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Honesty: The Plain and Simple Truth

What would happen if lying were the norm? Spouses wouldn’t be able to trust one another; leaders wouldn’t be credible; and the news would be meaningless. Everything, and I mean everything, depends on honesty. That’s why it’s so critical to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The truth is . . . we can’t build relationships if we mistrust what friends say; we won’t follow leaders if we mistrust what they do; and we can’t make good decisions if we doubt the accuracy of the information that we receive. Absent truth, instead of taking action, we’d spend our time looking over other people’s shoulders, second-guessing their intent, and unraveling the facts from the falsehoods. The result is that trust is shattered, reputations are damaged, and suspicion rules the day.

So, why do people lie? The reasons are countless. People lie to make themselves look better, steal the credit, cover up poor performance, conceal mistakes, deflect the blame, protect their reputations, and deceive and manipulate people. Regardless of the motive, the ultimate results are the same. As someone once said, “The worst thing about being lied to is knowing you’re not worth the truth.”

The Truth Is Not What It Seems, But What It Is

Dishonesty comes in many shapes and sizes. Of course, some people lie in error, in which they wholeheartedly believe their words when they’re spoken. Others tell bold-faced lies, knowing full well that they’re being deceitful. And still other people tell white lies, hoping to protect someone (often themselves) from the truth. Yet even though some of these folks may be well intentioned, it’s all lying just the same. How do you identify a lie? As a general rule of thumb, if your ears hear one thing and your eyes see another, use your brain — because something is obviously wrong. Here are some common forms of dishonesty that masquerade as acceptable behavior:

Misrepresentation. Distorting facts to consciously mislead or create a false impression. Spinning the truth, presenting opinion as fact, and using revisionist thinking or euphemisms to masquerade the truth are all forms of misrepresentation.

Omission. Leaving out key information to intentionally deceive someone. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Half the truth is often a great lie.”

Fabrication. Deliberately inventing an untruth or spreading a falsehood such as gossip or a rumor.

Exaggeration. Stretching the truth to give a more favorable impression.

Denial. Refusing to acknowledge the truth or to accept responsibility for a mistake or falsehood that was made.

Lack of transparency. Withholding information knowing that full disclosure will have negative consequences.

Redirection. Deflecting blame to another person to prevent personal embarrassment or responsibility.

False recognition. Stealing the credit for someone else’s hard-earned success.

Broken promise. Making a promise with no intention of keeping it.

Cover-up. Protecting the misdeeds of others. Those who provide cover for the misdeeds of others are as guilty as those who perpetrate the “crime.”

Hypocrisy. Saying one thing and consciously doing another. When words don’t match actions, someone is being dishonest with others or themselves.

Bait and switch. Attracting someone with an exciting offer only to divert them to an inferior deal.

Living a lie. Pretending that you are something you’re not.

Any way you cut it, when people distort the truth, they put their credibility at risk, while lowering their personal standards of honesty. Remember, BIG or small . . . a lie is a lie. Furthermore, a lie repeated many times doesn’t change the truth. Additionally, one or many believers don’t determine the truth or untruth. There’s no excuse for dishonesty. None. As someone once said, “The truth doesn’t cost anything, but a lie could cost you everything.”

Truth Be Told

The value of honesty cannot be overstated. Every time someone lies, alarm bells aren’t going to go off and that person’s nose isn’t going to get larger (like Pinocchio’s), but something definitely happens. The liar may suspect that the only reason the customer said, “yes” to his proposal, the only way she dodged the blame, and the only reason the recipient of the lie thought highly of him or her was due to the lie itself. The question remains: Even though they fooled someone else, how do liars feel about themselves? The obvious truth is that they thought they didn’t deserve the outcome or else they would have told the truth in the first place. They may explain away the lie by telling themselves that everybody does it or that the lie fell in a gray area. But I must ask you, is that any way to live your life?

When you stand for honesty, you believe in yourself and everything you represent. When you stand for honesty, everything you say carries the voice of credibility. But, when you’re dishonest, your soiled reputation will do the speaking for you.

There are several things you can do to demonstrate honesty:

  • Think before you speak.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  • Bend over backward to communicate in an open and honest fashion.
  • Simplify your statements so that everyone clearly understands your message.
  • Tell it like it is, rather than sugarcoating it.
  • Present both sides of each issue to engender objectivity.
  • If you have a personal bias or a conflict of interest, make it known.
  • Tell people the rationale behind your decisions so that your intent is understood.
  • If something is misinterpreted, quickly correct the record.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger when someone tells you the truth. Thank them for their honesty and treat the information provided as a gift.
  • Willingly accept responsibility by admitting a mistake or an error in judgment — in a timely fashion.
  • Hold people accountable when their words do not match their actions.
  • Never compromise your integrity and reputation by associating yourself with people whose standards of integrity you mistrust.

