Is Truth Dead?

In a world where leaders spin reality and use alternative facts to make things seem better than they are, is dishonesty becoming the new norm? Or, as a Time Magazine cover asks, “Is Truth Dead?

Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere.” ~ Oscar Wilde

When leaders play loose with truth, they make it more comfortable for everyone to do the same thing. When we see successful people getting away with untruths, we start telling our own lies. We call them “our perspective.”
When there are no sanctions, why not? After the financial crisis of 2008, few leaders were punished; and many were let go with multi-million dollar compensation packages.
Dwindling confidence in what our leaders say has become the subject of late-night talk shows and comedy riffs. New terms for this abound: “alternate facts,” and “fake news.” This is of serious concern to anyone who seeks to make the world a better place.
It seems that power is often achieved by spinning the truth.

Leaders are, by definition, people in positions of great power. And research consistently demonstrates that ‘powerful people lie more often and with more ease.’” ~ Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS, Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, HarperBusiness, September 2015

Have we become blasé? Is being honest less important than achieving what we want? It’s time we look at ourselves as responsible for a truthful culture.
Everyone Does It
Everyone engages in dishonest behaviors, sometimes for good reasons, and often not. Is it part of our human nature? We seem to tolerate a certain amount of “fudging.” We almost expect it to happen in business.
We fudge expense and time reports, fake doctor’s appointments, and claim we’re ill when out doing something fun. We even use our children as excuses for things. Some of us may even cheat on our taxes.
In an effort to discover the truth about dishonesty, Duke Professor and best-selling author Dan Ariely reveals what social scientists have discovered.
In The Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Ariely asks:

  • Is dishonesty restricted to a “few bad apples,” or is it widespread?
  • What factors curb dishonesty?
  • How do others influence us when it comes to right and wrong?

Everyone engages in dishonesty, some in small ways, and some more than others. Most of it involves white lies and exaggerations, and most is perpetrated against faceless institutions. We tell ourselves it’s harmless and find good reasons to justify it.
A Simple Model of Rational Crime
Since we all have the potential to be somewhat criminal, it is crucially important that we first understand how dishonesty operates, and then figure out ways to contain and control this aspect of our nature.
The prevailing notion of cheating, according to Nobel laureate Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, says that people commit crimes based on a rational analysis of a situation.
In the Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC), we seek our own advantage as we make our way through the world; we weigh the costs versus the benefits of an act (without consideration of right or wrong), comparing the possible positive and negative outcomes.
This model is, however, imperfect and incomplete. It doesn’t say anything about moral conscious, self-image, or emotional irrationality, all key topics now being studied by behavioral economists.
What really causes people to cheat, and in what circumstances will they or won’t they be dishonest?
The Fudge Factors
There’s a delicate balance between the contradictory desires to maintain a positive self-image and to benefit from cheating. No one likes to think of him or herself as a cheat.
Each of us has a limit to how much we can cheat before it feels sinful. It has to do with our self-image. How much can we fudge before we feel guilty? Usually we allow a certain amount of flexibility before our self-image is affected.
According to research, we are more willing to steal something that does not explicitly reference monetary value. While we would steal paper and pencils at work, we hesitate to take money from the cash box.
Some actions slide by our personal moral radar more easily, while others carry a red flag. Think about the ways you engage in “fudging.” What are the limits of your personal dishonesty radar?
How We Can Influence Honesty
It isn’t complicated to get people to be honest. For example, simply being reminded of ethical standards encourages more honorable behavior. Studies show that people are less likely to steal or cheat when they’re asked to read the Ten Commandments first, even if they are atheists. Reading or signing an honor code or pledge also minimizes cheating.
People want to be honest. They respond to moral reminders when put in situations that tempt dishonesty. Without such reminders, however, we feel comfortable enough to rationalize our behaviors to obtain the outcomes we want by any means.
We are influenced to be more honest in the presence of others who might see or hear us being dishonest. With moral reminders and with other people, we are less comfortable with misbehaving and cheating. Our fudge factors shrink.
It’s not always possible to have people read or sign a moral pledge. We can, however, influence our colleagues and friends when we communicate the value of doing the right things. And in doing so, we also influence ourselves to act in honest ways.

Be the Authentic Leader Your People Need

Many leaders are unaware of how their lack of authenticity chips away at people, breeding dissatisfaction, distrust and disloyalty. Organizational effectiveness and productivity suffer when workers view leaders as inauthentic.
One out of three people distrusts his or her employer, according to the 2017 Edelman “Trust Barometer.” Four out of five don’t see authenticity in their leaders’ performance. When only 20 percent of leaders come across as genuine, they risk handicapping their organizations with insufficient influence, poor worker engagement and, ultimately, disappointing corporate results.
People want to be led well. They want assurance that their best interests are important and that their future is in safe hands. They need to believe their leaders will make sound, effective decisions. Inauthentic leaders destroy employee confidence.
The Real Deal
Authenticity is an emotionally vital state of well-being for employees—one that heavily relies on a leader’s consistent trueness, explains consultant Karissa Thacker in The Art of Authenticity (Wiley, 2016). The author suggests that leaders recognize this principle as irrefutable in order to enhance interdependence. The best leaders undergo continual self-assessment and improvement to convert habitual behaviors into authentic ones.
Being authentic encompasses several other key leadership mandates:

