Honesty should be the only policy

Many of our virtues are having a rough go of it these days. Patience has been battered by the internet's lightning-quick pace, and reality television and Facebook have largely eviscerated humility.

Also struggling: honesty.

There are many virtues important in the workplace, but honesty should be at or near the top. So it's particularly dispiriting to see honesty and trustworthiness go widely disregarded, particularly at the highest levels.

"There is a prevailing cultural sentiment that lying is OK - the fact that everyone is doing it and that it's necessary to get ahead," said Nicholas Pearce, a clinical assistant professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

"The absence of honesty and integrity can have particularly paralysing effects on individuals, teams and organisations, and even society."

Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, said there are dozens of examples of high-profile lies - in business and in politics - that have gone virtually unpunished.

"We're learning more in this society to operate without trust," he said.

"We're sceptical of everything, and we assume people are lying about things. When you have a supervisor that you can completely trust, you have a different kind of relationship than if you have someone who's going to say what's expedient. It's a sad thing that we have to be sceptical."

Leaders have to tread carefully around certain topics, but that can be done without lying or even being particularly evasive. Trust people to understand that not everything can be out in the open, and there's a good chance they'll respect that.

"I tell leaders that it's easier to maintain their integrity 100 per cent of the time than it is to maintain their integrity 99 per cent of the time," Pearce said.

"A leader's capacity to be effective relies heavily on their social capital. Leadership is a relational licence to exert influence. It's the relational currency of fairness, respect and trust that can make or break a deal or partnership or promotion."

Josephson said: "In the business place, there isn't one situation where it's morally justifiable to lie. And it's not impossible. It's not like you can't be successful without lying. You can succeed. You can survive. And when people convince themselves of that, we're all better off."

And that's the key. Leaders need to embrace what Pearce calls "radical truth telling".

"Individuals pay close attention to the extent that their leaders adhere to their organisation's values," he said.

"Where leaders are embodying values and finding creative ways to equip the people in the organisation to embody those values as well, people are a lot better off and more engaged. If a leader is serious about honesty and integrity, not only do they have to model that behaviour themselves in an almost extreme fashion, they also have to make sure their hiring practices and promotion and retention plans are all geared toward rewarding honesty. The reality is you get the behaviour that you reward, not just the behaviour that you're hoping for."

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