The truth shouldn’t be told only when it’s convenient. Honesty must be a way of life. Honesty means that you care deeply about trust, cherish your relationships, and value the importance of a solid reputation. Honesty means that you try to do your best and are willing to accept the consequences of your actions. Honesty means that you respect others enough to tell them the truth and that you value your opinion of yourself enough to never live a lie. As the saying goes, “It’s simple. Never lie to someone who trusts you, and never trust someone who lies to you.” That’s why it’s critical to always tell the truth — or the truth will tell on you. Honest.

Tell Me the Truth. What Do You Think?

Additional Reading:
Can Money Buy Respect?
Be Humble: Don’t Let Success Go to Your Head
Courage: No Guts, No Glory
Bluffing Your Way to the Top

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Frank Sonnenberg

Frank Sonnenberg has written four books and published over 300 articles. • Trust Across America named Sonnenberg one of America's Top 100 Thought Leaders of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 • Sonnenberg was nominated as one of America's Most Influential Small Business Experts of 2012 • In 2011, Social Media Marketing Magazine (SMM) selected Sonnenberg as one of the top marketing authors in the world on Twitter. • Managing with a Conscience (2nd edition) was selected as one of the top 10 Small Business Books of 2012. • FrankSonnenbergOnline is listed among the "Best 21st Century Leadership Blogs." www.FrankSonnenbergOnline.com | Character • Personal Values • Personal Responsibility © 2014 Frank Sonnenberg. All rights reserved.


37 Responses to “Honesty: The Plain and Simple Truth”

  • Lolly Daskal says:

    To tell you the truth, this post is very thought provoking! I have never seen Honesty and dishonesty outlined in such depth.

    The different ways of being dishonest…… HONESTLY made me think DEEPER on this topic!

    There is an enormous amount of WISDOM and INSIGHT and food for thought.

    each dishonesty can be a topic on its own. each honesty can be a life lesson.

    I feel this article is VERY important and should be revisited many times- because each time you can learn something new about yourself.

    Thank you for what you do FRANK this world needs YOU. We need you.

    Lolly

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Lolly

      Thanks, as always, for your encouragement and support.

      Sometimes honesty and integrity don’t get the play that they deserve because it’s hard to quantify the impact that they have on our lives. So much of what we do hinges on building trust with others. It’s hard, if not impossible, to have a meaningful relationship without honesty.

      The truth is, when I wrote this post I was surprised by the sheer number of ways that people lie. It’s time to hold everyone accountable for telling the truth.

      Best,

      Frank

  • Rossana says:

    Frank,

    There are so many thought provoking phrases here that should literally be engraved in stone. My favorite:

    “The worst thing about being lied to is knowing you’re not worth the truth.”

    Wow. Positively mind-blowing.

    Thanks for sharing your words, talent and perspective Frank. This is among my favorite of your blogs, but I feel like I say that about everyone of them so imagine how the length of my “favorites” list. You provide a great service to everyone who reads your work – and that’s the plain and simple truth.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Rossana

      Thanks for your kind words.

      My parents drummed the importance of honesty and integrity into our heads at an early age. So, I’ve been thinking about the importance of trust and integrity for a long time. I’m always taken back when people are surprised that two people have an “honest relationship.” I grew up thinking that was the rule, not the exception.

      Thanks so much for sharing my posts with your colleagues. I appreciate it.

      Best,

      Frank

  • Ryan Biddulph says:

    Hi Frank,

    Telling the truth can be uncomfortable. Most shy in tough situations and lie to feel better. You outlined a few wonderful ways to tell the truth, and of course, how people lie too.

    Excellent read, thank you,

    Ryan

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Ryan

      You’re right … telling the truth isn’t always easy. (Yes… sometimes the truth hurts) I’ve learned that honesty is a critical component of trust and respect. And, that means the world to me. So, I’m willing to withstand the short-term “hit” to strengthen the long-term relationship.

      Have an awesome day!