  1. Be self-aware.
  2. Earn respect.
  3. Connect.
  4. Convey credibility.
  5. Earn trust.

Successful leaders optimize each of these behaviors to develop character and broaden influence.
Be Self-Aware
Great leaders know themselves well, notes Brenda Ellington Booth, a clinical professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.
When you recognize your limitations and weaknesses, you can openly admit to them, and learn to compensate and find workable solutions. Focusing on self-improvement, with an emphasis on asking others to assist you, is as authentic as it gets.
Leaders who fully understand and express their vision are clear about promoting it—and more successful in getting others to believe in it. People will follow a leader who has a passion for everyone’s future. Understand what motivates this passion within you, and apply it to your advantage.
When you identify the values that affirm you, there’s no need to focus on being popular. You grow stronger from these inner affirmations—not from others’ approval. Your objective should be to give your best, even when those around you don’t. Authenticity allows you to move forward, confident in knowing who you are and where you’re going.
Earn Respect
Being respected begins with showing respect to others, both upline and downline in your organization. Model respect for everyone and it will be contagious.
The phrase “leading by example” is more than a suggestion. Leaders who model the behavior they want their organization to exhibit make the most effective strides in establishing a healthy culture. Employees respect leaders who walk the talk and regard them as authentic. Who doesn’t want to follow someone who displays noble values in decisions and behaviors?
Humility, expressed as a willingness to listen to and learn from others, is one of the most effective ways to earn respect, asserts leadership coach Brent Gleeson in his article, “7 Simple Ways to Lead by Example.” Humility is a particularly refreshing attribute these days, and it can prove to be a valuable tool.
Authentic leaders recognize they don’t have all the answers, and probably never will. Soliciting and appreciating others’ ideas showers them with affirmation, which commands respect in return.
Sincere leaders say what they mean and mean what they say, thus coming across as authentic. A genuine, relational approach to people shows them they’re valued, Booth notes. When they see a leader who’s interested in them, they’ll reciprocate, thereby satisfying their need for security and value, while fueling engagement and productivity. A leader’s vision is compelling under these conditions.
When leaders want to connect with people, it shows. Their actions draw people to them, and connections grow. Relationships ascend to the next level when you seek feedback from your staff, especially regarding how they’re being managed. Your willingness to listen demonstrates an authentic sense of vulnerability that reveals courage, candor and caring.
Convey Credibility
People don’t believe leaders who exhibit questionable behavior. Being true, inwardly and outwardly, avoids this potential pitfall.
Trueness to oneself is the most basic form of genuineness, which aligns with authenticity. Be the real you. Faking things is deceptive and eventually evident to all. People aren’t fooled for long. They’ll question and distrust inconsistencies. Being true to yourself requires healthy self-awareness and self-worth. Who you are is the person people will see, and it’s the noble character in you they want to see.
Consistency in trueness builds credibility. People know who they’ll face day in and day out, through good and tough times. Great leaders are mindful of this. They’ve trained themselves to proactively discern the high road and take it, with honorable motives. Noble character, lived out on a regular basis, is the anchor of authenticity that people need to weather any storm.
Outward truthfulness is also critical. Honesty shouldn’t be the best policy; it should be the only policy. Leaders caught in a lie inflict damage to themselves and those around them. A quick glance at today’s headlines should serve as a brisk confirmation. Nothing builds barricades faster than a leader who tries to deceive. Truthfulness is a pillar your culture cannot be without, so lead with it.
Exercise judgment when truth must be guarded. Confidentiality is required for credibility. Sensitive, personal or private information must be handled carefully and discreetly. Don’t jump to conclusions or make decisions based on assumptions or rumors. Once inappropriate things are said or misinformation falls into the wrong hands, it cannot be retracted. Tension soars, and credibility plummets.
Credible leaders avoid these kinds of risks. They use professional language, with the proper sensitivities, cautions and accuracies. This doesn’t mean there can’t be light or even humorous moments, but they shouldn’t be careless or reckless.
Earn Trust
You can earn trust by practicing the four previous attributes, but there are other ways to enhance your trust quotient and demonstrate authenticity.
Accountability is key. Establishing a system of personal checks and balances conveys the importance of responsibility. Submitting to the authority of peers or top leaders helps assure people that the decisions governing them can be trusted as prudent and beneficial for everyone (catering to their inward need for safety and assurance). This builds trust.
When you accept blame for errors and give credit for victories, you’re demonstrating accountability and setting the stage for greater trust. Your actions place value on the most appropriate people: those doing the work. Without your people, you accomplish nothing, so be sure to express appreciation. You’ll be rewarded with their trust.
The greatest leaders give their people the most freedom possible to make decisions, pushing authority down to the most foundational level. This is a powerful sign of trust in staff, and it is returned with something just as powerful: trust in the leader. Employees free from overcontrol and micromanaging acquire a sense of empowerment that raises productivity and innovation.
Finally, authentic leaders are flexible. They adapt to shifting situations and go off script if needed, always keeping in mind their people’s well-being. Sticking to routines or insisting on preferences shows inflexibility, which is usually self-serving. Your willingness to change plans in response to a challenge or crisis, with authentic good judgment, is a sign of your trustworthiness. You’re putting your people’s best interests at the forefront, building a solid foundation of trust.
You owe it to yourself and your people to continually refine your character and insights, as well as think and respond in credible, authentic ways. Work toward making effective decisions and powerful impressions that draw your people into an engaging and productive unity you never thought possible.
Does earning this kind of respect and trust come easy? Not at all. It takes hard work, but the alternative should be unacceptable. Choose to pursue these authentic leadership traits, and refine them. Let an experienced leadership coach assist with the areas that challenge you the most.