Is the Truth too Risky?
I took woodshop in 8th grade – not because I particularly wanted to take woodshop, but because I had taken sewing the year before. I was the only boy in the class, and I was quite awkward at the time. So, suddenly woodshop seemed like a fantastic, manly idea.
The guy who taught woodshop was Mr. Furness. He was a character, to say the least. He was famous around the school for having some pretty clever sayings. Two of his sayings resonated with me. He would often say, “Sometimes the best helping hand is found at the end of your own arm,” and “A half truth is often a whole lie.” I’m sure these quotes don’t originate from him – but, boy, was he the embodiment of them. He demanded we admit our faults. Our mistakes. The error in our ways. And, yes, all this was in woodshop.
It was sort of like boot camp with the woodshop projects as microcosms for life. I think I made a skateboard, a plant holder and a small chest if memory serves right. But it didn’t matter what we were making. Mistakes would surely be made along the way. Mr. Furness was not judging our wood-working skills, he was developing our skills as human beings. He was building character.
So, fast forward many years later. I found myself at a company that could have used Mr. Furness’ class. There had been an error made by several execs (mostly C-level) on a building spec. It was for a cheap part hidden deep within the building. Was the building going to collapse? No. But it just wasn’t what the client had paid for.
The cynic in me would say, “Hey, they won’t even notice, so why go there?” But the graduate of Mr. Furness’ 8th grade woodshop in me would say, “Tell the client the truth. And do it immediately. They had paid for a much more expensive part. They deserve to know the truth.”
I wonder how many times in your career you have encountered these moments. In a life-and-death case, I think it’s easy to tell the truth. It’s black and white. It’s easy to make the honest choice. But what about the grey areas – what happens then? What happens when there is no clear-cut solution? What is the right thing to do when there is so much grey?
I convinced the company at the time to just tell the client the truth. Of course, they were not pleased – both the company and the client. It really did seem like a lose-lose situation there for awhile. But then something happened that surprised me. And it’s a lesson I carry to this day. The error became quickly forgotten and began to slowly build trust on both sides. No one felt cheated. The client knew that we were human and that mistakes can happen. And with that came forgiveness.
I wish I could tell you the company I was with learned a lesson. But I don’t really think so. I left shortly thereafter. They felt that telling the truth was just too risky. And I felt that the truth would always be safe.