      Best,

      Frank

  • August Turak says:

    Frank this is one GREAT post on a critical subject. A few things spring to mind. One of the greatest enemies of the truth is self deception: when we lie to ourselves it becomes that much easier to lie to others. As a corollary to this, becoming an honest person depends as much or even more so on CHARACTER than it does on being able to intellectually discriminate between truth and fiction. It takes a brave and dedicated person to not just tell the truth but live it every day.

    Finally I have a question: I admire this piece for your take no prisoners contention that lying is NEVER justified? Is this your actual position? Or would you make allowances for a manager, say, who “spins the truth” a bit about the quality of a subordinate’s work in order to encourage rather than crush?

    Thanks again for an incredible post. Be re-reading this for days. Like Lolly above I don’t think I’ve ever seen the case for honesty laid out so well.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Augie

      Great question! To answer it generally, there are three types of lies 1) Lying in error 2) Bold-faced lies 3) White lies. I can categorically say that I don’t tell bold-faced lies. I’m sure I’ve lied in error or told a white lie to protect someone’s feelings. But, that’s a very slippery slope. And, honesty is very important to me.

      To be more specific, people who’ve worked with me over the years would say 1) I’m tough, but fair 2) I wouldn’t ask anything of someone that I wouldn’t do myself. 3) I’m very direct with people — probably to a fault. 4) I provide ongoing feedback rather than once a year. So, you always know where you stand. 5) When I provide feedback my goal is to help. I don’t believe in “crushing” someone. –– especially if they’re trying. I believe if someone knows that you’re trying to help them, they’re more willing to accept your feedback. I hope that answers your question. If not, please lie to me :-)

      Thanks for furthering the discussion.

      Best,

      Frank

  • August Turak says:

    Frank, love your answers but in the interest of “continuing the discussion” I’d like to confess that I have at times lied in order to “serve a higher purpose.” Sometimes this lying is as trivial as pretending to be in a good mood in order to help morale even when I’m actually feeling pessimistic about the company’s prospects. Sometimes it means hiding some kinds of “bad news” in order to make sure it does not precipitate a “run on the bank.”

    For example imagine I’ve just left a meeting where as part of some long term contingency planning we discussed a “worst case scenario” where some people might be laid off. Right outside the door I meet a co-worker who asks.”What did you discuss in the meeting?”

    If I tell the whole truth he will of course assume layoffs are a sure thing and will not believe me when I say they were only part of a 1% worst case planning scenario. Soon everyone in the company will be in an uproar over “layoffs.” If I say “no comment” or “I’m not free to say” then his imagination may dream up even worse things with even more damaging consequences to morale.

    So instead I “make up a story” or tell only a “half truth.” I “honestly” :) believe that as long as there are such things as self fulfilling prophecies a policy of “just the truth, ma’m” can never be total. Winston Churchill could not afford to tell the English people the whole truth all the time and still win the war. And yes, this IS INDEED a slippery slope.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Augie

      Thanks for your thoughts. Once again you make some great points.

      I hear what you’re saying and agree completely with your position. Here’s the rub … The leader withholds information for the “good of the company” while their real motive is hitting their quarterly bonus; The politician spins the truth for the “good of the country” yet their true intent is positioning themselves for the next election; The boss tells the employee they’re doing fine, while the real story is that he’s uncomfortable delivering bad news. The worst part about these scenarios is that they believe their own lies.

      The difference is that in my examples, the individual “lied” for personal gain while in your examples their intentions were honorable. I still believe that there is a slippery slope –– Some people start out with good intentions and cross the line. That, my friend, is where character comes into play.

      I hope I answered your question. Thanks again for enriching the conversation. Have an awesome evening.

      Best,

      Frank

  • Carol Anderson says:

    The distinction of “why” behind the decision (yes, it is a choice to lie) is pivotal. I worry that lying has become the norm in our country, and worse, we are not teaching our children the power of truth. What baffles me is how common sense your words are, but yet how we have allowed personal gain to be okay. We have role models for lying for personal gain in abundance these days. I wish this could be a “course” taught in K-12, higher ed and corporate L&D, with structured accountability systems and consequences for personal choices.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Carol

      Your words ring so true. I also believe that children should learn the importance of honesty at an early age. Role models including parents, teachers, spiritual leaders, coaches etc. should take part in that effort. But we can’t stop there. It’s time for us to speak up and hold lousy role models accountable for their actions.

      The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. The next step is doing something about it. The mission of this blog is to highlight the urgent need to reawaken a commitment to personal values and personal responsibility. Thank you so much for sharing the passion and recognizing the need to bring about change.

      Have an awesome day!

