Mark Twain said that “one of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives”. Lies are incredibly durable and pervasive in our lives, both social and business. We lie to protect ourselves and others, we lie out of fear, we lie to get something we want. Research shows that lying is really the norm, not the exception. We’ve been programmed to say and do what works for us.
On the other hand, the social mores are clear about the reprehensibility of lying. Immanuel Kant, the famed philosopher, summed up well the case against lying when he said, “By a lie, a man annihilates his dignity.” So lying – no matter how ‘normal’ – is tricky territory, and arguably, even riskier in business where long-term, trusting relationships may not as quickly offer a forgiving inclination.
Important in the business context is an aspect of lying that we too often overlook. We assume that lying is in all cases intentional. But how often are our lies the product of distraction, inattention, and lack of connection? Consider any encounter you’ve had on a customer service call and you may get some insight. The representative’s drive to get through calls, the lack of face-to-face connection, and the customer’s all-too-frequent resulting fury at being ‘lied to’ about the facts.
Let’s look at another example. Fred, the CEO of a small startup company that was struggling to remain viable, was locked in negotiations for a large sales contract that would give the company much-needed breathing room. One of his employees approached him about a safety violation detected on an audit a few weeks earlier. “All taken care of,” said Fred. Two weeks later, the safety violation was unresolved and an accident caused the hospitalization of three employees. Fred knew the risk, and had remembered his intention to correct the violation, but had never followed through. His lie had been a failure to really connect with the conscientious employee who had tried to avoid a problem for the company, and with the reality of the consequences of his lie.
Psychologist Albert Bandura, famed for his studies of how people can morally justify their inhumane behaviors toward others, offers four psychological processes that can disengage morality from conduct. One of those is disregarding or minimizing the consequences of one’s actions. Fred’s conduct – his lie – was a minimization in the moment of the potential consequences of it. His lie was not ‘intentional’, to protect himself or get something; it was a lapse of moral attention. Yet Fred was cut no slack by either his employees or the authorities – his “all taken care of” was treated as his statement of truth, and Fred faced both serious legal charges and a crippling loss of employee trust, all because he had uttered a lie in a moment of moral sleep-walking.
In today’s highly distracted world, we are all prone to lies of inattention and lack of connection. Those lies, while unintentional, still have impact, and we need to awake from our sleep-walking to remain conscious of where our statements are taking us. If you look around your organization, where do you see evidence of this moral sleep-walking? Are bosses glossing over employee concerns? Are decisions being made with only lip service to risks? Are people tuned in to and expressing their values in their work, or reacting on auto-pilot?
So how do you avoid the unintentional disengagement of morality from conduct in your organization? Turning your organization back to attentiveness and connection with values is surprisingly simple. Research shows that two consistent practices have profound impact:
- Reconnect people to their own values. Research has demonstrated that, if asked to be truthful before a situation is presented, people will lie a staggeringly lower percentage of the time. They’ve just been reconnected with their values to be honest and dignified people – awakened from their moral sleep-walking. This reconnection to values proves to be true for other values as well – respect for others, for example. Taken to a deeper level, you can ask for recommitment to shared values. Simply asking people for their word is a powerful tool.
- Reconnect people to consequences. Good people don’t want bad things to happen as a result of their actions. What Fred’s conscientious employee was concerned about, but didn’t say, is that the safety problem had the potential to hurt people. It’s likely Fred might have been jolted from his moral nap if that consequence had been expressed. Make it a practice in your organization to assure the questions are asked that will make those connections. “What are all the potential impacts of this decision?” should be a mantra, as well as, “Who might be impacted by this decision (or indecision)?”
Even assuming good intent, we can assume people will lie. It’s second nature and not thought through – often even unrealized. That in no way diminishes the unconscious lie’s potential for impact. A wise leader reconnects everyone in the organization – self included – with deeply held values, and with the potential for unconsidered consequences of these ‘lies of inattention’.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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