Truth, Lies and Unicorns

Following is a synopsis of an article—"Truth, Lies and Unicorns"—that I just published with Andrea Howe of BossaNova Consulting Group in You can read the complete article here.

What is lying?

On a conversational level, we take “lying” to mean speaking an untruth; overtly saying something that is not the case. Webster’s first definition is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” “To lie” is an active verb, with a connotation of intent.

But Webster’s second definition is far broader: “to create a false or misleading impression.” That definition includes lies of omission; it even extends beyond speech.

By that definition, business advisors (or for that matter, people) who don’t lie are like unicorns: not inconceivable, but pretty infrequent. In the same sense, Diogenes never found an honest man.

The article goes on to describe five common ways we lie to clients. It then explores just why it is that we lie. Our contention is that we fool ourselves.

The article examines the costs and benefits of lying, separating the purely utilitarian consequences from any ethical treatment. The article argues that when humans analyze lying as a purely utilitarian practice—we tend to get the analysis wrong.

Specifically, we underestimate the utilitarian value of truth-telling, and of the cost of disapproval if caught.

Meanwhile, we overestimate the benefit of the false perception our lie gets us, the cost of disapproval for truth-telling, and the probability of getting away with it.

On purely arithmetic grounds, then, lying is often accompanied by self-deception. It’s speculation on my part, but I suppose it has to do with over-estimating present pain vs. future good—a saber-tooth tiger in one’s face gets a lot of attention. It’s all fear-based in any case.

The article goes on to discuss the very real economic costs of lying, and to suggest some practical ways of doing a better job of truth-telling.

If the article interests you, you might also want to read Sissela Bok’s excellent book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. She makes a wonderful case that, while “always tell the whole truth” may be an overly strict rule, it is far closer to correct than what we usually do.

Finally, as long as I’m self-promoting in this post, let me dump it all at once. I got a very nice book review of my book "Trust-based Selling" from Mike Schultz. Full disclosure: Mike is also publisher of, of which I’m a contributing editor. Mike was taken by the use of lists in the book.

There, all done.

5 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I read the article and thanks Charlie and Andrea for a very insightful take on lying. Great stuff! 

    Some thoughts:

    Like it or not, believe it or not, we bring our biology and biography to work, i.e., we bring our "family" to work. It’s a fact of (psychological) life at work.

    So, at work, most of the folks we encounter, in some way, (unconsciously – emotionally, energetically and psychologically) remind us of members of our families (also one of the reasons, IMHO and experience, much effective personal growth/dvelopment work is done in "groups").

    As children we learned to act/respond in ways that (1) brought us mommy and daddy’s love, approval, acceptance and acknowledgement and/or (2) kept us safe from harm, trauma or abuse. As children, it’s also a fact of life that everyone (psych 101 tells us) is "wounded" in some way in childhood) by parents who are doing their best, but, nevertheless (unintentionally, usually), are wounding, harming or traumatizing the child in some way through their language, judgments, criticisms, verbal, emotional or physical abuse (even in households where  everthing was just "beautiful and loving and no one raised their voice…wounding occurs).

    Thus the child grows up with an imprint on his/her brain and emotional make-up that s/he is deficient or lacking, not good enough, etc., in some way and thus the child learns s/he needs to act in certain ways to protect him/herself from disapproval, negative judgment,  or harm.

    So, fast-forward to adult life, life at work (and at hoime and at play). Since most folks who have not done personal work are unaware of these childhood experiences and resulting psychodynamics, many folks are (emotionally) 3-4-5 year olds  in adult clothes and adult bodies. (especially those who aver, "Hey I am adult; I am mature, I am! Iam ! Iam! hmmm)

    So, when they face people, circumstances  or events that can affect whether or not they recieve the energetic, emotional and psychological equivalent of "mommy or daddy’s" love, acceptance or approval, their knee-jerk reptialian brain reaction compells them to "do what it takes to get it. So, (consciously and unconsciously) feeling deficient, feeling lacking and afraid that truth-telling will end in "punishment", they resort to lying as one option or defense against "being punished" and losing the love and acceptance (never mind the contract, or…).

    When folks do personal growth and spiritual awareness work, and one sees the way they have work masks, veils, and put on false personalities (to cover up the "I’m deficient" or "I’m not good enough" or "I need to make people like me" beliefs and self-images) and can get to the truth of why they are who they are as adults, they begin to shed their self-limiting beliefs, they begin to see the false self-images they created to protect themselves, and learn how to "show up" as authentic, their True and Real self and basically, in this circumstance, "tell the truth" first, to themselves and then, to others.

    From this place of emotional, psychological and spiritual maturation,  the "truth sets one free"…a place folks find to be real, refreshing, light, and honest. No need for duplicity, disingenuineness, faking, phoniness, or…fear. And, amazingly and refreshingly, they discover "telling the truth is not as bad as I thought." Go figure.

    Leadership and Self-Deception is a book that points to much of this dynamic in the business world.

    As the expression goes, ‘The Truth shall set you free." The deeper question is why so many refuse to allow themselsves to believe that – truthfully.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Peter, having just been introduced to Leadership and Self-Deception a few weeks ago (by Andrea, in fact), I wholeheartedly concur with your recommendation.  It is accessible, cleanly written, and on the money. 


  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    me too, Charlie,  just recently, and, by a client… synchronicities; funny how the Universe works…hmmm

  4. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Great topic (and great article). It reminded me of a (still) embarassing situation I got myself into with a client some 20 years ago. I was project manager on a major system customization project, and we were very short on resources. People would pitch in here and there, but we were able to allocate only one full-time application programmer to the project. At a client meeting I introduced that fellow as the lead engineer. "Lead engineer," he snorted, "I’m the only engineer."

    The client was fine with it – we’d never exactly said how many people we had on the project – but the minor embarassment served me right. I thought I’d offer an example on how even the little mis-leaders can jump up and bite ya.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] For more on the subject of truth-telling, lies and untold truths, you might enjoy reading Truth, Lies and Unicorns. […]

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