      Best,

      Frank

  • Eric says:

    There are 3 kinds of lies: Outright lying, Lying by omission, and Statistics…

  • Tom Eakin says:

    Hi Frank-
    This article inspired me to create a page on my blog dedicated to articles on Core Values. I see it as a resource for anyone who wants to learn and understand more about what it takes to be the person they WANT to be. I don’t know if there is already a something out there like it but my main intention is to help people who interact with my GPS Theory based Success Engineering services (personal, professional, organizational) to understand the meaning of the words they use to answer this powerful question: What words do you want other people to use to describe you and the life you’ve lived?
    Thanks for inspiring this idea, Frank! I’ll be sure to look through your blog to see how many other gold nuggets there are to link to from my resource page!
    BOOM!
    Kind Regards-
    Tom

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Tom

      I’m so glad that this post inspired you to write about personal values. “We” need all the help we can get.

      Have an awesome day!

      Best,

      Frank

  • AbdAllah says:

    Thanks for this blog. Sometimes to achieve our goals, we exaggerate for some events to show our importance & lie to satisfy our boss. The worst enemy to honesty is the word “I know everything”. This is a weak point for unconfident person & may cost a lot as a result.

    Kind regards,
    AbdAllah

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi AbdAllah

      You’re right. Greed, ego and lack of humility often get in the way of success.

      Best,

      Frank

  • LaRae Quy says:

    Wow! I love this list! The dishonest behavior is so subtle sometimes that we don’t overtly acknowledge it…these are great reminders of how insidious dishonesty can influence all aspects of our life.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi LaRae

      You’re right. Some of these items are subtle and others overt. The key is that dishonest people trade short-term gain for trusting relationships.

      Have an awesome day!

      Best,

      Frank

  • Brian Dick says:

    Frank,
    As a forensic evaluator for behavior health and the court systems, I encounter your list of deceptive techniques on a regular basis during my interviews. It is disheartening to me sometimes as a people helper how much energy people put into telling untruthful things.

    I find that when others are “surviving” or “just existing” they are more inclined to tell mistruths. Those that are truly living, accepting themselves and their faults, and have an internal security are less likely to tell lies.

    The problem with lying is the long term detrimental mental health effects that tend to attach themselves to others lives. I have often referred to chronic lying as “delusional denial” where recognition of the truth can no longer be recognized, because the brain connections have re-wired toward the un-real-ness of life.

    Frank: Thanks again for a well thought out post. Have a great week, Brian.

  • Frank Sonnenberg says:

    Hi Brian

    It’s great to hear from an expert on the matter. It’s interesting that you find that people who are “surviving” or “just existing” more inclined to tell mistruths. Then, what do some executives, celebrities or politicians have to say for themselves? It’s sad, and as you say, disheartening how much energy people put into telling untruths.

    Thanks so much for advancing the conversation.

    Have an awesome day!

    Best,

    Frank

  • […] Honesty: The Plain and Simple Truth – We can’t build relationships if we mistrust what friends say; we won’t follow leaders if we mistrust what they do; and we can’t make good decisions if we doubt the accuracy of the information that we receive. […]

  • Janet Bernacchia Wilkins says:

    …And that in a nutshell is what needs to be told..the truth for our society to get back on track. Truth, trust and honestly…. as usual so well said Frank!

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Thanks Janet. There are three things that we can do to get back on track. First, we must live by the rules that we expect others to live by. Second we should teach the importance of honesty and integrity to our kids. Third, we must hold people accountable rather than turning a blind eye to dishonest behavior.

      Have an awesome day.

      Best,

      Frank

  • […] in the span of a 10 minute conversation with a stranger. (Feldman, 2009) While recently reading Frank Sonnenberg’s post on the importance on honesty, I realized just how many different kinds of lies that people tell […]

  • Karin Hurt says:

    Frank, What a terrific post. I find that in business there is so much time spent on “positioning” as a means of justifiying half-truths. Very dangerous… and will undermine credibility.

    http://letsgrowleaders.com/2013/01/09/to-tell-the-truth/

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Karin

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. Many leaders feel that they have to sell their way of doing things. I’ve found that when leaders shift their thinking from “my” problem to “our” problem, everyone pitches in to find the best solution. Plus, you get buy-in of the process. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Have an awesome day.

