Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Honesty - the next virtue from the good project

Last month I wrote a blog post for "The Good Project" on the virtue of Hope.  Reflecting on the experience I noted how knowing that I was going to write a blog post on the topic had given me a focus for thinking about the virtue as the month progressed and how it would be good to do the same in subsequent months.

Well, here we are in October and this month's virtue is "Honesty".  Once again there is an impressive range of contributions from a diverse set of writers. Well worth a few minutes of your time to get over to the University of Winchester Blog and look at the October entries.

Reading Kay Plante's blog earlier this week I came across a post on Creating an Authentic Brand that included this comment :-

"Leaderhip gurus Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner surveyed a diverse cross-section of people around the globe to identify leadership attributes that induce others to follow. They discovered that the first question that potential followers ask themselves when deciding whether or not to follow a “leader” is “Is this person honest, i.e., do I trust this person to be true to his word?
The same test holds true of company messages – “Do I trust what this company wants to tell me?” If companies do not back their promises with actions that deliver on those promises, trust is broken."

So I think we would all agree that honesty is an important attribute and something that we look for in others.  But what does it take to be "honest" is it simply a question of not telling a lie?

Whilst not telling lies is part of the story I think we quickly realise that this isn't all there is to honesty.  Some of the blog posts that have been posted this month address this and start to explore the wider question of what it takes to demonstrate honesty.  Sometimes honesty will require us to speak up and correct an untruth (irrespective of whether we told it).  Sometimes it will be about not allowing a mistaken view to prevail.

I think there is yet another dimension to it and Juliet Hancock talks in her blog post about the "willingness to admit weakness and to admit we don't have all the answers".  Here we have the idea that it's also about being honest with myself.  This is a theme that was also picked up by Hector Sants at the recent "Resetting the Business Agenda" symposium held at the Said Business school in Oxford.  As part of a panel discussion on "Regulation and Trust in Financial Markets" he talked about the need for honesty.  He elaborated that this wasn't just about not telling lies but also about avoiding self delusion.

Returning to the core issue of truthfulness I'll close with the question of the "white lie" - can there be such a thing?  is it ever right to lie?

Chambers defines white lie as "a minor falsehood, esp one uttered for reasons of tact". I'd like to propose that a lie is a lie is a lie.  To try and classify lies as "minor" begs the question on what basis should we evaluate them.  On the verge of uttering an untruth how can we possibly seek to assess the longer term impact of what we are about to say. One of my colleagues pointed me at a quote from Iain King in his book "How to make good decisions and be right all the time : solving the riddle of right and wrong".  He says "Deceive only if you can change behaviour in a way worth more than the trust you would loose, were the deception discovered (whether the deception actually is exposed or not)" Short term we may avoid some awkwardness through the "white" lie but longer term what is the cost?   No, I think the term "white lie" is actually a lie to ourselves (one no doubt we would argue as also falling in the "white" category) that we aren't actually doing something wrong.  We know that it's wrong to lie, we know we aren't a bad person, and hence it must follow that what I'm about to say can't be a real lie ... it must be something else... hence the mythical "white lie".

I'm with Martin Palethorpe and his exhortation that we strive to be well intentioned and what he calls "honest,  honest level 1".  It may not be easy, and we will often fall short, but it does seem to me to be the best course.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Michael and thanks for promoting the Good Project. Your points about 'white lies' are very provocative. They remind me of when I was an executive coach. There is a psychology of 'truth' and one learns to be sensitive to the limits to what a coachee might be able to handle. Being too 'honest' at the wrong time, can break trust simply because the coachee is not ready to hear what you have to say. The ideal is that you guide the coachee on a journey so when s/he is ready they will 'see' what they need to 'see'. this also begs the notion of under what circumstances we can really say that 'this is true'. I like your point that it is not easy to be honest (or manifest any of the virtues) which is why Aristotle claimed that they must be practised. The virtues are like muscles, they need to be exercised so that they become stronger and help to build our character. This is a lifelong task. Karen Blakeley