For CEOs and corporate affairs practitioners interested in core values there have been two noteworthy articles on trust and deception: the edited transcript of a speech by Australian politician Malcolm Turnbull in the SMH and a US article in Mother Goose, ‘We Should Focus on Deception, Not Lying’ (below). They relate to politicians but could be extended to our work in any sector.
Turnbull’s theme is that to have a decently functioning parliament we need honest debate, and right now “we don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust.”
The difficulty is that we can almost never (with notable and well publicised exceptions) catch-out a politician for lying. Rather the deception is based on implied truths and innuendos, and as Turnbull says, “…important issues are being overlooked, barely discussed and where they are, routinely misrepresented. I am not suggesting politicians are innately less accurate or truthful than anyone else. But rather that the system is not constraining, in fact it is all too often rewarding, spin, exaggeration, misstatements.”
This lament translates directly to business. Yes, there are constraints, particularly for listed companies, but what about truth in advertising (pharmaceuticals, banks, diets, real estate)? For honesty and trustworthiness without compromise should be the cornerstone of our work. The public wants it and our bosses (mostly) want it, but precious few of us deliver. The excuse is that competition forces us to behave deceptively. It is interesting to read Turnbull’s speech, replacing government with company.
The Mother Goose article by Kevin Drum takes Turnbull’s theme one step further by arguing that we shouldn’t bother trying to catch politicians out on lies. Drum’s comments refer to the Republican and Democrat national conventions. He says that rather than try and analyse the candidates in terms of their lies, a “better approach is to focus instead on attempts to mislead.”
Kevin Drum goes on to explain a three part test he has devised.
“A few years ago I developed a three-part test that I use to check my immediate emotional reaction to things politicians say. I’ve found it pretty useful in practice, though it’s not perfect and it doesn’t apply to every kind of slippery statement. Here it is:
1. What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it’s what gets us away from “lying” and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.
2. What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?
3. How much would accuracy damage the speaker’s point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker’s point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker’s point completely, it’s as bad as an actual lie.
“Here’s an example from Ryan’s speech (at the Republican National Convention), where he talked about the $716 billion “funneled out of Medicare by President Obama”:
1. He’s implying that Obama reduced Medicare spending and this will hurt Medicare beneficiaries, something that Republicans oppose.
2. A more defensible version might be something like this: “Obama has reduced payments to hospitals and private Medicare plans. This will lead to less service, lower quality, and fewer plan choices for seniors. Until a few weeks ago, I thought this was a good idea and proposed the same cuts in my budget, which was supported by 95% of the Republican caucus in the House.”
3. The first two sentences don’t damage Ryan’s point much at all. The third sentence is a major change that turns it completely on its head. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is reserved for flat-out lies, this is about a 9. There’s obviously a huge attempt to mislead here.”
The temptation for us ‘spinners’ is to take truth right to the edge – and in the process lose what we set out to achieve, and what we value most. Trust.