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Can you just tell little business lies?

Are any of these little lies worth worrying over?

“He’s not in right now.”  “I am going to the doctor at that time.”  “I paid only two dollars a unit to your competitor.”  Whether not true and used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or whether used to gain an advantage in a negotiation, these little business lies are acceptable because they achieve their intended result without actually hurting the other party.  Right?

Wrong – in the long run, even if apparently harmless at the moment.  One problem, as demonstrated in so many movie scripts, is that you sometimes need to tell another lie to cover the first, and then another. And small lies turn into habits. And habits define the individual and often the culture of the individual’s direct world of influence.

“if a tree falls in the forest…”

What if you are never caught telling these little business lies? Is there any harm?  Sometimes you will never know that you were caught. Someone sees you at another event when you told them you were out of town.  Another asks his competitor if they really did sell to the company at such a low price. Someone you told was doing a superb job and was soon fired mentions the comment to his attorney or perhaps just as damning – to former peers still in the company.

Just one instance

[Email readers, continue here…]    It takes only one instance of being caught to cause an entire group of people to question the truthfulness of all of your statements. And that is a large consequence to come from a small business lie.

So, would you tell such white lies if you knew you’d never be caught?  Never?  That depends upon how you chose to live with yourself. It certainly is difficult to be truthful or silent but never slip into little lies.

The Scout Law and this issue

For much of my adult life, I have been affiliated as an adult volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America, happily serving youth and adopting the Scout Law as an important part of my ethical being.  Of the twelve points of that law, none state “A Scout is truthful” because there is a greater law in Scouting: “A Scout is TRUSTWORTHY.”   And that is the bottom line for all of us in business.  We should strive to be TRUSTWORTHY in our actions and deeds.  People can depend on us to be truthful and trusted.   A simple lie caught immediately or much later, belies that trust.

Can you tell little business lies?  Sure.  But should you?

  • An outcome of all this that I bemoan is when people apply a systematic “truthfulness adjustment” to statements made by a person, group or company. Examples: “Whatever date he gives you that the feature will be ready, add 90 days.”, “If competitor x calls wanting to know what our occupancy was, add 20% to anything at or below 75%”, “Whatever number units they say they’ll install next year, reduce it by 40%.” Part of this is just prudent business forecasting based on experience, but I’ve seen negotiations quickly deteriorate because each party kept applying a “truthfulness adjustment” to the other’s positions, and before long both parties lost track of what to truly expect from each other in the deal. Mutual distrust can arise seemingly out of nowhere once it gets out of control.

  • Les Spielman

    This one certainly deserves the attention it is getting. A truly great piece, Dave.

  • Jim Finnie

    Dear Dave,

    Sometimes we tell little business lies to our own self.

    The night before the Camp Fire Josie awoke and told us she had a nightmare that her kindergarten playground was on fire.
    We had all lived in basically a match factory and lied we were all thinking we were all safe and ok living in Paradise CA.

    Even the bus driver told Rebecca no reports of a problem at her school when she was put on the bus for school on the day of the camp fire
    He dropped Josie off alone, she went to the kindergarten playground as she was told everyday to do alone with fire all around until a teacher found her.
    Josie being 6 at the time didn’t realize the danger she was in with fire all around her school and being trapped on a bus on fire for about 6 hours.
    Josie was saved by another bus driver and teachers as interviewed on 60 minutes.

    It was so bad the town police 911 operator was telling people it was the sun not a fire as the town was taken.
    Nothing worse then bad intel.

    on a funny note when Trump won Josie told us he would be coming to our town. I told her why would he visit here.
    Boy was I wrong, as he walked around near my parents lost retirement house. And now Josie tells me with love for her dad her mind tells her things and how I should not laugh but listen more to her.

    The main thing was all my family made it out and were ok less a little motivation and about a year of yet another turnaround. am trying to work on that
    And as always thanks for being a customer and the distant mentoring via electronic media and book and all the great things you do.

    respectfully submitted,
    Jim Finnie

  • Peter DeForest

    I am in the business of selling analytic advice and products to my clients. They need to be able to rely upon me and the advice I give them – often I know more about a technical issue; they need to be able to trust me. So I am scrupulously honest, even in cases where it might be disadvantageous. My job is to be able to tell my client what they need to hear; what I would want to know if I was in their position.

    What has great value, takes years of hard work to create and sustain, yet can be destroyed in a minute? Your reputation.

  • Arthur Lipper


    Your stuff frequently prompts my thoughts and you have done it again.

    Of course, it is bad and never acceptable to lie and every one does, to others or themselves.

  • Thank you for this refreshing essay. Arthur Lipper forwarded it to me, with approval.

    I was a Boy Scout; guess I still am. This may be regarded as a moral weakness in these times, but I still believe that the truth is its own reward.

    Antique and naive, I know. But durable ideas have a way of returning…

  • Great topic Dave! I must admit that when we launched our startup, we disseminated a ton of white lies: number of hotels onboarded, coverage, sign-ups, etc… Till one day, I got tired of inflating everything by projecting 6 months out and told it like it was.
    I felt much better. But now that I think about it, somehow coincidentally, the sign-ups have decelerated a bit… hmmmm ….
    Not sure this is the conclusion that we were both looking for, but hey! It’s brutal honesty day! :))

  • Don Kasle

    Dave — Those little white lies can really come back to haunt the teller. Many years ago, I had a banking colleague in Kansas City (and NO — it was not me), who was asked by the President of the bank to join him for a meeting that afternoon with an important customer. Instead of just saying, “sorry, I can’t” or telling the truth about going out to play golf, he said, “Sorry, I have a doctor’s appointment.” That afternoon he played golf a bit too well, and had a hole-in-one at his country club course. That prompted the club to call the local paper to announce the happy event. The next morning on the sports page, there was the news of his hole in one. Of course the Bank President saw the article. The banker’s credibility died a quick death with the President.

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