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Untruthfulness = Untrustworthiness

Fall 2012


Untruthfulness = Untrustworthiness

By Erika Andersen

Erika Andersen is founding partner of New York-based consultancy Proteus International and a blogger at From Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass). All rights reserved. ©2012

I’ve only “fired” a handful of clients in my life as a consultant. Once or twice, it was because they simply saw the world and people’s motivations so profoundly differently than I that I couldn’t imagine how we could be helpful to them. Every other time, it’s been a matter of trust.

There’s one instance that stands out to me in particular; this happened almost fifteen years ago. I was talking with the CEO of a small entertainment company about the possibility of having me coach one of his executives. He seemed reasonably clear about this woman’s strengths and weaknesses, and the conversation was going fairly well. I was explaining to him the pre-coaching process we use, in which we interview six or eight people who work closely with the coachee, to get a sense of how they’re perceived, and so that we can share that perception with him or her. We hold the specific remarks in confidence; the coachee gets a summary report that focuses on key strengths and weaknesses noted by the majority of the interviewees.

The CEO said, “Well, you can tell her you’re going to talk to people, but I only want you to talk to me, and I want you to write the report based on what I say.” I was speechless for a few moments, and my face must have reflected my shock.

“Here’s the deal,” he went on. “She’s pretty good, but she’s not as good as she thinks she is, and other people will just confuse the issue. I want this report to take her down a peg.”

It was untrustworthy on so many levels that I couldn’t even begin to respond. More importantly, I didn’t want to. I told him I didn’t think our approach would be a good fit for him and got out of there as quickly as possible. I felt slightly grubby for the rest of the day.

For most of us, our non-truth-telling is less black-and-white and less manipulative. We tell one person that we’re going to pursue his idea, and then tell the next person—with a completely different idea—that her idea is great and that we’re going to pursue it. Even when we know we can’t do both things, or that the ideas are in fact contradictory, we tell ourselves that it’s OK to act this way: We weren’t sure which way to go, we don’t want to disappoint either employee, we don’t want to cut off our options prematurely, etc. Unfortunately, when we finally decide which way to go, the person whose idea we’re not using feels lied to.

Or perhaps—this is another really common leadership situation—Person A comes into our office to complain about Person B. We more or less agree: “Yeah, B definitely tends to get a little carried away; it’s irritating.” But then, when B comes in to complain, in turn, about A, we agree with that assessment too: “Yeah, I know he’s hard to read, and can be a stick in the mud. It gets in the way of progress.” We might think we’re just being understanding or keeping the peace. But if the two people compare notes, they’ll conclude that you’re saying things you don’t really believe to one of them (or perhaps both).

Sometimes, as leaders, we can convince ourselves that these untruths, half-truths, or misstatements will somehow be invisible, or that people won’t notice or won’t check in with each other. It’s simply not true. As a friend of mine used to say, “You know we can see you, right?” When you’re the leader, people are generally hyper-aware of your behavior. They want to know whether or not it will be safe and productive to “sign up” to follow you, and they’re especially looking for signs of your trustworthiness (or the lack thereof). Assume that if you shade the truth, or misrepresent some checkable fact, or say one thing to one person and something different to someone else, it will be seen, commented on, and judged.


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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.