I’m just sayin’ … honesty isn’t always kind

“Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.” (Robert Brault)

Attribution: Donna Cameron“I’m just saying this for your own good.”

“Don’t be so thin-skinned. I’m just telling it like it is.”

“Hey, I call it like I see it.”

“Jeesh, you’re so touchy!”

These phrases are often used to justify saying hurtful things. Sometimes the speaker may really believe that the listener needs to hear his unvarnished opinion about the poor sap’s looks, abilities, opinions, or prospects.

Speaking on behalf of poor saps everywhere, we don’t. We don’t need someone to tell us all the things that are wrong with us or all the things we don’t do as well as we should. That’s what that persistent little voice in our own head does—and it doesn’t need any help.

There are things that need to be said and things that don’t need to be said. If we pause to think before we speak, we generally know the difference.

“You’d be so much prettier if you’d just lose fifteen pounds,” doesn’t need to be said—ever.

“You might want to get that spinach off your front tooth before you make your presentation,” needs to be said. Thank you!

“The other kids in your class certainly have more artistic ability than you do,” doesn’t need to be said, even if it’s abundantly clear to everyone but your eight-year-old.

I don’t advocate lying. I was raised in a home where honesty was valued and I consider honesty to be one of the most important characteristics of good people. That being said, I believe there are times when telling the truth may not be the best course of action. And being able to discern the appropriate time for truth-telling and the appropriate time for silence or even a downright lie is another important characteristic of good people…certainly of kind ones.

Some lies are obvious, some a bit more subtle.

To the question, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” any spouse who answers that with anything but, “You look gorgeous!” or a similarly reassuring exclamatory statement really hasn’t thought through the business of being married.

“It’s perfect! Thank you so much!” in response to an ugly, impractical, or totally preposterous gift is always a wise response, even if it’s a whopper of a lie. Would you really rather hurt the giver’s feelings and then live with the regret of having done so? Receiving graciously—even when the gift is unwanted—is one of the kindest behaviors we can learn.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” There are times—and we usually know when they are—when telling an acquaintance about our persistent rash, impending colonoscopy, or chronic foot fungus is entirely unnecessary. The depth of the relationship is a good gauge of how much detail to provide when someone asks the innocuous and automatic question, “How are you?”

If you’re contemplating telling a lie, think about your motive behind it:

Are you lying to make yourself appear to be something that you are not—smarter, stronger, more successful or more interesting? Think again, and exercise your courage muscles. You’re fine exactly as you are—why pretend to be something that you’re not? Would you rather be authentic or an imposter? Would you rather people liked and respected you for who you really are, or because they think you’re something that you’re not? Besides, when you deceive others you must remember the story you fabricated—otherwise you are likely to get caught in your lie later—and you’ll either feel foolish or have to come up with more lies. It’s not worth it.

Are you lying to make a sale, deflect blame, get recognized, or advance your career? No matter how innocuous the lie may seem, your trustworthiness and integrity are at stake here—even if you’re the only one who knows that. Are they worth tarnishing for anything?  I recently came upon a quote by Ryan Freitas that sums it up pretty well: “Your reputation is more important than your paycheck, and your integrity is worth more than your career.”

Are you lying to spare someone’s feelings? Under these circumstances, lying may be both acceptable and desirable. Add another question: is anyone harmed … if I tell my work colleague that her new hair style is great when, in fact, my first thought was that she looks like a radish on a stick?

Other questions to consider:

  • If I were in his/her position, would I want the truth or a gentle lie? or
  • Which response best serves kindness: the truth, a considerate lie, or silence?

My sister and I still commiserate (it’s cheaper than therapy) over our mother’s “truth-telling” to us as children: to Kim that her smile showed too much of her teeth and gums—causing my sister for decades to cover her mouth when she smiled or laughed, rather than display her genuine delight; and to me that I could always have a nose-job if my nose got any bigger. Until my mother mentioned it, I had been totally unaware that my proboscis was anything less than perfect. Thanks, Mom! Fortunately, my husband thinks my patrician nose is beautiful.

It seems to me that another consideration of whether to tell the truth or to dissemble is whether you can make a contribution to the outcome.

If your colleague has already gotten the haircut, or your spouse has already bought and worn the loud Hawaiian shirt, then little is served by telling them what you really think. But if they ask you in advance how you think they would look with a radical ‘do, or wearing a bright yellow shirt with orange and purple parrots, a diplomatic truth might help them make a different decision.

