The Reality Gap

The higher you go in your organization the greater the risk that you will lose touch with your people. That risk has less to do with you as a leader than it has to do with with your followers. 

Positions at or near the top of an organization come with power or at least the perception of power. The people at lower levels of an organization believe that the people “at the top” have substantial control over their jobs and livelihoods. That belief drives a respect for those people at the top. I say respect but the truth is that far too often it’s not really respect, it’s fear and intimidation. 

To be clear, that fear is not necessarily driven by anything the leader says or does, it is driven by the insecurities of the people they lead. 

The best leaders are aware of those common insecurities and the behaviors they drive. One of the most common behaviors is a lack of candor. Most people are careful with the information they share with leaders at high levels of an organization. They have no interest in even appearing to “rock the boat.” 

So they withhold information that their leaders need to lead effectively. That can easily create a reality gap for the leader.

You may think you’ve done nothing to cause your people to shield you from the truth and you may be correct. But it’s not just you they shield from the truth, it’s your position. It’s kinda like having a meeting and telling people to forget you’re the boss…they can’t and won’t forget, they will always be leery about sharing real world information. 

In the worst cases they will either tell you only what they think you want to hear or they will outright lie. 

Here’s what makes this challenge so difficult to overcome: most leaders do not believe that a reality gap exists. They think they are “plugged in” to the pulse of their organization and certainly to some extent they are. The question is to what extent. A very large percentage of leaders are far less connected than they think. 

That’s why every leader, let me repeat, every leader needs at least one truth teller. Their truth teller is part coach, part confidant, and secure enough to risk the consequences of not withholding the information their leader needs. 

If you’re at or near the top of your organization then you need access to accurate, timely information. To ensure you have it you must find the people within your organization who have the confidence to tell you what’s what. 

Search out those people or that person and stay connected to them; let them be a second set of eyes and ears for you. Use them to verify the reality that you think you know. As a leader you can never have too much information. More and better information means a smaller reality gap and when it comes to gaps small is definitely big!

 

What You Don’t Know

I don’t watch a lot of television and though I really like watching 60 Minutes (A news weekly in the United States) I rarely take or make the time to see it. 

But I really enjoyed the live show on Christmas evening. I was absolutely fascinated watching Mike Wallace interview Mark Twain. I guess it was live because it was Christmas but whatever the reason it was truly amazing watching two living legends going back and forth talking about a major topic of the day.

Fake news!

One of the more profound things that Twain said was “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” 

His point was that much of what you read on the internet just can’t be believed. He also added that sadly, today it’s just not just the internet you can’t believe, sometimes even the mainstream media reports inaccurate information. Gone are the days when all “news” needed to be verified by two or three sources, now it seems more important to be first than to be right.

Hillary Clinton said recently that fake news was an epidemic in the U.S. Not only is she right but it’s not just the United States, it’s everywhere.

Some people will apparently believe anything. Did you hear about the guy that read about the same Hillary Clinton operating a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizza shop. This knucklehead went to the pizza shop with a gun to “investigate” for himself. Somehow the gun went off … I think the guy is still in jail.

I mean how crazy do you have to be to believe everything you read online?

Apparently not very crazy. 

In an article published by something called AWDNews on Tuesday December 20, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted as threatening to destroy Pakistan if it sent troops into Syria. “We will destroy them with a nuclear attack,” the article quoted Yaalon as saying. There is no evidence that Yaalon ever said those words.

Pakistan Defense Minister Khawaja Asif responded to the fake news article on his official Twitter as if it were real. He warned Israel that it was not the only nuclear power. “Israeli threatens nuclear retaliation presuming (Pakistan) role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear State too,” Asif wrote late on December 23.

Pakistan has figured out that the “news” reports were fake so the world can live a while longer.

One can only wonder what obviously fake news will be believed next.

Maybe we all need to take a step back and do what real journalists used to do… Verify all information with two or even three sources before we believe it. 

I wouldn’t believe anything I saw in the “news” until I saw it in several places. You’re responsible for what you believe, not the people making stuff up. 

With that I should probably come clean and admit I did not see 60 Minutes on Christmas night. I don’t even know if it was on.

I did not see Mike Wallace interview Mark Twain on live TV. That would have been entirely impossible because Mr. Wallace passed away sometime back and Mr. Twain passed away sometime before that.

