So, I’ve had the song Little Lies by Fleetwood Mac stuck in my head for the last few days. Yeah, ok. I’ll let you get the laughing at my old age out of the way before I carry on. Ready? Here we go.
The idea of asking someone to lie to you because it’s less painful that the truth is a great concept for a song or teen fiction, but it’s a really poor approach to almost anything else in life. The little, easy, white lies can actually do a huge amount of damage to all of your relationships, personal and professional.
I was recently talking to a client who does some volunteer teaching work. Although they’re still in the first term, he’s noticed that the trust and enthusiasm of the students has fallen dramatically. During small group sessions, he asked them whether they felt differently about the course, and why they thought things had changed. The answer was pretty much universal. They had noticed a series of what he called ‘micro-lies’.
Micro-lies are small, almost insignificant lies. It’s claiming that specific data has to be gathered ‘due to government requirements’, when no such requirements exist. It’s claiming that you’ve taken organisational decisions because it ‘gives a better customer experience’, when it’s a cost-saving task. It’s saying that you’re “consulting widely to get a range of views” about a decision you’ve already taken.
For my client, the staff he’s working with believe that they are reassuring their students. What they’re actually doing is trying to avoid taking responsibility. Worse yet, their students believe that they’re lying out of a sense of deep disrespect. This is mismatch of communication that anyone outside of the organization can see a mile off, but those in the middle of it are often oblivious to.
We know that we notice those micro-lies almost instantly. We recognise that someone is trying to fob us off and we become angry and offended. I often feel that I’m less offended by the fact that they’re lying to me than I am by just how very badly they’re doing it.
Somehow, despite our own experience of micro-lies, we still kid ourselves that our micro-lies are different. We think of them as little white lies. They’re easier than trying to explain the full complex decision. Worst of all, we tell ourselves that it’s important for people to feel that they have a voice, even though we already know what course of action we’re going to take.
We all want to build trust, with our staff, with our customers, with our loved ones. A huge part of that comes from them knowing that we are honest with them. If we want to create a culture of honesty, we absolutely have to model that honesty. Often, this will mean telling unwelcome truths. These conversations are rarely comfortable. But demonstrating that you have the courage, integrity and respect to tell someone the truth will usually lead to a stronger relationship in the long term.
Someone you can trust not to lie to you, even about the little things, is someone you can rely on. Being the person who doesn’t lie, even about the little things, is something you can be proud of.
And now I’m really glad that the kids are old enough that I don’t need to worry about the ethics of telling them about Santa.