Similarly, we don’t need to be the people who point out the typo, criticize the amount of cumin in the soup, or correct a stranger’s mispronunciation. If someone asks for my input, I’ll gladly give it—unless it appears that they really just want support and kudos—then I’ll give those. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that I’ve also gotten quieter. I don’t need to point out somebody else’s foibles and failures. I’ve got plenty of my own.

But my nose, fortunately, is quite perfect.

“If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right.” (Anonymous)

Kindness in the Workplace

“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.”  (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Cloudy Sunrise at Storm LakeOver the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of books about business, management, and leadership.  A lot.  Probably enough to fill a good-sized bookcase.  Many I purchased; many were given to me by authors who wanted to introduce me to their ideas in hopes that I would hire them to speak at a client conference.  I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read quite a few, and I’ve started many more but never gotten past the first few chapters.

I’ve been leafing through them over the last few weeks and have been disappointed—though though not surprised—to see that words like kindness and compassion are mostly absent.  Even the books that approach leadership in refreshing and enlightened ways: The Art of Supportive Leadership, Love and Profit—The Art of Caring Leadership, Leadership Jazz, Leading Change, Leading with Soul….  They’re all good books with good ideas, and good intentions, but the authors don’t seem to see kindness as an important element of leadership.  It baffles me.

It’s as if kindness is too weak and nebulous a concept to be put forth in a serious book about business.  There were a few exceptions and those books happened to be not only the ones that I read all the way through, but often they were the ones that I have read several times and highlighted extensively.  Notable among these were Lance Secretan’s excellent books, Reclaiming Higher Ground and Inspirational Leadership.

I can’t think of many places more in need of kindness than the business world and the American workplace.  Or many places where kindness would make such a difference.  I have to assume that there are business books that address the importance of kindness in the workplace, and I just haven’t come across them yet.  I hope someone will point them out to me.

Several years ago, one of our company’s long-time employees retired.  At the retirement party we held for her, she said the word she would use to describe the company if she were asked was “kind.” I remember thinking at the time that I could think of no word I would rather hear used to describe our company.

Oh, sure, I want us to be daringly innovative and wildly profitable, but even above these qualities, I want us to be kind.  Since that day when Margaret labeled our company’s defining trait, I think we have been more conscious of that value and more committed to it.  Kindness was always modeled by our company’s founder, Lynn Melby, and as each subsequent partner joined the ownership team, we implicitly accepted kindness as one of our personal values, and we continued to cultivate kindness along the way.  That’s not to say we haven’t slipped occasionally.  We’re human, after all, and the business world can, at times, challenge the kindest intentions.

It isn’t easy to always be kind in business, and there may be times when kindness is well-disguised, but if the underlying culture is kind, the intention generally shines through.  Whether we are interviewing, training, correcting, or even terminating an employee, we do our utmost to approach it kindly—using empathy and compassion.  In client or vendor situations, likewise, when problems arise we look for solutions that are fair and respectful to all.  Where we have perhaps failed is in keeping clients too long that don’t share our values.  Clients who don’t practice kindness themselves.  Clients that don’t want to pay for the services they receive, or who put the blame on others for mistakes they make, or who ask us to bend our integrity on their behalf.

Choosing Integrity

A few years ago, after a large conference, a couple of our staff noticed that the hotel had missed a sizable food and beverage charge on the bill.  The client’s convention chair directed them to pay the bill quickly and not point out the error.  Our staff followed their consciences rather than his instructions.  They pointed out the error to the hotel and asked for a corrected bill.  The chairman was not happy.

In doing this, our team not only did the right thing, but also modeled our values to our client and to their office colleagues.  The longer I am in business, the more certain I am that success lies in working with people—employees, clients, suppliers, business partners—who share our values.

Unkind people can learn to be kind, just as dishonest people can learn to be honest.  But if they choose not to value those traits it is probably because beneath it all they believe that others are just as unkind or dishonest as they are.  Our job, then, is to decide whether to work with such people.  If they are likely to change, we should give them that chance, but if they are unlikely to, we should seek our business partners elsewhere.

There’s so much more to be said about kindness in business and in the workplace.  What has been your experience of kindness (or its absence) in business?  Please share your thoughts below.  Maybe we can start a dialogue.

“We live under the illusion that organizations are ‘them’ when, in reality, they are ‘us.’  If we wish to work in evolved organizations, we must each be the first to start the journey.” (Lance Secretan)