To Thine Own Self Be True

Some time ago, a Columbus, Ohio financial services firm conducted a study of two hundred clients with excess capital of at least one million dollars to invest.

They were asked to identify the most important characteristics that they would seek in an investment representative, and to prioritize them in the order of importance, from the top down.

Then, the same question was asked of two hundred Registered Representatives (RRs). The results were astounding. The RRs identified the exact same characteristics! But here is the kicker: when asked to prioritize them in the same way the clients did, the RRs put them in the exact reverse order!

The RRs believed that the Rate of Return (“Here’s what you will get back on your investment…”) as most important characteristic to “selling” a client, while the actual clients rated trustworthiness as most important! High net worth clients felt that the return of their money trumped rate of return on their money.

High net worth clients felt that the return of their money trumped rate of return on their money.

Trustworthiness and Honesty

Perhaps there is no more fundamental ethical value pertinent to trustworthiness than honesty. We associate honesty with people of honor, and we admire and rely on those who are honest. But honesty is a broader concept than many may realize. While it involves both what we say and what we do, it starts with what we think.

Honesty in what we say is expressing the truth as best we know it, without any attempt to mislead or deceive. According to ethics author and expert Michael Josephson, there are three dimensions to honesty:

Truthfulness. Truthfulness is focusing on facts as we know them, with a clear intent to present the facts in that light. Being wrong is not the same thing as lying, although honest mistakes can still damage trust insofar as they may show poor judgment.

Sincerity. Sincerity is genuineness; being without trickery or duplicity. It shows we care. When you are sincere, you are up front, and will not create beliefs or leave impressions that are untrue or misleading.

Candor. In relationships involving legitimate expectations of trust, honesty may also require candor, forthrightness and frankness, imposing the obligation to volunteer information that another person needs to know (but may not wish to). Here again, this is where being honest with those we love can be extremely difficult.

Honesty in what we do is following the rules, and doing what is right.

One point that Josephson makes: Not all lies are unethical, even though all lies are dishonest. Occasionally, dishonesty is ethically justifiable, as when the police lie in undercover operations or when one lies to criminals or terrorists to save lives. But don’t kid yourself: occasions for ethically sanctioned lying are rare and require serving a very high purpose indeed, such as saving a life—not hitting a management-pleasing sales target or winning a game or avoiding a confrontation.

How we are Dishonest

Dishonesty can be delivered in a variety of packages. Sometimes, we are dishonest without realizing it—simply because we may not be telling a flat out lie. For example, we are dishonest when…

We exaggerate. Perhaps this is among the most popular form of dishonesty, not through telling outright lies, but in overstating the truth. How often have you found yourself using words such as “always” or “never” when those words really didn’t apply? How often have you found yourself making unfair, sweeping generalizations about people or situations? Have you ever over- or understated the seriousness of a situation to mislead another, or have a greater albeit unwarranted impact?

We flatter. Hence the age-old saying, “Flattery will get you everywhere.” Really? And at what cost? Have you ever given another person insincere praise (i.e. brown-nosing, sucking up, etc.)? Or perhaps you have praised another person simply to get them to like you?

We mislead. When we mislead, we might tell ourselves that what we say may be true, but we say it in a way, or leave out other critical information, that creates a false impression or understanding on another.

We jump to conclusions. Have you ever failed to “get the full story” before reaching a conclusion you already had in your head? How about instances when we leave out critical information from another, with the intent to influence that person’s conclusion?

We deceive. We can deceive others not just by saying something that isn’t true, but allowing others to do so and remaining silent. In those circumstances, we lack the courage to speak up for what we believe is right, or correct.

We are disloyal. How many times have we found ourselves talking about other people behind their backs? There is a psychological kick we sometimes get when we do that, especially when it is about someone of whom we are not very fond. But what does that say to others when they hear us talking about someone else? What are we telling people about ourselves?

We flip-flop. This is not just a form of dishonesty, but it also shows that we lack integrity and courage. Flip-flopping is changing your position or stance on something simply to win over whomever you are talking with at the time.

Review these points honestly to yourself. Where do you stand? None of us can plead not-guilty! The question is: Where do you go from here? What can you do to avoid these forms of dishonesty in the future?

I suggest a simple first step: accept your own humanity and imperfection. Accept those times when you know you have not measured up, and be honest with yourself. In the timeless words of Polonius:

“And this above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day—thou canst not then be false to any man.”

—William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Act I, Scene III

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