Honesty: to be sincere and truthful
I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain
what I consider the most enviable of all titles,
the character of an honest man.
All of us remember the childhood story about the boy who cried wolf. If we have children, we’ve probably even repeated it to teach our own children about the importance of honesty. What many of us perhaps haven’t realized yet is that the more responsibility we carry, the more important honesty becomes.
What’s more, genuine honesty is more than just simple truth. Honesty is shaped by two extra elements—experiences and compassion. A recent encounter I had with a newly acquired client illustrates this perfectly. This client had just had a really bad experience with another coach. The coach had set up a series of four calls over a period of two months. Unfortunately, the coach missed two of the four scheduled calls due to a family member’s illness. On both occasions, the coach failed to notify the client ahead of time and did not follow up in a timely manner after the missed calls. When the client expressed concern about this, the coach perceived that the client was not compassionate and had unrealistic expectations since the coach was facing hardship. The client’s and the coach’s perspectives of truth were so incompatible that the relationship was terminated. So, what happened?
In some cases, truth is complex. The coach‘s truth was filtered through “family emergency.” The client’s truth was filtered through “personal accountability.” These are not incompatible truths, but because the two parties could not reconcile their perspectives, full truth eluded them.
We see from this example that one aspect of truth is seeing reality with 20/20 vision, unfiltered by emotional or distorted bias, which neither the coach nor the client did in our example. However, truth is only valuable to the extent that it uplifts people to a higher level of living. The coach and client might have seen the other person’s perspective on the truth of the situation, but that would never matter unless they cared enough about the other person to act based on the other’s perspective in addition to their own.
All of us know people who speak “truth,” but without diplomacy. This kind of truth hits like a whip and demoralizes the spirit of another person. That truth may actually be reality, but more likely it is one’s distorted view of reality. In either case, truth without compassion is just a whipping tool. It doesn’t serve to uplift, grow, and develop another person’s capacity. Truth without compassion is often brutal and falls short of genuine honesty.
I hope that all of us have also experienced times when someone has approached us with compassion and with our best interest in mind to share a blind spot or an area of development. As the discussion unfolds, we realize this person is standing with us out of concern and that they believe in us enough to courageously invite us to a heightened level of character or performance. We understand that the person is really acting unselfishly for our benefit. This compassionate expression of the truth woos us to embrace the feedback.
Genuine honesty—compassionate truth driven by another’s best interest—is still not always easy to accept, nor is it always easy to give. It takes real courage to give and receive genuine honesty. Too often, people avoid the truth because they don’t want to risk offending someone or they don’t want to expend the energy it will take to compassionately share truth. Nevertheless, withholding truth for either of these reasons can be self-serving, falling short of another’s best interest. Genuine honesty requires sacrifice, but the payoff is always greater than the cost.
Organizations get into trouble when people do not exhibit honesty in day-to-day operations. They break trust with their client base or with the people they serve, and we have historically seen this in all sectors of life. Dishonesty was the reason that President Nixon had to declare, “I am not a crook,” and was eventually forced to resign from office. Dishonesty was the reason that Enron collapsed. Dishonesty was a big contributor to the recent housing collapse, which in turn was the main reason for the current recession. Dishonesty earned Lance Armstrong a lifetime ban from cycling and forced him to separate himself from his Livestrong organization. There are times that people are dishonest intentionally to be self-serving, but much more frequently, dishonesty serves as a protective mechanism because individuals are afraid to confront the truth. They may start thinking things like, “What if I am seeing this wrong? What ramifications might this have on me and my career? I’m just part of a big, broken system and I have no control over the outcomes.”
We have known the effects of dishonesty from childhood, and now we see that the ramifications only increase as responsibility increases. We must be the courageous ones who lead the way to genuine honesty in our organizations, stepping up to make the small corrections before they become large mistakes, challenging those around us to expand perceptions of reality so that we can use truth to serve others. In so doing, we will avoid the pitfalls of dishonesty and gain the power of compassionate truth framed in a more complete perspective.
Worldwide Copyright TJ Associates, LLC Diane Kucala, January 2013