This author and civility expert explains why telling the truth is so important, the lies that qualify as “harmless untruths,” and when lying might even be required.
by Dr. Lewena Bayer
“Leaders with consistent character will often outperform leaders who are smarter or work harder. This is because consistency of character builds trust, and trust is critical to success in any leadership role.”
—Bayer/Masotti, Lean on Civility, 2022
If there is one thing that I can’t tolerate, it’s lying. In workplaces, lying equals risk. That someone would lie shows blatant disregard for their co-workers, for safety, and for profitability. It’s immature, and it’s irresponsible. Whether the lie is about a little thing, like why someone isn’t coming in to work, or a big thing, like having made a critical error that cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, I don’t like lying, and I don’t typically accept it from those I have the privilege of leading.
Honesty is an element of character. Moral character is an evaluation of an individual’s stable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as empathy, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits. While most people understand honesty as a value or virtue, I suggest that in the workplace, being honest translates to an ability to convey transparency, and to exhibit integrity (living one’s values). Honest communication is also an important aspect of accountability.
I believe most people strive to be honest. Statistically speaking, though, we are all liars.
I used to be surprised how frequently people purport to be honest, and at the same time adopt lying as a habit. But over the years I have come to understand this behavior—not that I condone it, but I do understand it. While on the surface I agree that dishonesty is dishonesty, plain and simple, it is true that in real life we can sometimes justify dishonesty by differentiating between telling a harmless untruth, and willful deceit.
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I believe most people strive to be honest. Statistically speaking, though, we are all liars. Research conducted by Science of People estimates that the average person lies a minimum of once to twice per day. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you ever give people compliments that aren’t completely genuine?
- Have you told someone you were doing well when you were exhausted and having a terrible week?
- Do you ever tell people you are busy to avoid having to talk to them for an extended period of time or do something with them?
The above examples are dishonest, and technically lies, but fall into the category I would call “harmless untruths.” Often these untruths are told to protect someone else’s feelings or to withhold information we have no business sharing. Myself included; I don’t know anyone who can say they have never told a white lie to protect someone.
As a supervisor, telling half-truths due to one’s authority to share certain information is actually part of the job.
The unfortunate fact is that many manufacturing cultures require that supervisors lie. For the most part, the lying isn’t malicious. It’s usually to protect the organization. Sometimes decision makers need to hold back sharing information with the shareholders for a short time. Or, because there has historically been conflict based on diverse interests between union and management in manufacturing, management might hold off telling whole truths to buy time and avoid upsetting production. As a supervisor, telling half-truths due to one’s authority to share certain information is actually part of the job.
But even when dishonesty seems required, any time there is a perceived lack of transparency or someone gets caught in a lie, no matter how small, building and maintaining trust can be very difficult. The frequency of the dishonesty matters as well. For example, a supervisor might be forgiven for lying once if the lie is discovered to be an action predicated on accountability. However, if there is a pattern of deception, that supervisor is going to have a hard time earning the trust of his or her team, regardless of the reasons they are lying. This is why always telling the truth, and where possible always telling the whole truth, is a social competence strategy for leaders.
For more than twenty years, Dr. Lewena Bayer has been internationally recognized as the leading expert on civility at work. With a focus on social intelligence and culturally competent communication, the team at Civility Experts has supported hundreds of organizations in building better workplaces. Most recently, Lew was selected as an International Advocate for Aegis Trust, a U.K.-based organization focused on peace education and the prevention of genocide, and has been assigned the privilege of being named Ambassador of Global Knowledge Exchange and a Master Educator in Global Teachers Academy.
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