Being Honest

By Deb Basarich, Full-time UST MBA Associate Director of Student Life


I was once asked in a job interview “When is it OK to lie?” I’ve often thought about this question and have asked it to others. The answers I receive vary, but I’ve found most people can identify a time when it’s OK to lie. A recent post by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network entitled “Do People Really Want You To Be Honest?” makes me wonder – do they?

Peter suggests that we often “position messages to gain buy-in from others” or to “present things in a light that we think will make it easier for others to accept.” By doing this are we protecting someone else’s feelings or are we really just protecting our own? Have there been times where we may have tweaked our answer in order to make our answer seem less rude or make it more acceptable?

“People know the truth. They can sense it. And even if they are momentarily fooled, they won’t be for long because other people won’t be fooled and they’ll all talk. If not in person, then on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or some Google group.”

Peter goes on to say that we do this because it takes a great amount of courage to be honest. Being honest can make you feel vulnerable and that’s uncomfortable. So how does this work if you’re a manager and put in this situation? One of Peter’s clients wanted to know what differentiated successful managers from unsuccessful ones so they surveyed the direct reports of new managers with MBA degrees. The results showed that the #1 behavior of the best managers was “asking for help from their employees”.

“So, yes. People want you to be honest with them, even if you're a leader and honesty means exposing yourself as a little intimidated, or shy, or unsure. That kind of vulnerability doesn't alienate; it attracts. It makes us approachable. It allows people to identify with us, to trust us, and to follow us.”

So how did I answer the interview question? My immediate response was “never.” It came out so fast I couldn’t stop myself or even try to come up with a different answer. I then tried to retract, but that just made me fumble and it went downhill from there. I then asked if I would be required to lie in this position. Her answer surprised me. I contacted her the next day to withdraw my application, much to her surprise.

I still think about that question on a regular basis. How would you answer it?