Meditations on Lies, Liars and Transparency

IF the modern reader can imagine such a thing, Michel de Montaigne once had the audacity to inquire why the absence of truth should be such a disgrace and such an odious charge. Francis Bacon answered him cryptically,

If it is well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards heaven and a coward towards men .

Bacon insists that it is easier to lie to g-d, and thereby ourselves because no one will know the wiser. Our deception is brave towards a party that is bound to forgive us easily, whereas when we lie to one another, we are cowards. When we lie, we cheat one another of a coalescence born from truth itself. The uneven ground between the liar and the deceived might seem trivial, but it is not. No one can make the right decision for themselves with incomplete or false knowledge. Lying is not just the absence of truth, but a form of complex interpersonal injury whereby both parties acquire new adversaries. The liar must grapple with herself and g-d and the deceived are left to wrestle with their better judgment.

Consider this carefully.

Truth, unfortunately, has become an arcane artifact of our fast-paced, slot machine-like existence. On average, scientists tell us that people lie between six to ten times per day. Not surprisingly, many people believe that a certain degree of dishonesty is not only reasonable but healthy. We make allowances for opaqueness, obscuration, and omission, and everyone loathes to call a liar out. How many people do you know who practice a measure of truth-telling, discretion, and restraint in relationship to others?

Anyone who desires to transform their life will benefit immediately by encountering, engaging and absorbing truth, (or transparency as it is now popularly referred to), more readily. Interestingly, business leaders are cultivating transparency and civility in the workplace in spite of the fact that it presents a direct threat to hierarchy. Power is at the base of all trust--and we must be willing to share it.

When a relationship is formed, a deal is structured, or a team assembled, and individual elements are not transparent--watch out for the three O's.

Obfuscation sounds like, "You would not understand so why should I tell you?" Obscuration and omission sound like, "I'll tell you what I think you need to know." Opaqueness and equivocation sound like, "Why do you need specific answers?"

All three O's serve to preserve power in one person (often the party with more to lose by lying) and are basic tradecraft for a liar. If you hear statements like this, you are well within your rights to press for answers that are direct, and rational. If a person continues to act in an irrational and avoidant manner, it is best to hold your ground and let that person know that when they are prepared to tell the truth, you are willing to hear it. No need pressuring an individual who is already hurt by their lack of self-awareness.

I See Through You, You See Through Me

The easiest way to alleviate interpersonal pressure is transparency. By being honest and kind, we make it safe for others to speak their minds and their hearts. Ideally, the purpose of being transparent is to ensure that the parties agree to the context, conditions or situation on a level playing ground.

Without a conjunction of trust and civility, there is no real relationship, no agreement, nor the possibility of either. There can be the pretext of these bonds, which are often then codified by whoever is in power. Remember it is often in the interest of the person presuming power to keep you guessing and in the dark. Being fully transparent by intention and in purpose reduces the anxiety of not being heard, liked, and accepted--because only someone who does not respect you would lie to you. If someone respects you and themselves deeply--he or she will always tell you the truth and accept the consequences that come along with it.

Most of us want and need to be validated. To choose transparency means you are serious about increasing trust, candor, and openness in your life. It does not mean that you have any other goal than for people to freely speak their minds, and to do so without anything other than the natural inhibition we expect from other adults. Being afraid to tell the truth is normal, but transparency should not invite or advocate aggression. In fact, it might serve to lessen or dilute it. We benefit greatly by kindness in truth--not so much be unmitigated, uncensored, brutal candor.

There is, of course, a flip side. Michael Wolf, in his recent HBR article, The Transparency Trap, explains that "For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions".

Open-plan workspaces, quantified, real-time work performance data and "tell me what's on your mind," "all-hands-on" meetings sometimes feel a little too much like group therapy. These efforts can be inauthentic. Employees may end up feeling interrogated, paranoid, exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes the conduct of those watched. People will go to great lengths to keep what they are doing secret, even if trivial. When management picks up on this, they instinctively start to monitor behavior even more intensely, asking for more peer reviews and more oversight. These kinds of escalations will resonate with just about anyone who has ever worked in a corporate setting.

One CEO I advised for claimed he was suspicious of anyone who believed in transparency--which seemed odd to me. For him, the frequency with which an individual used the word transparency was directly inverse to the measure of their real candor. Not only does his position make no sense, but it indicates the kind of threat transparency poses to those in power who are unprepared to embrace it. 

Transparency tends to dilute control--which is exactly why it is taboo.

