- Standard of Business
- Producing Real Value
- The Harming of Others
- Directed Passion and Hard Work
- The Handshake
- Misdirection and Deception
- Partnerships of Trust
- Amorality of Money
- Money: A Means, Not an End
- The Great Liege Lord: Greed
- Human Relationships, Not Numbers
- Losing with Honor
- The Trap of Zero-Sum Thinking
- Align or Die!
- Creating Shared Stakeholder Value
- Capitalism: The Powers of Good and Evil
- Guarding Growth
The three of us were sitting outdoors at a cafe in a small European town. The evening was falling, and we were attempting to fight back the haze of jet lag with an evening meal (which, in retrospect, may not have been the best of ideas).
Partway through the meal, we were approached by a cordial stranger, who spent a few minutes talking with us—I don’t remember about what. He then left us and our immediate thoughts… that is until we decided to leave.
Our friends purse was gone!
The man! Looking back it become obvious how he had maneuvered himself into position to take the purse, while all three of us were watching him, right from under our noses. He had skillfully drawn our attention away from what he was doing to where he wanted us to focus—just as a skilled magician does.
This led to a late night visit to a police station to try to explain the circumstance to some tired policeman in a language none of us spoke. Eventually, the point was communicated and a report filed. Unfortunately, neither the purse nor the irreplaceable photos it contained were ever recovered. The thief likely rummaged through the purse and then dropped it in a rubbish bin somewhere.
Just as this practiced thief had misdirected our attention, I have found there are those in business who also practice misdirection with their communications to others.
There are a number of ways in which this is done, and it is disturbing to find there are those who not only accept these practices as “necessary evils”, but also promote them as good business practice.
One such tactic most often seen in politics, but still a mainstay in many businesses is spin. Wikipedia defines spin as follows:
In public relations, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, “spin” often implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.
However, we see it so much in business that it gives rise to satirical lampooning, such as this Dilbert cartoon.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Marketing is bad or that we shouldn’t always try to put our best foot forward. But, we need to be honest in how we communicate. When people are relying on the information we are providing them, a balanced picture must be painted, not just the rose-tinted utopia we want them to believe for our own selfish reasons.
Another form of this is the “technically true falsehood”. Once again consider the above Dilbert cartoon. The translation from Engineering-speak to Marketing-speak shown there is as follows:
|“tends to overheat”||“hottest product on the market”|
|“all the parts are known carcinogens”||“makes you appreciate life”|
Again, I’m not particularly bashing on Marketing. In this example, Engineering isn’t giving them anything useful. Someone in Engineering clearly hasn’t done their job (not to mention Product Management).
However, if you look closely, you’ll notice something. Each of the “translations” to Marketing-speak are technically true. That’s where we get into trouble.
When we are willing to make statements that, while technically true and accurate, we know are going to be perceived to mean something different, we are, in effect, lying. We are trying to deceive, while still wanting to be able to sleep at night.
We invoke caveat emptor. It’s their fault for:
- believing us
- not being nuanced
- not being intelligent
- being a sucker
- any number of other lies we’ll tell ourselves while telling others…
Wrong. Dead wrong.
I won’t accept this as acceptable behavior.
The man who pauses in his honesty wants little of a villain.
~ John Martyn
Another more subtle approach I’ve seen to this problem is the “by proxy” method where one uses a colleague or subordinate to deliver disingenuous information. Usually, this is a tactic for creating plausible deniability in a difficult situation.
While this was originally perfected at the CIA in the 1960’s in order to protect high-ranking officials, at that point it was mostly a bottom-up exercise. However, in today’s world, it’s becoming much more of a fabricated structure from the top down.
Here are some of the variations I’ve seen of this over the course of my career.
Method #1 – Withholding Information
This is the most common one. In it, the person delivering the message has important information withheld from them. They deliver their message in good faith believing the contents to be completely truthful, only later to discover they’ve been used as a pawn.
Not only is this particular one damaging to the company or organization as a whole, but also it has a very detrimental effect on the messenger, who feels their own personal integrity has been trivialized and abused.
This does not build loyalty inside or outside the organization.
Method #2 – Social Engineering
This is the least common of the three examples, as it requires the perpetrator to have a strong understanding of human behavior, though I have known a handful of men who practice it.
This is simply done by placing people in situations where their dreams or fears will spill out in language that leaves a wrong impression. Thankfully, it’s difficult to achieve, and so we don’t have to deal with it as much as the other two.
Method #3 – Outright Lies
This is the extreme case of Method #1 above. Here it’s not just that information is withheld, but actual lies are given. It results in the same thing.
I once had a manager with whom I had a rather strong argument. It centered around a project a partner wanted us to do that was far beyond our technical ability to accomplish at that time, something I was intimately familiar with having been the only one to have read the RFP. Part of it went something like this:
|Me:||We can’t tell them we can do this. We can’t. It’s far beyond our ability to deliver.|
|Manager:||We’re going to tell them we can anyway.|
|Manager:||We don’t want to harm our relationship with them.|
|Manager:||If we keep telling them we can’t do their projects, they’ll stop bringing us into new projects.|
|Me:||But, there is no way we can do this one. We’ll fall flat on our face.|
|Manager:||I don’t believe they are going to win the bid anyway. So, we’re just going to tell them we can do it, and hedge our bets.|
In the end, it turns out my manager was correct in assuming this particular partner would not win the deal, so we were saved from having to deliver. However, I still had a major problem. Because of what the partner was told, they believed we could do projects like the one they had described. We couldn’t.
As it turns out, that partnership didn’t produce any stellar results in the end. Honesty is needed in relationships, both personal and business.
The One Rule
I have one rule that I apply to everyone, both above and below me in the organization. It’s simple:
Don’t lie to me.
If you obey that rule, we’ll get along fine. You break it… well… we’re going to have problems. I’ll give my trust freely to begin with—I believe people are generally good. Abuse that trust, and earning it back will be difficult (though possible).
If you can’t be honest with me, you can’t be honest with our customers. I don’t want to work for an organization that’s not honest.
So, today’s takeaway is to look at how you communicate inside and outside of your organization. Are there areas where you are intentionally or unintentionally leaving a false impression with your words or actions? If so, take corrective action today.
Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure there is one rascal less in the world.
~ Thomas Carlyle