My wife Eleanor and I were walking up a mountain road, enjoying a rare moment of being alone together. As we rounded a bend, we saw a friend, Nancy,* not too far ahead. When we caught up with her she suggested we walk together.
I've known Nancy for 35 years. We're close friends and both Eleanor and I love spending time with her. But, in that moment, we didn't want to walk with her. We wanted time to ourselves.
We also didn't want to slow to her pace. Which is the excuse we used, explaining that I wanted to keep my heart rate in an aerobic zone. It was true and, somehow, felt less offensive than saying we wanted to be alone.
But when we met her on the way down and she offered to descend with us, our exercise excuse didn't hold up since pace wasn't an issue going downhill. Still, we reasserted the excuse, and started hopping and skipping to keep our heart rates, and appearances, up.
We failed on both counts. We couldn't skip downhill fast enough to keep our heart rates up and she knew it was an excuse. She was left feeling we were avoiding her and we left feeling dishonest.
Why didn't we just tell her we wanted to spend some time alone? She surely would have understood.
The easy answer is that we were trying to preserve her feelings. But the real answer is that we were trying to preserve our own. We didn't want to feel mean or rude. And the real, real answer is that we didn't want to feel her judgment or disapproval of us for being mean or rude. Which, of course, backfired.
After that encounter, I did some soul searching. How often do I say things that aren't completely true in order to make someone — usually myself — feel better? How often do I subtly — or at least I think subtly — position things so they appear in a better light?
Unfortunately, the answer is often. And I see this in organizations all the time. We position messages to gain buy-in. We present things in a light that we think will make it easier for others to accept. Maybe we don't outright lie, but we gently massage the truth to make it more acceptable, more likely to be embraced.
And then, like Eleanor and me on our walk, we expend a tremendous amount of energy to keep up a ruse that fools no one.
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.
Even though we know that, we still try to make things seem different than they are because it takes great courage to be honest. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable.
Here's the crazy thing: honesty is much more compelling, powerful, and effective than the alternative. People want the truth. They are willing to accept it far more often than we think. And they respect other people and organizations for speaking it.
But what if the truth is that you're a leader who isn't sure what to do in a given situation? Do people really want to know that?
One of my clients, a large financial services firm, wanted to understand what differentiated successful new managers from unsuccessful ones. So they surveyed the direct reports of new managers with MBA degrees. The number one behavior that distinguished the best managers? 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.
The day after our walk, Eleanor and I saw Nancy and told her the truth. That yes, we wanted to keep our heart rates up, but mostly we just wanted to reconnect with each other, alone.
Nancy laughed and said that she had guessed that and of course she understood. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
*Names and some details changed
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.