When lying is acceptable

Honesty and openness are of course commendable in business, but leaders have to tread a fine line: to tell the whole truth can sometimes be unhelpful.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you've never told a lie, please move on to the next excellent article. This column is reserved for those of us who have, whether in a personal or professional capacity, told a porkie or two. Or indeed a whole pig-farm's worth. Still here? Thought so. We are all sinners in this regard. If anyone ever tells you they have always been truthful, don't believe a word of it.

Lying is part of the human condition. Many lies are compassionate. The right answer to 'does my bum look big in this?' when you have already arrived at the party is not yes, even if it is the truthful one. Others, in desperate circumstances, are acts of heroism. 'Do you know where the Frank family is?' in wartime Amsterdam is a possible example. We accept, then, that although truth is generally a good thing, it is not always so.

This conditional relationship with truth is visible in politics, business and the media. Nobody seriously expects the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Outright deceptions are generally not tolerated. So often in politics, from John Profumo to Bill Clinton, it is the lie about the event that deals the fatal blow, not the event itself. A failure to deliver the whole truth is not necessarily so damaging.

There's also an important distinction between truth and accuracy, as Bernard Williams pointed out in the book he published shortly before he died, Truth and Truthfulness. An inaccurate statement might be tolerated if the person making it is sincere. So when Tessa Jowell said that her husband had not received a bribe from Berlusconi - as alleged by Italian prosecutors - she could be forgiven, even if her statement turned out to be inaccurate. The idea of 'truthfulness' gets at something beyond factual accuracy - it captures the intent, the degree of integrity of the person concerned.

It's a different story for the media, or at least the news media. As CP Scott, the longest-serving editor of the Guardian, famously said, comment is free but facts are sacred. News stories, at least in 'serious' media, are expected to be accurate. Of course, the pressure to break stories first leads to great temptation. A story can be seen as 'true' if it cannot be disproved, or if it survives a news cycle.

Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, has described a quality of 'truthiness' infecting the press - in other words, that so long as a story is broadly right, there is sufficient justification to print or broadcast. The danger is that as the range of media outlets multiplies - with the blogosphere challenging mainstream channels - so the line between gossip and quality-controlled news becomes less distinct.

For business, truth poses tricky questions. How honest should firms be about their failings? Should annual reports contain a chapter on 'Big Botches of the Year'? Probably not, given market competition and a salacious media - though it is a nice thought that a firm might one day decide to be as open about its failings as its triumphs.

There may be less to be lost than bosses fear - right now, nobody believes them anyway. Only three out of 10 people think company directors 'can be trusted to tell the truth', according to the pollsters at Mori. One of the consequences of an erosion of public truth, as Ed Smith and I argue in Papering over the Cracks (www.theworkfoundation.com), is a demand for more regulation, which drives up the cost of business and further erodes confidence.

It is not that people have suddenly decided that businesspeople are liars, compared to their saintly predecessors. I think most of us want CEOs to withhold the whole truth on many occasions - when stock market flotation is imminent, for example. Markets certainly rely on transparency, but they sometimes rely on opacity, too. There are times when a corporation should offer full disclosure: the full picture of its financial situation, for example, or evidence that one of its products is faulty. The fall-off in the expected level of truthfulness is really capturing a sense that senior businesspeople are acting with an insufficient regard for ethics. Again, 'truthfulness' means decency, integrity, morality - not just accuracy.

Similarly, leaders have to tread a fine line. All the guff about 'authenticity' runs the risk of making leaders think they have to tell the truth all the time. This they absolutely must not do, any more than parents should. Business leaders, like mums and dads, often have to show a degree of confidence in their decisions that is far from an accurate reflection of their actual views. When a company is on the ropes, its employees should expect accurate information about the situation; but it is unlikely they want the bosses to say: 'Honestly, I think we're all toast. I'd give up and start looking somewhere else, if I were you.' Not least because such a message would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Great statesmen have almost always been flexible in their attitudes to truth. Winston Churchill was telling the US that Britain was on the brink of collapse - in order to maximise pressure for extra help - just as he was reassuring the nation that it would be victorious. Which version was the 'truth'? What mattered was his ability to rally, to inspire - to lead. Of course, 1940 was an exceptional circumstance, but leadership requires both a respect for the truth and a recognition that honesty is not always the best policy.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk.

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