Leadership Tips: Honesty As A Policy

You can read the previous installment in the series here.

The saying that honesty is the best policy is one of the oldest in the proverbial book, but its longevity speaks to its wisdom. We think of it as a matter of morality or ethics, and while it is certainly both, being honest is also a constructive course of action in establishing and building not only your company but the culture within. Employing dishonesty as it’s convenient may be the tempting path, and maybe even one that some can justify in their own minds as a necessary ill to serve a greater good; after all, what harm could a few lies do in the grand scheme of things? 

But dishonesty rarely stops with one or two untruths, and never ends well. I’ve written about the saga of Theranos and the lengths and many smaller lies required to maintain the big lie at the heart of the company, that their product never worked, and probably never would have. And while I wouldn’t equate companies that stretch the truth with the outright fraud perpetrated in that case, each lie or case of dishonesty is a compromise of your integrity that makes the next one easier if you’re not careful about holding yourself to a higher standard.   

Perhaps the greatest function that honesty can serve in a company is avoiding problems and mistakes that grow into major issues. No one wants to be the squeaky wheel, or the one holding up progress on a group project, and so it becomes easy to tell a little lie, or commit the sin of omission or silence. As a leader, you have to emphasize the importance of honesty over harmony or appearances or any other concern that is ultimately secondary to successfully completing the work at hand. It might look bad in the moment to have to delay or rework, but not nearly so bad as putting forth something to the rest of the company, or even the public, that has flaws that should have been spotted and fixed.   

Honesty is also the foundation of the relationships that we have to build, both with others on our team and with people outside the company. Honesty is how we build trust, and trust is necessary if we hope to work successfully with others. Within a team, people need to trust that the information they receive from others is accurate in order to do their jobs correctly, and that others are doing what is expected of them in order to complete the work. Part of that is dependability, sure, but what is dependability but holding to your word of what you said you would do, and offering an honest account of any delays or setbacks? So long as your team is honest with each other in their dealings, they will be able to work together and help one another achieve what you’ve set out for them.

Outside the walls of your company, your word is your reputation with the world at large. There might be the impulse to try and overpromise and oversell, and maybe even with the best of intentions, hoping that your bold claims will force you and your team to work beyond what you might think you’re capable of. But failing to meet your promises and not delivering on what you say you will leave your reputation as mud, and your consideration among your peers as one of a person who can’t be counted on to deliver on what you promise. 

As a leader, you also have to hold yourself to those same standards of honesty with your team. It might seem to be a pretty obvious requirement of the job; after all, who would follow a leader who is perpetually dishonest with them? But honesty in this instance is more than just accurate and truthful information that you are disseminating. As a leader, you have to demonstrate that you hold yourself to account as you do those under you, and that means owning up to your own mistakes in full view of your team. As much as dishonesty, people hate hypocrisy, and nothing appears more hypocritical than brushing aside your own mistakes, or acting like they didn’t exist. By demonstrating that mistakes are fine, so long as we own up to them, correct them, and learn from them, we can encourage others to not try to hide their own mistakes. 

Honesty isn’t always pleasant, and there is the odd occasion when it might not even be prudent; as much as I’ve preached the importance of honesty in all things, it’s probably okay to tell a white lie about a not-so-great new hairstyle or shirt. But when it comes to important matters, matters of how you conduct yourself and run your business, honesty is all that we have to keep us from the slippery slope of doing anything to be successful, ethical or not.  #onwards.

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I am the founder and CEO of Traklight, the only self-guided software platform that creates your custom intellectual property (IP) strategy and assesses business risk. I ...