Honesty in Business – A Stoic Experiment
by Jacob Henricson
One day I decided to stop lying. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a big liar before in my life, but I decided to – to the best of my abilities – not lie at all. I defined some borderline case rules for myself, for example, it is ok to avoid or withhold the truth, when the effects of telling it would be harmful for myself or someone else (do I look pretty in this dress?), but not to tell a direct lie, however small.
The impetus for this drastic measure came out of my interest in leading a stoic life. I started off recently, about a year ago, when my attention was caught by the simple Epictetus quote:
”Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”
That lead me to read many of the classics, and several ”stoic revival”-books, such as Jules Evans ”Philosophy for Life”. Above all, for the example on hand, I devoured ”Thoughts of a philosophic fighter pilot”, by James B Stockdale. James was shot down during the Vietnam war and endured torture for eight years before returning home a celebrated hero. He had read Epictetus before being shot down and later credited stoic philosophy for his endurance during those years. One lesson I took away from his book was this: guilt was leverage for the torturers. If you were guilty and they knew it, they would use that guilt to extract something from you. As James expressed it:
”The point, then, is to do nothing shameful, nothing unworthy of yourself. Because if you do, and you are in any way honorable, it will haunt you and corrode your will. These are simple but very true, very powerful, very important facts.”
Fast forward to my regular life. I live in Sweden and have made a career in security and risk management in companies such as Ericsson and PwC. I have been in the huff and puff of top level corporate politics for more than ten years. While not being under the power of torturers, there are similarities. I have seen good people lose their footing and morals as they climb the slippery slopes to the top. I have seen good people corrupted by money and power to the point where they can no longer distinguish between their self interest and those of their fellow humans or even the company they work for.
You would think that making a lot of money and having a lot of power makes you less vulnerable and more independent. In my experience the exact opposite usually happens. As your income and prestige grows, you develop more expensive tastes. A small house is no longer enough. Wine at a low price suddenly becomes undrinkable. Before you know it you have become dependent on an income which is much higher than what you would get from most other jobs. I’ve heard it called ”the golden cage”. And as research from among others Daniel Kahneman shows, it is much more painful to step down from a privileged position than it is enjoyable to climb up. You are trapped. Epictetus again expressed it best:
‘And who is your master? Whoever has authority over anything that you’re anxious to gain or avoid.’
All of a sudden your boss, your shareholders, your customers become more important than those closest to you: your spouse, your children, your parents. They will have to wait in line because you have to please the people that control your income and your social status. But why did you climb to the top in the first place? For me, and I think for many others, it was a combination between having an exciting challenge at work, and providing for my family. But if I was asked what was most important to me, I would say my family. I think most people would.
That dependence can make you do things you rather wouldn’t have. We have all seen examples in media of top executives who have misused their power for personal gain. But even lower down the chain you are often pressured to stand behind things you do not believe in. For example, your budget is cut in half while you are still expected to deliver the same result. You know that it will put unreasonable pressure on your staff and you do not stand behind it. So what do you do? Most managers will challenge the decision, but few are ready to back up their challenges with concrete action (such as resigning) and will ultimately bow to the decision and embrace it as their own (because anything else would be unacceptable in the hierarchy of things). Sometimes this goes to extremes, when the corporate culture is broken. The case that most clearly comes to mind is Enron.
When you have lied, you are part of a system you deplore. You can no longer blame your boss or your colleagues for the way things turn out. You cannot say that you were ”forced” to do it, because nobody can force you to do anything, and besides, that never sounds very good in media. You have to live with your own guilt, and that makes you more susceptible to future pressure.
So, here my ”no-lies-policy” comes into play. I decided to try it out to see if it would work and if it would change anything. As a summary of the ”experiment” I can say that it has made my life more cumbersome short term as I have to think through my answers carefully. Instead of saying ”I can’t join the dinner tonight because I’m not feeling well”, I have to take the time to explain that I need some time with my wife and kids, or that I simply do not feel up to it, in a friendly way. But by and by, it has proven to be a fantastic way of getting respect and sleeping well at night. I do not have to keep track of what I said to whom, and I am never afraid of being called out with a white lie.
The true test of my policy was when I resigned from my job, but was asked to keep it secret for three weeks. I could not even tell my closest friends at work and had to resort to enigmatic smiles when asked about future prospects. It was tough, but ultimately I felt better having both kept my word and spoken the truth (or at least not lied).
And above all, I’ve met with respect. Sometimes I have been more blunt to people than I would have before, but in the end it seems that the people around me value me more as a ”man of my word”, meaning that I will not always have an opinion, but when I do, they know that it is truthful, and straight from my heart. And that has made me decide to make the experiment permanent, and recommend it to everybody else in the world.
To end: a quote I picked up from Reddit, it was written as grafitti on an abandoned house:
‘Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes’
Jacob Henricson, CEO and Partner, Fronesis
Jacob Henricson is a speaker and advisor on a range of topics including risk management, cybersecurity, organizations and crisis management. Jacob also tinkers with stoicism, parenting and humor but is in no respect an expert in those areas.