by Achim Nowak

The Case For Telling The Truth

October 15, 2023

We live in times when political leaders habitually lie, what a business executive says often sounds like PR spin, and social media can twist anything into something that it’s not.

Does anyone tell the truth anymore? Does is actually pay to tell the truth?

Let’s contemplate our everyday choices. When someone asks you a direct question about something potentially embarrassing, what are you inclined to do? Tell the truth? Withhold information?

It depends, you might say.

Huhmmm. There is a fine line between not telling the truth and lying, between revealing and concealing, isn't there?

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary art.”

George Orwell

There are, at times, strategic reasons why a leader will not tell everything they know. Here, however, are some findings on the matter of truth-telling by Leslie K. John, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (“Tales of two motives: disclosure and concealment.” John, Stepian and Tamir, Current Opinion in Psychology 2020, 31).

These findings compellingly support the work of Brene Brown, modern leadership guru on the power or vulnerability. They also match what many of us, on a gut level, know to be true but find difficult to vigilantly practice.

John’s research, via a series of 7 compromising scenarios, divides folks into “revealers” and “hiders.” Down the line, revealers fared better than hiders. They did so in startling ways.

In a Job Interview

Consider a job interview situation. Research participants were made to choose between two candidates who were asked, “What is the lowest grade you ever received on a final exam in school?” The hider checked “choose not to answer” while the revealer indicated a grade of F.

The researchers found that 89% of participants would hire the revealer over the hider, even though when asked, they guessed the numerical grade of the hider was likely higher than that of the revealer.

On a Date

126 participants were asked to choose who they would rather date based on two potential candidates’ answers to a questionnaire that included items such as “Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about a STD you are currently suffering from?” and “Have you ever had a fantasy about doing something terrible (i.e. torturing) to somebody?”

John found that 64% of people said they would rather date someone who responded “frequently” to those questions; just 36% said they would rather date the person who checked “choose not to answer.”

That, to me, is crazy, John said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. The preference for someone who divulges information is so strong that people actually prefer someone that they know has the worst values as an attribute over someone who only in the worst-case scenario is that bad. 

We yearn for folks who’re telling the truth, even if the truth isn’t pretty.

Every Day At Work

John’s research examines situations in which we are asked a direct question. The implications of her findings, however, transcend this narrow construct. Of course - it behooves us to NOT run around and indiscriminately self-discloseYes, context matters. But it is imperative that we stay mindful of the implications of not disclosing.

In case of doubt, tell the truth.

  • When you’re having a difficult conversation with someone, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re facing a tough work challenge, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re not up to performing a certain task, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re experiencing challenges in your personal life, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re asked to state your opinion, tell the truth.

If telling the truth involves thoughts about another person, tell without hurting the other. But be a revealer, even if your revelation creates a bit of discomfort for you. Considered self-revelation is a WIN. It makes us more appealing. It makes us more trustworthy. Hiding gets us nothing. It simply buys time.

When people are forming an opinion of you and you care about that opinion, you may be prone to withholding information, John elaborates. But in fact, you would make a better impression if you came clean and divulged it.

Telling the truth invariably tends to feel better, doesn’t it? So, go ahead, take the risk.


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