OK, I admit it. I’ve done it. That annoying client who never fails to keep me on the phone for at least 30 minutes is on the line. My assistant is asking me if I want to talk to him, knowing I probably don’t. I say, “Just tell him I’ve stepped out for lunch, and take a message.”
It seems harmless enough, right?
Well, Dave Anderson, author of How to Run Your Business by The Book (Wiley, 2011), doesn’t think so. A white lie is still a lie, after all. “If you really are unavailable, there’s no need to have your assistant say you’ve stepped out,” he says. “Just say you’re not available.”
While Anderson says little fibs may not seem like a big deal, they’re a reflection on your character, and if your clients and business partners find out you’re lying (which some of them ultimately will), you can damage relationships, your reputation and your potential. Little lies successfully committed can also lead you to feel comfortable telling bigger lies. “Once you rationalize something on a lower level,” Anderson points out, “it becomes easier to rationalize something bigger.”
So what are the most common white lies businesspeople tell? (Be prepared to give yourself a slap on the hand—you’ll probably recognize one or two.) People often give false impressions of their company’s status with everything from misleading advertising to inflated numbers. And how many times have you said, as I did to my assistant, “Just tell them that…”? It’s not uncommon for leaders to ask employees to lie for them. “When you ask somebody to lie for you,” Anderson says, “you become a lie contagion. You’re spreading it through the culture.” And you’re not setting a very good example for your employees either.
Anderson acknowledges that while there are some people in the business world who lie willfully and intentionally, most of us do it without thinking about it. “People do what’s easy or convenient instead of what’s right,” he says. “But these things have a way of coming back to haunt you.”
How to Tell the Truth… Graciously
Most of us tell white lies in an effort to spare the feelings of others, to avoid confrontation or to sidestep inconvenience. But it is possible to tell the truth, even when it’s not a pleasant truth, without damaging relationships.
Author Dave Anderson advises taking a “tough love” approach if you have to communicate something your client or employee might not want to hear. “If you look up ‘tough love’ in the dictionary, it says ‘toughness balanced with warmth,’ ” he says. “If you say what you have to say with warmth, concern and respect, it makes a big difference.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to get that combination right. “Today, people skills are so diminished because we’re used to communicating through email and text,” Anderson says. It’s important not to be in such a hurry to cut to the chase that you come across as rude or uncaring.
So next time you have to tell that eager staffer he didn’t get the raise he asked for, instead of avoiding him and telling him you haven’t made a decision yet, just tell the truth. And if you failed to meet the deadline on that project for your client, don’t tell her the software you needed was on backorder. Be honest and admit you overestimated how quickly you could make the turnaround. People appreciate straightforwardness. “Even though telling the truth is often the hard and unpopular thing to do,” Anderson says, “honesty is rule number one to developing sound character.”