But I’d bet a days wages that somebody is right this second searching YouTube to find that Mike Wallace/Mark Twain interview. The amazing thing is that even though the interview never took place they may still be able to find it.

Some people really will believe anything. 

The Truth of the Matter

One of the best pieces of dialogue from a movie is the famous part of “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. It’s the line where Nicholson says “You want the Truth.” 

Except he never said that. 

He never said “YOU want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

The real truth is many people have been quoting “A Few Good Men” wrong for years. Jack Nicholson actually says “You want answers?” Then Tom Cruise says “I think I’m entitled to them!” Nicholson asks again “You want answers?” To which Cruise replies “I want the truth!”

It is only then that Nicholson serves up the famous line “You can’t handle the truth!”

We don’t even know the truth around perhaps the most famous movie line about truth ever.

Leaders struggle with the truth too. They don’t, at least most don’t, struggle with telling the truth, they struggle with being told the truth. Most leaders don’t know they struggle with this because they naively believe their people trust them enough to always be truthful. 

However, given the nature of power and authority, it is actually common for people to limit the information they provide to their leaders. They might think that they are protecting themselves or a colleague from the leaders wrath…or worse. They might even think they are in some way protecting their leader but in either case it is unlikely that the leader is always getting a clear picture of what’s going on in their organization.

Many leaders may not like this, they may not want to hear it or believe it but the truth of the matter is, very often the information they receive from their people is at least “filtered” to some degree. It may even be an outright lie.

If you’re a leader who truly wants the truth from your people, consistently and bias free, then you will need to help them deliver it to you. Help them by actively seeking this kind of communication without punishing them, in any way, for the content.  

Always ask for differing opinions, encourage people to provide you the real story, ask them to trust you enough to share the truth. (Yes, one of the major reasons your people don’t tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that they don’t trust you’ll handle it well)

When I say don’t “punish” them for the content I mean don’t punish them in any way. DO NOT get defensive. DO NOT raise your voice. DO NOT tell them they are wrong. In fact, DO NOT react in any way that would give anyone the impression that you are the least bit unhappy about what you just heard. DO NOT react in any way that would give anyone any reason to believe that they could be in “trouble” for telling you the truth or having an opinion that may differ from yours.

Just say “thank you for the courage to share that with me. Let me think on that for a bit and when I have my head around it we can talk again.” 

If you want the truth then you had better be prepared to handle it. Your facial expressions, your tone of voice, and your words really do matter. 

You know that you perform better when you have better, more truthful information. You also need to know that you won’t get it if your people think it’s too “dangerous” to give it to you. If you want the truth you’re going to have to work for it. That “work” likely includes changing some of your  behavior to help your people feel more comfortable when providing the information you need to truly lead.

And that’s the truth of the matter.

 

The Lunacy of Lying

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” â€• Friedrich Nietzsche

Lies are lies. If it’s not the truth it’s a lie, no matter how much you want to believe it. When you tell a lie you damage your credibility, credibility that you need in order to lead. 

Let’s begin with some incredible research findings about deception. 

  • Humans are lied to as many as 200 times a day. 
  • Humans detect lies with only 54% accuracy. 
  • Of the lies we tell 25% are for someone else’s sake. 
  • Children begin deceiving as early as 6 months of age. 
  • Avoiding eye contact is the most presumed sign of lying around the world—even though it’s false.
  • People engaged in normal honest conversation only make direct eye contact 30-60% of the time.
  • Law enforcement officials—including FBI agents, customs agents and judges— performed no better than the average person in detecting deception.

The research suggests it’s harder to tell when someone is lying than we think it is and that around half the lies told go undetected. 

That’s all kinda bad news but it pales in comparison to this absolute truth: the lies we tell ourselves do immeasurably more harm to our ability to lead than the lies we tell others. That’s true because when we lie to ourselves, when we convince ourselves that fiction is fact, we will surely share that lie with others. 

Once you master lying to yourself you will lie to anyone, whether you intend to or not. You actually can become unsure of what the truth really is. It is possible that you don’t even consider an untruth to be a lie. Deception simply becomes a tool you use to manipulate others.

Leading people has nothing to do with manipulating them. Leading requires a relationship of sorts between the leader and the follower. When people feel manipulated they do not trust the manipulator. Absent trust, there can be no relationship. 

