Do you know what I mean by a little lie?
“Traffic was bad. It took longer to get home.”
It’s just a tiny lie. You weren’t out partying with friends. You simply stayed longer at work than you had planned. If you tell the truth, it opens the door to: “You put in too many hours. You’re being taken advantage of. That situation needs to change.”
A little lie, therefore, saves time, removes obstacles and keeps people happy. What could be wrong with that?
In my work advising sellers and buyers over many decades, I see what happens when a business owner makes a habit of accepting or telling little lies. I see how it affects the value of the business when an organization does not make it a rule to operate within a framework of integrity and truth.
When little lies become a habit
Psychologists and researchers say we all lie at various times, to some degree.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, has researched and written about lying in his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves. He tells us that our need to tell an occasional lie is common human behavior.
This action can be motivated by something small such as the need to feel accepted or the desire to spare someone’s feelings. This type of occasional little lie is not the same as a pervasive and accepted culture of many little lies, told frequently and habitually.
In the news, we see giant businesses destroyed by their chronic lying. Often, it’s centered around ego, the need to control people and situations, personal gain and winning at any cost.
In the graphic arts businesses I visit, the habit of telling little lies happens more innocently. Entrepreneurs bend the truth because it saves time. Time is money. The time it takes to explain oneself is money left on the table. So, little lies become shortcuts. And so the habit takes root.
When you tell little lies to employees
In small entrepreneurial companies, little lies may be the way an owner blusters his or her way to the next level with customers, with the tacit understanding of the employees. We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.” As a company grows, however, it’s important to demonstrate integrity and credibility, especially at the highest levels within the company.
In a 2012 study entitled, “The Irony of Integrity: A Study of the Character Strengths of Leaders,” the authors recommend that middle managers complete an executive coaching program to be sure they have the integrity required to be promoted. The consequence of chronic lying for the company is especially dire when it comes to employee morale.
Lying at the executive level:
- Increases confusion and insecurity among those being managed.
- Forces employees to choose sides when there are conflicting stories.
- Reinforces a culture where lying is normalized and accepted.
Think of it this way. If you steer a ship only one degree off your heading, over time you will end up miles off course. Therefore, there is a cumulative effect of making decisions founded on little lies, partial truths and convenient omissions. Bad decisions based on bad information will change the course of your business.
When little lies become big lies
Once you start telling versions of the truth that can change business outcomes, you are in dangerous territory. Where do you draw the line? If you tell little lies to employees, do you also tell them to customers, Board members and shareholders? Do your little lies lead to incorrect inferences by others? Would someone who knows the whole story disagree with the way you portray the truth?
“We’re doing around $50 million a year.” (We’re at 46 million, down from a high of 52 million.)
“We’ve jettisoned a few underperforming assets.” (We laid off three managers and sold off some real estate.)
“We’ll be hiring a new sales manager.” (We’ve been adrift without a manager for a year.)
“We’re testing new markets.” (We bought expensive new equipment without an existing need.)
Maybe you believe that the whole truth isn’t anyone’s business but your own. Maybe you believe that, until you hit the place where a lie becomes fraud or a legal issue, a shade of the truth is just “how the world does business.” Or maybe you have said your little lie so many times you’ve started to believe it?
Replacing little lies with truth and clarity
When I work with owners, I will always press for the whole truth based on today’s situation, not an idealized version from years past. It takes the truth untarnished by little lies to help a company get back on its feet, grow, or prepare to sell.
As a trusted, confidential advisor and business coach, I need the truth so I can help you plan. When you sell your business, everything in the process – your financial situation, positioning, finding an ideal match, and all the elements of negotiating – must be based on honesty so I can do the best job for you.
A selling owner who is preparing for the business must be able to “handle the truth.” Don’t delude yourself. Whatever you’re hiding will be unearthed in the buyer’s due diligence. It’s far better to discuss it with me first so we can decide how to fix or deal with it.
The best outcomes start with a solid foundation of truth and clarity. It may be uncomfortable, but we must shed the little lies that hold us back from our greatest potential.
For 35 years, Rock LaManna has helped label and graphics company owners make better decisions. If you are ready to sell your business or improve your bottom line, integrity matters! Email Rock@RockLaManna.com for a confidential discussion about services available from the LaManna Alliance.