The Fear of Honesty

We’ve gone soft; we fear honesty. I think we even fear being honest with people more than we fear people being honest with us. Honesty has become synonymous with ugly confrontation, rather than just being, well, honesty.

Yesterday, a good friend emailed me a two sentence note reminding me that I hadn’t done something that I’d promised I would do. What I had promised is immaterial to this post, but that I had promised to do it, and then failed, is very important. I gave my word to a good friend, and then ignored my promise. And he had the guts to remind me. In fact, he’s laughing at me right now that I even consider his reminder to be a big deal, because to him it would be phony not to remind me. That’s who he is. And he’s a better friend for it. And in no way could what he did be called confrontational. Direct, yes. Honest, yes.

Here’s the striking part that makes me uncomfortable — I only have THREE friends (in addition to my wife, who is my honesty compass) who have the backbone to call me on something like this. And that makes me sad, because I have many friends, and it means that most of the time I’m probably not hearing the whole truth, maybe just a watered down version of what they think I want to hear. And who knows, maybe that is what I want to hear. Worse yet, I’m not sure I would have confronted me like my friend did (even though it was something minor), which means that I’m no better that those I’m condemning as soft.

But I’m condemning you (us) anyway. I spend my entire workday in the world of fraud; how people are conning each other out of money, mostly. I am surrounded by stories of the wickedly, cleverly dishonest. And I have to say, by shutting up and putting up with them, we enable them. Let me share an example.

As you’ll see from previous posts, I’m constantly being asked for my opinion on the negative impact of social networking (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in the workplace, especially by the CEOs of companies. When people ask me about this, they are usually asking because they want an answer from a privacy perspective: how information is leaking out of their company through social media. Which it is, and I share that with them. But they ask with such urgency – like they are trying to find a reason to crack down on its use.

But the more honest answer that I rarely mention, an answer they themselves sense and are unwilling to confront, at least person to person, is that the real damage of social networking on the workplace comes from the fact that we are spending our work day in personal conversations (enabled by social media) that seriously and negatively impact our productivity. We say that we tweet for business reasons, but a lion’s share of our surfing is personal. How often are we reminded that we’re not getting paid to get back in touch with high-school buddies. Now, I might write it in an article, but to actually say it to someone’s face (the offender) is an entirely different gravity of backbone.

Do we fear offending people, or not being liked? Are we afraid we might get fired, or lose a friendship? I don’t think so.

I think we have unknowingly created a culture that punishes people for honesty:

  • We become social outcasts because we let a neighbor know that their kid was mis-behaving in our home (which he was) and we don’t ask them to stop negatively spinning the story to the rest of our neighbors. And we defend our kid, even when we know that they were mis-behaving.
  • We don’t listen to the news unless it is slathered and tainted with our own self-centered political perspective (do you really think you are getting the most honest version of the story from Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann?). We don’t want the actual news, we want yummy confirmation about our vision of how the world should be. In the media, honesty is just too boring. If you don’t have an outrageously provocative opinion (by definition, dishonest), it just won’t sell. How many of us watch The Lehrer Report on PBS? How many of us just dismissed that reference to impartiality based on our political views?
  • We ask for 360 Feedback at work and once it is given, go home and complain about how “off” our boss was. But we never tell our boss, we never have the conversation.

The net result of Fearing Honesty is that we become dishonest with ourselves. We drink the Cool-aid, so to speak. We know that no investment returns 15% year, even in bad years, but we continue to give our money to the Bernie Madoffs of the world, hoping. We tell our spouses that the relationship is strong because we can’t bare to tell them the truth. Instead of being direct, we step out on them. We know we need to change, but not as much as the next guy.

Even if you’ve made it this far in the article, you probably won’t see the world differently when you look up from the screen. I’m wondering if I will. If so, it will be thanks to my friend.

4 replies
  1. Anonymouse
    Anonymouse says:

    IMO this shows up at job interviews, you are expected to be second coming of Christ with flaws that actually aren’t flaws. I don’t even know whether the people involved know they are actually human.

  2. Bob Dole
    Bob Dole says:

    I have mad respect for this article. I believe you have singled-out the generic problem with modern day society.

  3. Nicolette
    Nicolette says:

    Yeah I Am finding hard to find a job because I have come to an honest and direct place. Every interview I go to there are attempts to dumb me down. Hey world- hey government. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Raising a humanity of imbeciles. Why do you even have your hands in it? Karma is playing. I will not lessen myself. Good luck all

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