By definition, transparency is more collaborative than hierarchical control because the parties address their fears about negative consequences and unwanted behaviors before they strike a deal, and thereby subvert the primary motivation of hierarchical authority which is usually arbitrage, or leverage. When concerns cannot be silenced or ignored, "because one party says so," then the environment for progress improves. When we take the time to explain that our reasoning comes from empathy and not authority-perhaps reason even, we immediately shift the terms of the relationship. Instead of seeking control and demanding obedience, we set the stage for genuine dialogue and collaboration.

Sharing our honest feelings is often riskier than sharing our intentions

We can discuss what we think should do, but when asked to express how we feel about it, we might find the air a bit more charged. The risk is inherent. Even though both parties may feel compelled to make a deal, (to honor the intention) there may or may not be an equal measure of acknowledgment of the emotional qualities that come along with it. This is not easy--one must be prepared for the consequences of transparency.

The simplest example is one of trust in a business environment. I may hire you to do a particular job, but I might never express my concerns about you as a person or my feelings about you. "A deal is a deal" as the saying goes, but that no longer suffices. We need more than a "deal," we need truth, respect, and compassion for one another. One cannot respond transparently without being conscious of choice. When we respond without choosing consciously, we will lose every time. I believe that it is whom we entrust our utmost fragility that we have the strongest bond. Of course, the requirement is that it is reciprocated to some degree. Otherwise, there is just "truth-telling". That is not transparency--that is a one-sided confession.

Whether or not we are keen to admit it, (and most are not) most of us have had a good measure of trauma and loss in our lives. When faced with decisions, particularly important ones, it is easy to get paralyzed in old patterns of distrust and fear. When we react, instead of considering the other person's point of view even momentarily, we lose the possibility of a connection. For many people, this kind of emotional calisthenics is arduous--when in fact, not doing it tends to increase the possibility of fatal misunderstanding--and increase stress.

The benefits are straightforward and immediate. With practice, fear and reluctance decrease in direct proportion to one's own ability to be transparent. Even more, when we acknowledge that we are entering into a vulnerable place, and admit to ourselves that we cannot know all the potential consequences, an antidote to the fight-flight-freeze mode of our nervous system emerges naturally. When we are prepared to embrace an inherently non-violent attitude towards ourselves and speak our truth to others, the acceptance of our truth, and counterpart as a collaborator and not an adversary is manifest.

An important distinction need be made about how to be transparent.

Lots of people advocate a "no-bullshit, business is business" approach, which is a less thoughtful and indeed less eloquent way of practicing transparency. Tact is a very powerful gift. The reader might ask if being tactful is less honest than just projectile vomiting undigested raw emotional reactions--like profanity, hanging up the phone on people and shouting. I understand the notion that letting go of our filter feels like full honesty, but it is often counter-productive. I understand the concept of boundaries. However, if I have learned anything from years of stressful, tense and even litigious situations in high-stakes business, the more time I have to stop and reflect, the deeper truth I find about what's going on with me. In some sense, this is more honest and decidedly braver. When we own what is going on with us first--we are coming from an essential and correct place. Sadly few people realize that what we decry in others is exactly the lesson we need to learn about ourselves--and that requires internal transparency. In simple terms--we must be honest with ourselves first.

The deeper the degree of vulnerability we are capable of experiencing, and thereby expressing, the greater the risk. The risk is when our actual intentions are made clear. Transparency does not mean that we can say whatever want without a filter to anyone, at any time. When we choose--conscientiously-- to take a moment to digest our responses before speaking, we increase our capacity to anticipate the effects of our words. We choose what to say and how to say it in a way that is honest, authentic, and most of all--non-violent. Hopefully, all of this emotional calculus translates into compassion for ourselves and others.

Amidst much noise about transformation in the modern workplace, I believe people naturally want to embrace what is decent and discard that which is deficient. Our ability to risk, our fears, our insecurities, and our loyalties all draw power from whether or not we are ready to shift the paradigm. Are we prepared to better our lives, and our business, and more importantly the world ahead in which our children and our children's children will carry on our legacy? The legacy we should be most driven to improve on is the one that we carry with us. Recovery of our core when we are honest with ourselves--because some of the best and worst things about humans are bound up in impenetrable silence. The brain does not like secrets, and the body will tell us when the lies have built up. We can learn to trust in an inherent stability and reverse the instability of the environments we come from. Naturally, we carry that energy into our relationships and the workplace.

What legacy are you interested in carrying--more transparency, more openness, more collaboration, or more lies?

Chose to be honest with yourself, today.



PoliticsLouis D. Lo Praeste