Always Speak the Truth

“A lie is not the absence of truth, but the illusion of truth.”

Bishop Harber

I just read Sam Harris’ Lying. It’s a short and insightful read for anyone who wants an incredibly clear eyed view on the ethical, personal and societal ramifications of lying.

It’s clear from the beginning that he has a low tolerance for lying within the context of his life. A quick search of his blog brings up a post titled The High Cost of Tiny Lies. In it he states, “We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust.”

Lying Defined

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states: To lie is to make a believed-false statement to another person with the intention that the other person believes that statement to be true. (LINK: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

L1 is the traditional definition of lying. According to L1, there are at least four necessary conditions for lying.

  1. Lying requires that a person make a statement (statement condition).

  2. Lying requires that the person believe the statement to be false; that is, lying requires that the statement be untruthful (untruthfulness condition).

  3. Lying requires that the untruthful statement be made to another person (addressee condition).

  4. Lying requires that the person intend that the other person believe the untruthful statement to be true (intention to deceive the addressee condition).

There are ways of telling the truth that aren’t harmful. Often we think of those who are honest as brash, loud and obnoxious. Those who will tell a “white lie” as being sensitive and more socially attuned.

I would argue the opposite.

Those that are ethically driven to always be truthful will not lie to spare feelings but are incredibly socially adept at choosing words that are both honest, clear and kind. They are often more insightful to the toll that a lie can take, knowing it creates a false sense of reality, the one being lied to has a limited number of actual choices once they accept the lie as reality.

“By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.” Sam Harris

If our objective is to help, not harm the person in the short or long term, it’s more helpful to tell the truth as you see it. That distinction is important, as I believe “truth” can be obscured by “morality”, which refers to behavior that aligns with our customs or society. Lying and deception is tied closely to Ethics, which is behavior that is considered right or wrong based on our own beliefs, regardless of culture or society.

I’ve found people often use their moral code as a means to justify their unethical behavior. “I couldn’t tell her the truth, it would have crushed her. I can’t be the reason she’s in pain, my job is to protect her.” is not a moral reason for lying, it’s your justification for taking the easy way and, in turn, removing her ability to make an informed decision about the direction of her life.

Lying in the Field

Let’s take an instance onsite that I’ve experienced. A smaller contractor is struggling with a job that’s too large for his/her crew. It’s straining all of their resources to the point of breaking. The contractor is giving their all and trying their hardest to make it work. When questioned by the crew as to the sustainability of the project, the owner generally says that “everything is fine”.

In this case the owner is lying to themself and to the crew.

The lie they are telling themselves is that they can handle everything, which is false (no one can handle everything). This false persona they have created in a moment of extreme stress will not serve them. They now have to bolster this false reality with a number of subsequent lies to maintain the deception. These falsehoods generally focus on “everyone” being out to get them, no one understanding how hard it is to operate a company, etc, etc. Mentally they back themselves into a corner with no easy or graceful way to get out.

Lacking resources to complete a job is not a moral lack, it’s a lack of physical resources. This is a mistake I see in business often. We equate tangible resources as a reflection on our reputation . Because you lack resources does not automatically mean you lack moral fortitude. People often conflate the two.

It often means that you started without being aware of what was truly needed or that resources were not replenished when expected, you are spread too thin. This happens. It sucks, but it doesn’t make you a bad person.

It becomes a lie when you hide the lack of resources and you create a false reality and sense of security for those around you. When the owner turns to the crew and says “Everything is fine” is when they have crossed the line.

With this false reality the owner now carries a weight that was non-existent until he created it, and, sadly, creates a lie that needs to be reinforced over and over again.

Now the crew can’t make plans that would safeguard their own families. If the owner was honest:

  1. The crew could find different positions with different companies

  2. The Prime Contractor could find someone else to complete the job

  3. The owner could go back to the drawing board on what it actually takes to own a construction company, including harnessing the resources it actually takes to ensure things move forward without running into the same issue. Trying again with a wiser and broader outlook on what it takes to sustain a successful company.

Failure is a necessary part of success and you often have to fail over and over before you are finally successful.

Being honest about where you on your journey goes a long way towards instilling trust in yourself, your crews and your partners.

“I have yet to find a good reason to lie. Lying in a sense implies that you either want to gain something by deceit or that you know what is best for the person and have the right to impose that on him.” Sam Harris

Frank Appraisals

“We are often tempted to encourage others with insincere praise. In this we treat them like children - while failing to help them prepare for encounters with those who will judge them like adults.” Sam Harris

We often see this in our Capacity Building Initiatives. When I am working with a small contractor (under $1M in capacity) it’s not helpful for them to hear about contracts of over $5M. Often when aware of a $5M job they do not want to hear about working with a CM or GC to break larger projects into chunks or subbing out part of the job and building up to a $1.5M project before moving to a $2M project.

It’s not fast enough for some, but this is how we are structured because it’s the right way, not the fast way.This honest feedback is often enough to send them into one of two camps; they either decide that our initiative isn’t for them or they conform to the ugly truth of the slow slog to the top.

Those that are ready to climb the mountain get more of our attention and are able to sustain growth for longer periods of time. This in turn creates trust with GC’s and Developers as they search for qualified WMBE Subcontractors to help build their projects.

Telling the truth is often the harder route. Respecting someone enough to tell them when they are coming up short can be difficult, but what I’ve found is that once it's returned, it can create a beautiful cycle of growth. Instead of making excuses for each other, you are suddenly being held accountable. Telling the truth is the kindest thing we can do for one another, even when it’s hard.

When what you say, what you believe and what you do align you find a beautiful clarity.

What would our industry look like if everyone worked from the concept of integrity and frank candidness, instead of hiding behind 500 page legal documents? What if a small contractor was able to be transparent about what they could actually perform and the GC helped to shore up the gaps? What if developers flocked to engage with a GC specifically because of this radically honest approach?

How would this change smaller contractors' ability to grow? How many more small businesses would be seeded?

We are working to find out.

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