Trust, Lying and Apologies – the Brian Williams Case

UPDATE 9:30PM Feb 10: Since this post was first written, NBC News has suspended Brian Williams for 6 months. This will only heighten the buzz around something really not all that important (except to Wiliams, of  course).  He has become the gossip du jour, and I don’t see anyone achieving escape velocity beyond the obsession with “what should be done about him.”

That is SO the wrong question. The real question – and the one this blogpost originally set out to address – is “what are the learnings for all of us who find ourselves in positions of trust: what threatens our perceived trustworthiness? How do we keep trust?  And, can we recover trust lost – and how?”

That question is relevant to nearly everyone reading this blog. The question of whither Brian Williams will occupy magazine covers and water cooler chit chat for 10 days max, before Bruce Jenner knocks him off the hashtag list. But when that happens – what will we have learned from it? What will you have learned from it?


Original post Feb 8: The fate of US newscaster Brian Williams is still unknown at this writing. The facts as they are emerging suggest that truth was stretched, it was stretched by Williams, and it was not a blinding surprise to a lot of news insiders.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about ethics, or to predict Williams’ fate. But it does offer a teachable moment about human frailties, about apologies, and in particular how to recover – and how not to recover – from trust disasters.

Human Memory is Not Binary

Williams went from correctly recalling past events in the far past, to revising them more recently. While some people do consciously lie, it is much more common that we deceive ourselves, through a process of constant repetition of a story.

I can relate to this personally. I used someone else’s case study to round out a trio of cases I had created (I wrote the first two). Over years of using them, I somehow came to believe I had written all three. When confronted dramatically in a class session by none other than the real case author, I was at first righteously indignant. How dare you accuse me of plagiarism?  Yet over the course of the next 12 hours, I began to recall, and realized to my horror that that was exactly what I had done. And I had to completely eat my earlier words, taking full responsibility.

Just this past week, I wrote a sharply worded email to someone who had inappropriately used some intellectual property of mine on Slideshare, without attribution. He wrote back quickly in a tone of annoyance, disingenuously saying it wasn’t important and was aimed at a higher goal.  I wrote back even more sharply.

Less than 24 hours later, I received another email from the person, this time very clearly acknowledging the transgression, accepting full responsibility, and offering not only a correction but a form of restitution. I gratefully accepted, 100% – it was, after all, a totally proper apology. And I know, first hand, how easy it is to fool one’s own memory.

Something like this is almost certainly what’s happing with Brian Williams. His first halting attempt at apology suggested that he was involved in a higher mission, and that his intentions were good.

I strongly suspect Mr Williams is going through agonizing soul-searching right now, wondering how he could have possibly gotten things so wrong over the years. The word ‘hubris’ will be mentioned by others, and eventually I suspect he’ll see it in himself.

Trust and Apologies

There is a very simple rule, which is constantly violated by nearly all tellers-of-untruth. It is this:

Rule 1: Never, ever, under-estimate your responsibility for what happened.

  • If you were Richard Nixon, never refer to Watergate as “a two-bit burglary.”
  • If you were Bill Clinton, never suggest culpability depends on the meaning of the word ‘is.’
  • If you were Brian Williams, never suggest your error was justified by good intentions or a higher cause.

A corollary to the rule: the likelihood of your being condemned in the public’s eye increases with the square of the time you take to acknowledge Rule 1.

To recover trust, you must first acknowledge. It’s hard to over-acknowledge, and in fact we want and expect a bit of exaggeration of  responsibility – that’s how we know you “got it.” But it’s the kiss of death to under-estimate your responsibility.

And of course, you’ve got to do it soon.

Brian Williams may feel he bought himself time by voluntarily stepping down for “several days” as anchor.

My feeling is that he misunderstood the role of time; in this case, time is not on his side. He didn’t buy time – he squandered it.