Telling the truth is the lubricant for good business

4th September 2023

Warren Bennis is quoted as saying that “trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work”. Without trust, business becomes a laborious and inefficient effort to protect one’s interests.

You learn to trust me over time when I keep my promises, pay what I owe, invoice only for what I have supplied, provide the very best product or service that I can even when you are not watching, and show that I have your best interests at heart. Trust is a product of consistent integrity. It’s the best long-term marketing tool and a wonderful recruitment agent for the best talent.

Paradoxically, trust is underpinned by clear, enforceable contracts. Good fences make good neighbours, and clear contracts make good business partners. The outer sanctions of law-enforcement and social opprobrium for dishonesty, and the inner sanctions of conscience and generosity feed each other and create a culture in which business can thrive. Trust is an underrated component of good business. It complements rather than contradicts competition.

Those of us who believe this have a duty to talk about the need for integrity in creating trust. We cannot allow media and conversations to be dominated by stories that “everyone does it” when referring to dishonesty and self-interest. Without doubt there is far too much dishonesty and corruption in business, but it is not true that “everyone does it”. In the companies I am involved in, the only sure way to be fired is to act dishonestly. We haven’t had to fire anyone for some years now, and what a pleasure it is to work together in warm, supportive and highly effective teams of trustworthy colleagues.

There have of course always been crooks in business and there always will be; but I fear the trend now may be towards less honesty and more corruption. One major contributor to this trend is that lies have come to taken for granted in the very visible realm of international affairs and government. That is an appalling attack on society. Presidents and rulers and mayors have always told lies, but we all knew they shouldn’t. So they had to be very careful to hide their lies and mostly they had to be honest.

Not today. Lying has become a virtue. Ex-president grumpy Trump is known by everyone as a total liar. Yet he is again a serious candidate for their next election. Russian President Putin straight-facedly says his invasion of a smaller independent country was his enemies’ fault. The closing declaration of last week’s BRICS meeting “reaffirmed” its commitment to “ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” Wow. That comes from a community that includes Russia and China and has just admitted six new members including autocracies known for repressing women, jailing journalists and executing dissidents. It is self-evidently a lie.

The only reason we pay attention to anything almost any world leader says is to decipher what they are signalling about their own interests. That is no foundation for trust.

I wish our country’s politicians would speak the truth, whether to East or West, North or South. We would admire them so much more. When Nelson Mandela based foreign policy on principles, South Africa’s standing was at its highest and most nations wanted to do business. One can work with everyone and remain neutral without agreeing with their lies. The current lot let silence take sides.

As business people let’s tell the truth to each other and to politicians. We can label lies as lies forcefully while being polite and respectful, as our aim should not be to score cheap points, but to build a better society and stronger economy. It’s our duty to our grandchildren to be that example.

Jonathan Cook, a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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