Truth and Consequences

Most of us learned at an early age that lying was wrong. When caught in a lie, we faced consequences. 

As adults, we understand that some falsehoods matter more than others. The most damaging are those that come from leaders of institutions we’re supposed to trust — elected officials, educators or our own bosses. Those lies, especially if they’re told over and over again, erode our trust and confidence in society itself.

As we navigate the 21st century landscape, including the often harsh terrain of social media, it seems evident that lies of this second kind have escalated over time and increased in their power to persuade. What’s worse, they seem to be met with a shrug by those who in another era might have held the liars accountable. 

We can’t help but wonder whether a growing tolerance for false narratives is creeping into all parts of society. If that’s the case, we as business leaders must figure out how it may be affecting our organizations. 

What happens when the lying occurs within our organizations? If employees believe it’s OK to fake their contributions to a project, the results of their research, or the number of sales calls made, does it really matter in the long run?

Of course it does. When lies are told often enough, we can never know who’s going to be wrongfully blamed for mistakes, praised for successes or denied promotions. A workplace that ignores dishonesty among leaders or employees undermines the trust, morale, and productivity that every organization needs to retain talent and win in the marketplace.

And ultimately, a culture of tolerating dishonesty erodes the social contract that allows businesses, government and even families to hold together.

In global measures of trust in institutions, corporations consistently fare better than government and religious organizations. This may indicate that most businesses are creating cultures of accountability when others are not. If so, that’s a real silver lining.

As business leaders, we need to be sure we aren’t inadvertently encouraging dishonesty by setting expectations that can’t be met, disproportionate penalties for mistakes, or incentives that lead employees to win at all costs. But we also have a wider responsibility. Corporate America has great political clout due to its substantial economic power. When we see lies being accepted with a shrug, we must speak up for accountability. Our society and our democracy may depend on us.