from the perspective a business as a collection of individuals often motivated by self-interest. Consider this, how motivated would a person be to be honest if he thought it would cost him his job, a promotion, a raise, a bonus or even the friendship of a fellow employee? Employees are will to be dishonest if it helps their team or protects someone they like. Dishonesty can even occur if someone felt honesty, such as acknowledging a problem, would create more work.

      Now, you constantly ask, “Why would the company tolerate this?” What makes us assume that the company even knows? Also, to what degree is the company promoting and encouraging honesty? For example, we know that pressuring people increases dishonesty. Having them work under intense, urgent conditions increases dishonesty. We know an intense emphasis on money, profits and cutting expenses increases dishonesty. Finally, to what degree is the company auditing for honesty? Is it in words only, or do they actively work to follow up and occasionally audit? Remember, this requires work. Someone could easily be dishonest and say, “I did the audit,” or “I did follow up.”

      Finally, does any employer say they tolerate dishonesty? No. Does dishonesty occur in every organization? Yes. Why? Because individual self-interests encourage it and many times there is no follow up if dishonesty actually turned a profit. Just because honesty is good doesn’t mean it comes cheap. Dishonesty, while expensive in the long-run, is often profitable in the short run.

      Again, the important takeaway is this: We won’t understand honesty and dishonesty if we focus on a company as a unit rather than as a collection of individuals with individual interests.

      Take care, Samantha, and thank you for visiting.

  3. You wrote:

    ‘The major takeaway is that in order to understand honesty and dishonesty in business we need to look at it from the perspective a business as a collection of individuals often motivated by self-interest.’

    Sounds like Twitter! (grins)

    Thanks for sharing the additional perspectives. : )

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