      Best,

      Frank

  • Maria Garcia says:

    Frank, What can I say about you? you are one of a kind human specie.
    I love this post, because it points out the many ways one can be lying and not realizing it. I have a story to share, actually two similar stories.
    I have lost three brothers, my father and my step father who practically raised us, so we loved him as our father. The second brother we lost, my mother had just came out of a big surgery and her health was very delicate or fragile. It was Christmas Eve’s we were cooking the dinner for that day, when we received the notice from my county. My sister my brother and I had a little reunion to see what was the best thing to do in this case, my mother was very fragile, she was recuperating from a big surgery and on top of all was suffering from a little depression at that time. It was a hard thing to do not only because we had to hide our emotions, I remember I wanted to cry so bad, and every time I will get close to my mother I would have to run and hide in the bathroom to cry and then put lots of make up so she would not noticed my tears. I remember saying to my self, how could I deliver such a painful news to her?? I saw her little face so sad, as if she knew deep inside but at the same time I saw hopes in her eyes. So we decided not to tell her until two weeks later when we talked to her doctor and her doctor advised us to tell her the truth. So you see there are circumstances in life that put us in places we don’t want to be and kind of forces us into doing things that goes against our moral, and values. Until this day I think we did the right thing at that time.
    The second brother they had told us there was no hope they told us he only had days to live, we did not tell my brother or my mother that as well, because we thought it was enough pain the pain we were going through, we did not them to go through that pain as well.
    So Frank what do you thing about our situation? what would you have done, tell the truth or how would you handle a situation like this??
    Thanks for this posting, as always very appreciative to Learn from you

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Maria

      Your family has been through a lot. I’m so sorry for your loss.

      It’s certainly not up to me to judge, but I believe you did the right thing.

      Let me go back to something that I said to Augie (above) “Here’s the rub … The leader withholds information for the “good of the company” while their real motive is hitting their quarterly bonus; The politician spins the truth for the “good of the country” yet their true intent is positioning themselves for the next election; The boss tells the employee they’re doing fine, while the real story is that he’s uncomfortable delivering bad news. The worst part about these scenarios is that they believe their own lies.”

      The difference is that in my examples, the individual “lied” for personal gain while in your situation you withheld the truth out of love. There’s no need for you to doubt your intentions. They were honorable and come from a loving heart.

      There is a slippery slope when it comes to honesty –– Some people start out with good intentions and cross the line.

      Best,

      Frank

  • Steve Whinfield says:

    I am part of the Quaker community where truth is part of it’s value. What I find within this community is that truth is perceived in very different ways which can suggest that a person has lied. When the truth can’t be found opinions replace it. Those opinions seem to come from the spirit of the person. How do we recognize what is in ourselves can be so different in other without calling it out as being dishonest?

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Steve

      I must confess … I’m not familiar with the Quaker norms around truth and honesty. I’m not comfortable commenting. I did find this passage which I found interesting.

      “Speaking the truth is so central to Quaker belief that Quakers have always refused to take oaths. Since they are expected to tell the truth at all times, they reject the idea that there are two standards of truth—one for everyday concerns and one for the courtroom. The prick of conscience that comes with the violation of truth is a reminder that integrity is the first principle of life, . . . Truth-telling simplifies life – Lying burdens and complicates life.”Robert Lawrence Smith, A Quaker Book of Wisdom

      Have a great day!

      Best,

      Frank

  • Pratap Shitole says:

    A well written blog Frank!..
    I completely believe that honesty should be a way of life.Satisfaction & self respect we have with such a life is invaluable.
    Truth be told & truth be listened whatever the circumstances may be.That is basis of each relationship.
    I think spreading rumour is also dishonesty.

    Thanks for writing the blog.

    Pratap

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Pratap

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      I’m glad that you brought “self respect” into the equation. People with character listen carefully to their conscience. The truth matters to them. For them, the downside of dishonesty isn’t that they’ll be caught, it’s that they have to live with themselves for the rest of their life.

      Have a great day!

      Best,

      Frank

  • […] Reading: Honesty: The Plain and Simple Truth Dependency: Killing People with Kindness The Many Faces of Greed Ethics as […]

  • Phil Wilson says:

    Thank you for a great article, Frank.
    Truth is so often overlooked, but is the single most important pillar in Life, Love … and business!
    Love from South Africa.
    Phil

    • Frank Sonnenberg says:

      Hi Phil.

      I’m so glad you like the article. You’re right, “Truth is overlooked.” That may be because things like honesty, trust, creativity, and courage are hard to measure –– So, we discount their value. The truth is, they’re instrumental to success in all facets of life.

      Have an awesome day!

      Best,

      Frank

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