08 September 2010

When Is It OK To Be Dishonest?

A colleague shared with me an incident that occurred recently on one of her projects. Sally is the lead business process consultant helping a client organization automate a record to report business process. As with many projects of this sort, she has encountered challenges along the way. Some of them have been people related; others have been data related; and still others have been technical.

Yet, the challenge that she struggled with the most was discovering that the project manager and engagement manager had deliberately mislead the entire team. How did she know that they had lied to the team? Both of them announced it during a team meeting.

Sally's concern was how could she believe any communications from these two individuals knowing that they had mislead her and others.

There are several relevant questions here.

  • Why did the managers come clean when they did, instead of staying quiet?

  • What choices are available to a leader/manager when sensitive information cannot be shared?

  • Is it acceptable or desirable behavior to mislead or lie to subordinates or colleagues?
The first question is fairly self evident. Many people when confronted with the probability of a dishonest statement being discovered, eventually correct the statement to one that is more truthful. The exceptions to this observation are sociopaths and habitual liars, which would be a topic for different blog.

The next question regarding choices is much more interesting. Leaders and managers frequently are privy to information or knowledge that cannot be shared ever or perhaps until a later date. To complicate matters, some subordinates are very perceptive and can sense when there are social/political/ organizational undercurrents. The more outspoken subordinates will simply ask a direct question. How does a good leader respond?

My response in those situations has been, "I can't answer that right now. We are working on [the matter/situation] quietly, but this is in the realm of confidential information at the moment and I am not at liberty to share." Are people comfortable with that answer?

Absolutely not! My personal preference is to admit to withholding information or knowledge rather than be dishonest about doing so. The other choice, of course, is to answer dishonestly and pray that you won't need to reverse your stance publicly. Are there options aside from the two discussed above? I'm not certain that there are, but if you are reading this blog post and know of any, I'd be interested in your comments.

The last question perhaps should be two questions. The issue of acceptability raises considerations of a more ethical nature. The notion of desirable behavior leads to discussions around practicality. My purpose here is to provoke discussion about a situation that teams -- leaders, managers, and their subordinates -- encounter rather frequently. So rather than endlessly debate the ethics or practicality of dishonest statements in general, I am asking you, the reader, "What would you say to your team if asked about a sensitive, confidential matter?"