Not only does lying damage the ability of others to trust you, it damages YOUR ability to trust others. People who are untrustworthy have major issues trusting other people too.

The people you lead NEED to know they can believe what you say. They need to know that they can trust you. Once, yes once, you’re caught in a lie you make it much harder for your people to follow you.

But I’m betting that you don’t consider yourself a liar. You’re an honest person who maybe just “withholds some details,” or doesn’t exactly tell the “whole truth” in order to allow someone to save face. 

I get that but here’s what you need to get: The absence of truth is a lie. Withholding even part of the truth is lying. You need to be very very careful with the first lie because the first lie very often leads to telling a second lie to protect the truth from the first lie. Lying is the leading cause of more lying. 

Some people excuse themselves for lying with the statement that “the truth hurts.” Well telling someone the truth is like pulling a band-aid off quickly, telling a lie is like pulling it off slowly. The fact is, lies hurt too, they just hurt longer.

Lying is lunacy, it always burns the liar in the end. Even if no one else catches you in the lie, you know that you lied and if you’re a normal person, that in itself will eventually burn you.

Lies almost never work out, the truth almost always does….play the odds, tell the truth! 

 

Truth, Honesty and Brian Williams

If you like your insurance, you can keep it, period.

Seems like a pretty straightforward and simple sentence, but as it turned out… not so much. President Obama made that statement countless times through the past several years as he campaigned for the Affordable Care Act. I have no way to know whether it was an honest statement, but it clearly was not the truth.

Obviously, The President did not tell the truth when he made that statement, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t an honest person. He simply could have gotten it wrong. He and virtually no one else involved in the crafting of the law truly understood what it was. Everybody is still learning it’s impact even today.

Just an aside, that isn’t necessarily bad leadership, The President may have just decided to get passed what he could get passed and figured he could and would fix it later. Sometimes when we wait for perfect we end up with nothing. You can argue all you want that in this case nothing would be better than what we got but those kinds of differences of opinion are what got horse racing it’s start.

Which brings us to one Mr. Brian Williams, the anchor for a major network’s nightly news broadcast. For the last few years he has been telling the story of his time in Iraq early during the U.S. invasion. As he tells it, or told it, the helicopter he was riding in came under enemy fire and was hit by an Iraqi Rocket Propelled Grenade. He said their “bird,” as the military pilots call it made a swift and hard hard landing.

He told the story with emotion and intensity and who wouldn’t – that has to be a life experience that would never be forgotten. Or confused.

It seems the other people on the helicopter, and the other helicopters in the formation remembered those events differently. Quite a bit differently.

When confronted with the “inconsistencies” in his version of events his response was something along the lines of “oh yeah, that’s right it was the helicopter in front of us that was hit. He said he wasn’t lying it was just a simple mistake, one caused by time and the fog of battle.

I’ve never been in battle but I was robbed at gunpoint a couple of times when working in my Grandfather’s grocery store. I can still see the rifling in the barrel of the gun as it was up against the bridge of my nose. There is no way I would confuse that, there is no way the kid next to me would ever think the gun was actually against his head. No way!

There is a difference between truth and honesty. We can be honest and still not tell the truth. Being mistaken doesn’t make us a liar, it might make us incompetent but incompetence doesn’t make someone a liar either.

Brian Williams is a very competent news professional. We can’t really know if he was purposely lying. He really may have been confused, he may have actually thought he was shot down, maybe he thought he was the first man on the moon too. Or maybe he was just lying through his teeth.

There is no way to know what he was thinking but I do know which option is easiest to believe.

Which brings us to you… and all leaders.

Credibility is a fragile necessity of leadership. Credibility is required to lead and while it’s obvious that being caught in a lie can destroy it we forget that a “mistake” can destroy it too.

We don’t know what was in Brian Williams’ heart as he told his story of Iraq but as leaders we know that even if it was an honest mistake his credibility is gone. It’s way too hard for way too many people to believe it was a simple mistake. He is a person who works in the credibility business and his credibility is shot even if his helicopter wasn’t.

As a leader you are in the credibility business too, your business may not be as public as Brian Williams’ but to the people you lead your credibility is every bit as important.

Never forget, you can be an honest person and still not be telling the truth. If you’re not sure about something then say you’re not sure. When you are careless with the truth your people will soon care less about following you.

