If you’re like most people, you grew up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. You know the one. Young George chopped down the tree, and when his father asked if he’d done it, he said, “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” The tale is often repeated both as proof of Washington’s greatness and as a way of illustrating the virtues of honesty.
In the business world, there is sometimes a mindset that says small lies—so-called white lies—are acceptable if they are well intentioned or push you toward a goal. It’s an, ‘the ends justify the means’ mentality, and it’s more widely-accepted than most people realize. However, lying in the workplace can generate very negative effects.
It can be tempting to talk about honesty in clichés. “Honesty is the best policy.” We tell each other that it’s morally best to tell the truth, but the fact is that very few of us actually adhere to that policy.
A study at the University of Massachusetts found that 60 percent of people lie at least once in the course of a ten-minute conversation, with many of them telling two or three lies in that time period. You might be tempted to insist that you are one of the few people who wouldn’t lie in any situation, but we all do sometimes—and we always find ways to justify it to ourselves.
Dishonesty Can Cost You
Even the lies we tell ourselves are benign can hurt us. In the workplace, lies tend to rebound and ricochet, impacting everybody who works there. Here are some of the things that dishonesty can do to hurt you and your company:
- It erodes the trust your employees have in you. For a leader to be effective, employees must trust that they are fit to lead. When you gloss over the truth or outright lie, you tell your employees that the truth doesn’t matter to you. That increases the chances that they’ll lie to you and to one another.
- It can affect your ability to woo clients and investors. Some people are better at sensing dishonesty than others. If you run into a business associate who’s good at spotting insincerity, they might take your lack of honesty as a sign that they shouldn’t do business with you.
- Dishonesty actually triggers a stress response in the body. This stress response prevents us from staying in the present moment. When stress hormones are released, they activate our “fight or flight” response. Vital resources are taken away from functions that are considered to be non-essential. That includes the neocortex of the brain, which handles all high-level, logical thinking. In other words, dishonesty actually makes you less intelligent in the moment, and thus less able to make good decisions—and that can hurt you in almost any area of your business.
The Many Rewards of Honesty
Now that you understand the risks of dishonesty, let’s talk about some of the ways that adopting a policy of honesty can help your company thrive.
- It builds loyalty in both employees and customers. If you make a mistake on a client account and own up to it, the chances are very high that the client will be grateful for your honesty and forgive you for the mistake. They may see your honesty as refreshing and even feel that they can trust you with additional business. When employees see that their leaders are honest, it encourages them to be honest, too. That minimizes the chance of future miscommunication because everybody is committed to the truth.
- It can help you build a reputation in your industry—and in the business community in general—as a straight shooter and reliable organization. More than 80 percent of all consumers—both of B2B and B2C products—check out companies online before doing business with them. A reputation for honesty is the kind of thing that can have a real ripple effect, attracting new clients who want trustworthy business partners.
- Being honest with potential clients or partners can be scary, but if you can get over that hurdle, it can also be tremendously rewarding. Because so many people lie without thinking about it, your honesty will stand out as something different and valuable. Many of us have a deep craving for honesty, and we gravitate toward it when we find it. It might be daunting to imagine looking at a prospect and speaking the blunt truth about their products or their marketing campaign, but in many cases, you’ll find that they appreciate it and will reward you with their business.
- Finally, living and working honestly will improve your mental health. Earlier, we talked about the effect that stress has on critical thinking. However, lying can also wreak havoc with your emotions. When you determine to be honest, you’ll find that you experience a great sense of relief. There’s no need to cover up lies, whether they are big or small, and you can relax and be yourself. Your confidence in what you say will shine through and have a positive impact on every aspect of your life.
The bottom line is that honesty really is the best policy—but not just because George Washington practiced it. When you let go of the need to bend the truth and embrace honesty, you let everyone around you see its positive effects—and your business will flourish as a result.