Why Good People Lie - Crisis Management and Dishonesty

Recently, I had an interview with a local ecclesiastical leader. He supervises a few thousand people in several congregations in Spokane. After getting to know each other, he started asking me the prepared questions. But halfway through the interview, he stopped suddenly and looked straight in my eyes. 

“You must deal with a lot of dishonesty in your line of work,” he said.

“Yes,” I nodded. “Unfortunately. We insist that our clients be with honest with us and with others about their problems – we don’t tolerate dishonesty –  and we can’t help some people because they aren’t willing to do that.” 

He paused, thinking. And then he said, “I feel like the world is getting more dishonest, like people don’t value honesty like they used to. What are you thoughts?”

I thought about it before answering, “I think people rarely mean to be dishonest. In a crisis, they panic and confuse getting out of trouble with solving a problem. And then it just gets worse from there.”

He nodded. “And then they get in over their heads and don’t know what to do.”

“Yup.” I paused again. “Years ago, Frank got to meet this FBI agent whose job was to go interview everyone who had been convicted of espionage and ask them why they did it. By that point, they’d all exhausted their appeals, so they had nothing to lose by talking to him. He said that every one of them said the same thing: ‘I never thought it would go this far.’  It all started small, and it just spiraled out of control.”

“It’s probably silly,” he said, “but it makes me think of that movie –  Breach? About that spy… Hanssen? Like how he convinced himself that he was really doing what was best for his country and he wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

“Exactly,” I said. “We actually lived in DC while that was happening. And that’s what happens when you realize you’re in over your head. People can’t believe that they did something so wrong and big, and they’re scared, so they rationalize it. It’s like Heinlein said – ‘Man is not a rational creature, he’s a rationalizing creature.’ “

He stopped, and then he laughed. “That’s true.” And then we finished the interview.

I get this a lot. Yes, we deal with dishonesty in our work. We have a strict policy of not working with people who aren’t able or willing be honest with both us and with outsiders. I’ve never been involved in a crisis that didn’t involve someone being dishonest — with their bosses, their partners, their employees, the public, or with themselves. Crisis managers spend a lot of time breaking through the baggage that makes people scared of being honest. We’ve watched dishonesty unravel time and time again, and then had to dig into why that dishonesty started – and continued. And here’s what I’ve learned about dishonesty.

First, I don’t think the world is any more dishonest than it used to be. History has plenty of examples to back that up. I’ve never known a politician who could top Henry VIII for pure selfishness and dishonesty. During the late Victorian era, infidelity was common and accepted and aristocrats happily raised other men’s sons – as long as no one talked about it. History is full of dishonesty. Human nature doesn’t change. But we live in a different world, so dishonesty comes out in different ways than it did in the past. a century ago, presidents’ mistresses and mistakes were hushed up and they never had to go on TV to talk about their affairs. We’re more likely to find out about dishonesty thanks to the internet and 24 hour news cycle. If someone screws up, we have thousands of news sources telling us about it an hour after it happens – demonizing and vilifying them in the court of pubic opinion faster than facts can be confirmed.

I actually think that’s part of the problem. Because dishonesty starts when people forget that it’s normal to mess up — everyone make mistakes.

Seems simple, right? Everyone has misspelled a word or forgotten to use their turn signal. But some mistakes are bigger. Sometimes, we actually do something bad. Really bad. Sometimes, we break rules and hurt people and do selfish things.

And that’s when the cognitive dissonance begins. We all want to believe we’re good people. And – really – we are. But many of us subconsciously believe that good people don’t do bad things; only bad people do bad things. When someone realizes that they did a bad thing – they lied, they stole, they said something they shouldn’t have, they cheated, they hurt someone  – it completely contradicts their self-image of being a good person. They think a single bad action completely negates all of the good about themselves. How can they be a good person if they did a bad thing? 

The answer is simple, of course: good people do bad things sometimes. Doing something bad or hurtful doesn’t make you a bad person, any more than being kind to children made Hitler less of a mass-murderer.  Good people make bad choices sometimes. Human nature just isn’t that black & white.

But most people think it is – at least, they do emotionally. Even people who are extremely accepting of others’ flaws can be very black-and-white about their own. When they realize that they made a bad choice, their worldview offers only two self-image options:

1) They really are a good person, which means they didn’t really do a bad thing after all.. They decide that they made a bad choice for the right reasons, that it was really justified. Sometimes,  they acknowledge that it was bad BUT rationalize that someone else did something worse that forced them into doing it. They’re victims of circumstances, they insist, but they didn’t really do anything wrong.

2) They really are a bad person. And if anyone else found out what a bad thing they’d done, everyone would know they were living a lie and they’d lose everything. They’d never recover, they think. They have to do everything in their power and go to whatever length necessary to make sure no one ever learns the “truth” about them – that they’re lazy, selfish, and flawed.

They often vascillate between the two self-images – resulting in a cycle of lying, blaming others, and making excuses to cover up their perceived unforgivable mistakes.

At its heart, dishonesty springs from the greatest lie of all – that normal human beings only have minor flaws and never struggle with greed, jealousy, racism, laziness, or anger; that those rare struggles can always be overcome with willpower and motivation. If that’s true and you can’t completely overcome your struggles right now, you obviously must not be strong enough. It’s a horrible lie, but a lot of us tell it to ourselves every day.

Remember that people who lie rarely start lying out of greed or malice. That’s because the first lies we tell are rarely about avoiding other people. They’re about avoiding the truth about ourselves. When someone lies and rationalizes their behavior for a long time, they feel compelled to avoid or explain away any opinions or consequences that might force them to reevaluate their own actions or admit fault. They have to avoid anything that reminds them if the disconnect between who they want to be and who they are right now.

And that, in my experience, is why good people lie.

 It’s also why we fight so hard to get people to be honest with us and with others during a crisis. We are in the business of solving problems, and we know from long experience that you can’t solve a problem until you’re honest with yourself AND with others.  

That’s the most important thing I’ve learned about dishonesty and crises: that we’re all good people, and that good people lie. And that good people really CAN solve their problems once they come clean – to themselves, and to others. 

Meredith Hartley business blogger signature

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.