Leadership and Little White Lies

Seemingly harmless falsehoods can damage your reputation and lead to bigger issues down the road. Here’s why it’s important to clean up your act.

Picture this: It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon at the end of an exhausting week. You’ve finally reached a good stopping place in your work and everything seems on track for a clean break when 5 o’clock rolls around. Suddenly, the phone rings. You glance at your caller ID screen and cringe. It’s a contractor, the long-winded one who calls “just to chat” and keeps you occupied for hours.

What do you do now? Do you take the call and resign yourself to a late start on the weekend? Or do you have your assistant say you’ve already left for the day? If you opt for the white lie, you’re not alone. We all shade the truth every now and then, and some of us find ourselves doing it so often we barely notice anymore.

But those “harmless” untruths can be anything but. Not only do these fibs reflect on your character — after all, lying is lying — they can open the door to bigger, darker, more destructive lies.

White lies are like the gateway drug to bigger offenses. Get away with them and you’re tempted to tell ever bigger ones. Eventually, your lies will catch up with you and will damage your work relationships. And in a world that is already unstable, that’s not a risk you should take.

While most white lies seem harmless, consider the potential consequences. What if, for instance, the contractor you had your assistant lie to happens to find out you actually were in the office? He may feel offended enough to tell others in the industry about your behavior.

Even more detrimental is the effect white lies can have on one’s own psyche. White lies work much the same as other types of “lesser” offenses (say, flirting with that married co-worker). Basically, you become desensitized to the feelings of wrongness and guilt, and, before you know it, you are finding ways to excuse away other more serious infractions.


No lying zone

If you’re going to start classifying lies as “white” or “whoppers,” you may as well categorize different levels of stealing, too. The white lie version of embezzlement could be taking a few dollars’ worth of office supplies home with you, or mailing personal correspondence with company postage, or making personal copies on the company machine. Is that the standard you want to set for your employees?

Tell the truth at all costs. You should tell the truth even when it is not easy, cheap, popular, or convenient. Dishonesty and deception in any form can end up costing in the long run, in your professional and personal lives.

Don’t give false impressions. When it comes to work life, false impressions are everywhere. You won’t be hard-pressed to find examples of people trying to make others believe things are better than they really are. While you may not realize it, this is just another form of lying. You have to be up front and honest with those you work with, or you may lose your credibility and build up bitterness and resentment in a once-valuable work relationship.

Think about the ways that you or your department may be misleading others, and find ways to stop it. Make sure you aren’t spinning feedback to make someone feel as though they’re doing better or worse than they really are. And certainly don’t mislead any potential job candidate or employee about realities of compensation, advancement, or future plans.

Never, ever ask someone else to lie on your behalf. This is an abuse of your power, position, relationship, and friendship. Asking an employee or colleague to lie for you can do permanent damage to your integrity and reputation, and it opens the door for them to lie to you, and those you do business with, as well.

Beware of the four magic words. There are four words that should tip you off that you are headed for trouble: Any sentence that begins with “Just tell him that…” is usually followed by a lie. And if someone tells you to tell someone else, “Just tell him that…” you can do that person a great service by respectfully replying, “But that’s not true. What should I tell him instead?”


It’s not worth it

Think of all the business scandal stories from these past few years, how many of them were the results of dishonesty, and how that dishonesty shattered the lives of so many people. That’s something every professional should work to avoid.

Even though telling the truth is often the hard and unpopular thing, honesty is rule number one to developing sound character. Tell the truth because it is the right thing to do and encourage your employees to do the same. It will benefit you, and your operation, all year long.


About the Author

Dave Anderson, president of Dave Anderson’s Learn to Lead (www.wiley.com), has given more than 1,000 leadership presentations in thirteen countries, and has authored several books. He and his wife, Rhonda, are co-founders of The Matthew 25:35 Foundation, which helps feed, educate, and house under-resourced people throughout the world.


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