The Real Truth About Lying

The first big lie is that there are levels of lying, that lower level, little lies don’t really matter. They do matter and here’s why: lying becomes habit forming, especially those little lies you tell yourself.

They matter because little lies grow into big lies, those little lies also multiply, quickly growing beyond your control. The very first lie you tell will almost guarantee another lie somewhere down the road. The next lie is always bigger than the last but no lie is big enough to hide the truth forever, sooner or later the truth will prevail. 

Sometimes people lie to “protect” others or to “protect” a relationship but the truth is they’re likely really just protecting themselves. They can’t fully explain the truth so they just find it easier to lie. Most lies are “self” motivated, meaning you lie for yourself but you’ll never see that until you’re honest with yourself. That’s how the cycle of lying begins and once it begins it’s very hard to stop.

The truth about lying is that it’s incredibly expensive. It often costs the liar far more than it costs the person lied to. Unless of course the person you have lied to is yourself; that is the most expensive lie of all.

When you lie to yourself you steal your opportunity for success, lies take your motivation to give your best effort away. They give you permission to fail. When you lie to yourself you no longer feel obligated to accept responsibility for your actions. When you tell yourself “you’ve done all that you can” when in fact you know in your heart that you haven’t, then you steal your own opportunity to reach your full potential. 

There are no lies more damaging than the lies you tell yourself because the fact is, if you’re lying to yourself you’re lying to everyone else too. 

That doesn’t mean however that it’s okay to lie to others as long as you’re honest with yourself. Lying to anyone is damaging to your integrity. In business, in relationships, and in life there is no greater asset to have than integrity. 

Without integrity you instantly lose the ability to lead. If your people can’t trust you they won’t follow you. If your people can’t believe you they won’t believe in you. If they don’t believe in you they find it hard to believe anything you say. That makes it pretty tough to truly lead. 

When you lie you lose relationships. Real relationships, every real relationship is built on trust. That’s why when you lie to “protect” a relationship you’re almost always doing more damage in the long run. It may be easier for you in the short-term but if you really want to protect the relationship then tell the truth from the beginning. 

Not only do lies damage relationships with others, if you lie long enough and you even lose yourself. 

When you simply tell the truth, every time, you have much less to remember. There is no need to remember who you told what because you told everyone the same thing. Telling the truth sets you free from the worry of “slipping up” and having to tell another lie to hide the last one. 

One more thing for the doubters reading this: if you don’t believe you’re smart enough to be able to tell the truth without offending people then you’re most definitely lying to yourself. Set yourself free and tell the truth, you’re smart enough to do that.

How Much Does a Lie Cost?

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I was asked once how much a lie costs and I didn’t know how to answer the question. I decided to find out and began to research the cost difference between truthfulness and lying.

There is a surprising amount of research on the topic and I was pleased that by doing some relatively simple analysis I was actually able to determine the actually cost of a lie.

Clearly there is a difference in cost factor depending on the size of the lie. It’s kind of like purchasing a house, typically a bigger house will cost more than a smaller house. So it is with a lie.

I should point out for my friends around the world that my analysis was done in dollars so you’ll need to do the conversion to your currency yourself. The cost, in dollars for a small lie, the kind we might call a “white lie” was as you can imagine, pretty small, coming in at $4.13 per lie.

The amazing thing, the cost of a huge lie, a friendship breaking lie, or the kind of lie that can land you in jail is a whopping $21,843.21.

I imagine that many of you would like to know how I came up with those numbers so let me explain. I made them up… I lied!

So, you mad? Feel like a sucker? How is my credibility doing? I had you for a while, didn’t I? You’ve read a rather long way into this post, invested some time and trusted me. All that, just to be lied to.

The way you’re feeling now is the same way other people feel when you are less than honest with them. It hurts, the hurt is hard to shake. The hurt lasts, sometimes a very long time.

When you lie you damage your credibility and credibility just might be the hardest thing in the world to repair. I’d bet people would lie a lot less if there was actually a dollar cost associated with each lie. Too bad they don’t realize how much their credibility is really worth.

Here is the one absolute truth in this post….your credibility is priceless. There is no amount of money that can buy it back once it’s gone and there is nothing in the world worth trading your integrity for.

When you lose your integrity you also lose your opportunity to lead. There are clearly dishonest people in leadership positions but there are no dishonest authentic leaders.

Think about that the next time the truth seems to hard to tell.