Honesty – is it always the best policy?

I’m a terrible liar. Not in the sense that I tell a lot of lies – quite the opposite. I’m really bad at dissembling. My ability to tell convincing canards was never one I practised or wanted to develop, and as a consequence, my six-year-old sees through my fibs. My younger brother is a terrible liar. And where I’m from, that emphasis means he’s great at it. He tells dizzyingly constructed shaggy dog stories, and people end up believing them. He lies for entertainment, his own and others. For fun, not for profit. So lying may not always be damaging – it may just be a kind of misdirection. This thought brings me to the core of this question – when it comes to working with people, are there acceptable mistruths?

I’m going to head off on a bit of a tangent here, so bear with me.

During World War II, German military leadership developed and relied on the Enigma machine to encrypt all top-secret communications. They believed that it gave them a significant communication advantage over the Allied forces. Everything from weather reports to battle orders was sent via Enigma-encoded messages. The ability to read these messages would prove to be an enormous advantage to Allied commanders. Building on the work of Polish mathematicians earlier in the War, British cryptologists and mathematicians (including Alan Turing) based in Bletchley Park in the UK cracked the initial set of Enigma codes in 1941.

Despite the ability to read a large portion of German communications from that point on, Allied High Command couldn’t act on the majority of intelligence received. If they had, the Germans would have known that the Allies had broken their encryption. They would have re-engineered the Enigma, making it more difficult or impossible for the Allies to decrypt German communications in future.

Allied commanders decided to only act on strategically important intelligence. Unfortunately, this meant that many German military actions took place successfully, leading to the loss of Allied lives and equipment. Essentially, the Allies performed a type of strategic lying to shorten the overall duration of the War, by an estimated two years.

In a work context, radical transparency is a philosophy that Ray Dalio has espoused. For example, all management meetings at Bridgewater Associates, the investment firm he founded, are available in audio form for anyone in the company to listen to (except for M&A activity or other commercially sensitive information). He believes that this level of open communication is required to develop and maintain a highly functional culture of trust in the workplace.

As managers and leaders, there are some pieces of information we may be reluctant to share. For example, an upcoming reduction in compensation because of an expenses challenge or difficult market conditions may not be a welcome message to teams who have worked hard all year.

Another example is in the event of an exercise to reduce headcount. I have been involved in many of these kinds of efforts during my career. They are unpleasant to plan and frankly awful to put into practice. Knowledge of a headcount reduction can be a burden for managers to carry but can be deeply unsettling to staff, leading to loss of focus and even pre-emptive departures of key team members.

However, many planned headcount reductions never took place. On some occasions sales improved, leading to a more positive outlook for the year. On others, a localised headcount reduction was averted by finding savings elsewhere. In yet others, a leadership change resulted in a different focus, on growth rather than reduction.

If I had shared my knowledge of those planned events with my organisation, that information would have had a serious negative impact on my staff. And it would have been for nothing. As a result, a litmus test has to be applied to this kind of event. When it is certain that something negative will happen, it is essential to share it with the appropriate messaging. Until that time, “advance sharing” is just going to cause people to worry, potentially needlessly.

This could be termed a form of lying by omission, but it’s often not only necessary but kinder, in my opinion. It isn’t a “white lie” if such a thing exists. However, it does prevent us from being completely honest at times, which doesn’t always sit well with me. As someone who prizes integrity, honesty and authenticity, making these kinds of judgement calls isn’t always easy. Still, it has been expected of me as a manager many times during my career.

If you have thoughts on this, as a reader, I would love to hear them.

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