We live in a post truth era.
The Washington Post claims that President Trump made 16,241 false or misleading claims in the first 3 years of his presidency that’s 44 per day, every day for 3 years.
Whether fan or not, got to admire his consistency if not his impact on political and societal discourse.
Here in the UK, the Brexit debate was shrouded in a fog of dubious claim and anti-expert rhetoric. The truth was out there somewhere, but often lost amidst the emotional and polemical.
But if we’re to be fair to this grisly era of mendacious politicians lying in high office is not a recent phenomenon, though it does feel more blatant these days.
Justification for The Iraq War was primarily peddled on false claims and we haven’t time to dig into historic political misdemeanours of Watergate, The Gulf of Tonkin and the widespread use of euphemism, to cover up truth.
Didn’t See A Thing, Honest
With sport, Lying (or at least, looking the other way) has been endemic for years.
Those post match interviews with the one eyed manager who sees everything through the prism of his own perspective.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger became famous for claiming that “I didn’t see the incident” when one of his players is accused of blatantly cheating or misbehaving.
This trickles down the game and into society, where cheating or lying in plain sight starts to become a norm. Acceptable behaviour if it leads to the right results.
What Does It Mean For Truth and Trust?
This shift in what is acceptable or not in public discourse starts to flip conventional thinking about what constitutes the building blocks of trust.
“The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” States Salena Zito in the Atlantic.
Significant numbers of our fellow citizens feel it’s no longer necessary to connect truthfulness with authenticity.
Here in the UK we have a populist political famed for being a good bloke and someone you can share a pint with down the pub. The fact that much of what Nigel Farage says is palpably and demonstrably untrue, doesn’t seem to impact on his “authenticity”, at least with his core support.
Conversely though, truth is making a comeback.
An excellent article by Tim Leberecht on “Why Good Leaders Tell Lies” says that …
“These are interesting times for truth. In one respect, we’re experiencing its renaissance. Investigative journalism is having a field day in the wake of presidential lies, fake news, and algorithmic manipulation. Subscriptions for the New York Times and the Washington Post are soaring. Likewise, transparency, honesty, and authenticity are widely heralded as the hallmarks of leaders who want to restore our era’s eroding trust in politics and business. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and writer Anand Giridharadas are examples of these new heroes. They have each called out ugly truths, provoking debate about social inequality. Even the often-maligned Jeff Bezos earned acclaim for choosing truth over personal benefit when he opted to go public about the National Enquirer’s alleged extortion attempts. People respect those who call a spade a spade”
Why Do People Lie?
Psychologist Paul Ekman conducted a survey that looked into why people lie and found 9 reasons;
1. To avoid being punished.
2. To obtain a reward not otherwise readily obtainable.
3. To protect another person from being punished.
4. To protect oneself from the threat of physical harm.
5. To win the admiration of others.
6. To get out of an awkward social situation.
7. To avoid embarrassment.
8. To maintain privacy without notifying others of that intention.
9. To exercise power over others by controlling the information the target has.
What About White Lies?
What isn’t covered above is often the simplest and most benign reason for lying, something that American author Sam Harris views as equally pernicious, out of politeness or tact.
Harris wrote a long form essay book called “Lying” that argues how we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by merely telling the truth in situations where others often lie.
One reviewer of that book states, “One of the real values of reading this book is that it causes the reader to reflect on our own life and lies.” That was certainly the case for me.
Whilst instinctively believing I lead a truthful life, I started to appreciate that I was perhaps not as direct and open as I could or should have been, with family, colleagues, the world.
At different stages of my life it was to protect myself, others and occasionally project a false image of who I was.
But as Harris says …
”what could be wrong with truly ‘white’ lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding — these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.
And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality — and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.
These tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied”
Lying, says Harris, perpetuates itself through a downward spiral of failed “mental accounting”:
Why This Matters To Tech Leaders
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself,” Richard Feynman said and Harris furthers this insight:
“What does it mean to have integrity? The ethical terrain here extends well beyond the question of honesty — but to truly have integrity, we must not feel the need to lie about our personal lives.
To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us”
What does it mean to you as a tech leader and thought leader?
What does it mean for the company culture you want to build around you?
Business leaders are often involved in an ethical tug of war with their conscience when it comes to true honesty and transparency.
At PLC level they might feel compelled to obfuscate, deny and deflect bad news that might impact on the share price and/or market confidence.
At a start up level it’s often challenging (some might argue impossible) for founders to be completely honest and truthful about their lack of traction and success. Doesn’t fit in with the “fake it till you make it” culture. Of deeper concern for start up founders is not being honest with themselves about the truth and carrying the stress of maintaining that lie.
You might feel you’re in the grip of a similar dilemma and for some, it’s a balancing act for sure.
But truth and integrity sure feels less stressful. It certainly should be the starting point for building a company culture you want to be proud of.
Founders and early hires build the guard rails for early stage companies, guard rails that prove challenging to shift as the company starts to grow.
If you’re starting point is that all lies are bad, then you’re on the side of those currently in the vanguard of ensuring that truth wins out in the end.