Honesty, with a reflection 5 years later

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Honesty.

Most people advocate it. But don't practice it.

I understand that. If you are honest about something, you are never quite sure how those with whom you are honest are going to take it.

Yet, we see honesty as a necessary part of authenticity and integrity. We are caught between a value and the practice of it.

This would be less of a problem if we lived in hermetically-sealed vacuums where these implications of honesty have no bearing on life. But they do. And they do because we all live in social and organizational contexts that need honesty, but eschew at every turn.

Think about the last staff meeting you were in. How many times were you thinking about how bogus many of the statements and decisions were. Yet, you didn't speak up, and be honest about your judgment, because of fear of retribution.
Or, think of the people who are generally known as being honest with their opinions. Many of them utter their opinions in a self-serving gratuitous manner. As a result, being honest gets a bad rap.

Even with these two not so extreme examples, we all know that being honest is much better than being dishonest.

A major reason for this problem lies in the poor alignment of purpose and values with the structure of organizations and society.

This came to mind as I watched an interview with author Matthew Crawford (Shop Craft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work) on C-SPAN's BookTV. Crawford is a PhD grad in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, who led a Washington think tank, and now operates Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va. In the interview he makes this observation.

"...landed a job at a think tank ... hated it from day one ... This was a policy organization. Like any such place it had taken certain positions ... there were some facts that we were more fond of than other facts. The job some times seemed to require that I reason backward from a desired conclusion to a suitable premise. As the figurehead of this think tank, I found myself making arguments that I didn't fully buy myself and that was demoralizing. And by contrast, in fixing motorcycles, you answer to standards that really aren't open to controversy or interpretation. The bike either starts and runs right or it doesn't. I like that about it. You might say the BS quotient is quite low."

I've listened to this 25 minute interview a half dozen times, and have begun to read his book. I found Crawford celebrating the value of intellectual honesty and freedom of thought, and lamenting its loss in the world of knowledge workers.

Why is it that we have so little of honesty in all its forms functioning both in organizations and society at large? 

On a large scale there is the lack of honesty represented by the Bernie Madoffs and, frankly, by our political system. These are systems of values built on the rationalization of self-serving ends, not honest systems of thought that produce answers to society's questions that seem unresolvable.

I am lamenting the lack of honesty, whether it is interpersonal, ethical or intellectual, that we need to have in society and in our organizations.

For the most part, I don't see the lack of honesty due to criminal dishonesty. Rather, I see it's absence as a function of organizational systems that have no room for human interaction and initiative. Most organizational systems are resistant to change, and honesty and freedom of thought and action are disruptive to those systems.

Where do we begin to change this?

We need to do two things.

First, be honest with ourselves.

Second, we must be willing to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

As we do so, we'll begin to see relationships develop that allow for us to be honest and caring, or shall we say, honest in a manner that is not self-serving and destructive.

Only as our relationships gain strength, can we build the intellectual honesty and freedom of thought that we need to restore authenticity and integrity to organizations and the social settings where we live and work.

A Reflection Five Years Later

After rereading this post, I realized that what I was seeing then was something that I didn't have a way to express for a couple more years later. What I see now is that the dishonesty in our society is a product of the nihilism of our world today. Or, to put in different words, there is no reality behind anything we say.

All is appearances and hyper-real marketing of narrative points to secure political power.

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to see it, though I don't totally agree with his construction of it. He saw the philosophies and theologies of the West as having a hollow core (My words). In other words, meaning is primarily personal, non-universal and relative. I see what he says, but thinks he doesn't see the larger picture. I would say that all our language points to something beyond us that is obscured by our natural limitations. 

This relates to honesty in this way.

Honesty used to be an expression about truth, which is about what is real. The idea of absolute truth rose up a couple hundred years ago as a way to make words reflect a certain reality. Words are words. They are only as true or honest as the reality that stands behind them. I think this is partly what Nietzsche was getting at. In the West, we endow words with a power that is beyond their ability to represent.

We do so because our society has moved from one where actions determine what is true and honest to our words. We have become so sophisticated at this that we now have the power to twist the reality out of a moment or an event by simply questioning the motivation (another form of personal articulation) of the teller of the story.

In essence, honesty is not necessary when we can talk our way out of being dishonest by simply questioning the motivation of the authority that has caught us. This is the nature of modern politics. It is inherently dishonest, unreal and those who perpetrate this myth are untrustworthy.

What, then, is the alternative? How can we be honest in a time of unreality.

First, decide that your own personal integrity is worth more than anything else in the world.

This means you have to be consistent, calm, and contrite in moments of error; speak truthfully without malice, and, know precisely the boundaries of your own values in order not to find yourself in a compromised position.

This is why The Story We Tell Ourselves is an important way to live in a "gotcha" world.

Second, don't play the game.

Don't invest yourself in the game of questioning motivations. Instead invest in making a difference in the lives of people. Be a person of integrity in your relationships with people. And with those people who will not allow you to be a person of integrity, walk away from them.

Life is too short to waste your days with trolls.


Real Life Leadership: The truth can hurt, but honesty is the best policy in business partnerships

Here's my latest Real Life Leadership column published last week - The truth can hurt, but honesty is the best policy in business partnerships.

Quickly, the reason why we are not honest with our partners is that we are not honest with ourselves. When we aren't, we live in denial of our responsibility for the effect of our performance upon the business.

It this is an issue for you or your team, then let me recommend a very important book - Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute. I've linked to it before. And I've said it is the most important leadership book that I've read in the past ten years.  If you don't deal with the core issue at the heart of this book, nothing else you read will have the kind of impact you desire.

I'm working on a couple charts that serve as a commentary this book. I'll post as soon as I'm satisfied they demonstrate what I see in the book.