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Time for a sincere conversation about honesty

25 September 2018


One of my favourite interview questions is to ask candidates what the values of their own business would be. The most common response – by a mile – is honesty.

And these candidates are not on their own. More than 70 percent of the values of Fortune 100 companies in the US directly reference integrity, ethics or honesty.

Honesty is one of the fundamental bedrocks on which relationships are built. Honesty is what allows us to trust someone. And this trust, in turn, allows us to delegate responsibility and frees us from anxiety.

It’s even been proven scientifically – when we trust someone our brains release oxytocin which allows us to feel better and relax. It’s also a reciprocal thing because we also like to be trusted.

We feel more conscientious and confident when we are trusted. We try harder and are more sensitive to the needs of the people who trust us. It’s a natural part of any relationship and is at the heart of what it is to be human.

Equally, when someone is dishonest, it is very hard for us to trust them in the future. That’s because trust, like other primary emotions such as love or hate, runs deep. When it works it is brilliant, but when it fails it is extremely painful.

A crisis of trust

Think about the times when people, or organisations, have been dishonest to you. It creates a visceral reaction in most of us, and in some cases is something you may never recover from.

I think the reason honesty is so front and centre in candidates’ minds when I ask them the question is that we’re currently living through a massive crisis of trust. It seems almost impossible to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without hearing or reading about another politician, celebrity or business which has misled us.

Volkswagen is probably the best corporate example in recent times – a company which deliberately rigged its emissions data so that it could pretend to be something it was not. In cycling, Lance Armstrong spent more than a decade deceiving us. This, in turn, has forced us to question the honesty of every cyclist and even every athlete.

Consciously or not, people are harking back to the “good old days” when honesty in business was a prerequisite rather than something to strive for. Sadly, the days of knowing shopkeepers by name are far behind us.

As family businesses have turned into large corporations, a large number have also seemed to lose sight of their values. And, as these companies acquired more and more customers, their accountability fell, and their level of honesty slipped.

I’d point to the financial services industry as the perfect example of this. Financial services companies went from serving the customer to serving themselves. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a direct result of this.

These financial institutions began wrapping their products up in so much complexity that customers didn’t understand what was really happening. To the extent where the regulator has been forced to intervene, fining these organisations more than $320 billion since 2008.

Rebuilding and reimagining corporate honesty

There are three interesting conclusions about society’s current fixation with honesty. The first is that we are re-evaluating the old bastions of trusted organisations in which the size of the organisation used to be synonymous with honesty and trust. We are looking for new sources of honesty, and we’ll probably look more to our peers than to businesses.

In future, trust won’t be built on persuasiveness (big advertising budgets shouting at us) but will be built on connectedness and communities. It’s size but in a different way. It is about like-minded people trusting each other.

Second, being totally honest and open will be the only way to win a customer’s trust. We live in a world which is so connected, and where the customer is so inherently powerful, that any shortcomings will be exposed for everyone else to see.

Finally, honesty is not just about what you say or write. It’s about who you are, and how you behave. Customers will start to judge companies like they judge people.

So, if you don’t naturally stand up, look around you and work out what you should be doing to help make the world a better place, the chances are that people (or customers) won’t want to be your friend.