Thursday, October 22, 2009

Truth in Business

What is it about business and the corporate world that makes me feel I need to hide the truth? It seems my company is always ‘selling’ the good points about a product, service or people, and ‘hiding’ the bad. Why is the ‘bad’—for example a lack of skills, knowledge or experience—a problem? Everyone has to start somewhere: even those of us who have been working for a long time are still learning.

The need for truth in business was really impressed on me during my first major external project. At the time, our team had dwindled in size from about 14 members to six, and we were expanding our information development practice into a broader user experience practice. So, the primary skills in our team related to technical writing rather than usability.

Yet I was assigned to the project and introduced as the ‘usability expert’. My usability experience comprised a three-day course in usability testing, a couple of week-long projects evaluating the usability of some Web pages, and an intuitive feel for what is usable and what is not. Our client had a history of conducting usability testing: an established team of usability specialists, defined testing processes and the facilities and equipment required to run testing sessions. I was to work with my client counterpart to plan, develop and execute the usability testing but I was to assume the lead role, and the responsibility, for the deliverables and the costs.

On meeting my counterpart he informed me that he was resigning and, with no immediate replacement, I was expected to take on the sole responsibility for the testing. I struggled to meet the project requirements, working long hours to research usability techniques and meet the deadlines, but it became apparent to the client that I was inexperienced. One major problem was finding people to help with the testing. Usability testing requires people to observe and record participants' comments, facilitate the test sessions and, in the case of paper prototypes, act as the ‘human computer’. The client expected our company to have people available to help because our sales team had advised that we “had a team of 14 usability specialists”. My initial, “What!?”, was probably not how my company would have liked me to respond.

The constant need to ‘live up to the client's expectations’ caused a lot of stress, a lot of sleepless nights, and was personally demoralising. The experience is one samskara that still cuts deep into my psyche and stirs up a lot of emotions when it surfaces.

So, truth or satya at work became an important value for me. But what does practising satya mean? Satya is one of the yamas (self-restraints). Rather than a strict rule (“You must not tell a lie”), it can be seen as a consideration or filtering of what we do and say.[1] In my yogic studies course, we learnt that satya was telling the ‘kind truth’: a balance of knowing when to speak the truth and when to be silent to ensure ahimsa (non-violence). An example given in the article Let's Be Honest is that of a family lying to the Gestapo to protect a Jewish child. It is a situation when “a small lie [is told] for a larger truth”.[2]

An article on principles for telling the truth in business also notes that truth can be a perception: what is true for us might not be true for others.[3] Our truth is based on our observations and our experience. So, was my perception of a ‘usability expert’ correct? Did the client have a different perception of that role? Did they have different expectations?

When the truth was known, it brought me a lot of relief. The client assigned an experienced specialist to help me and I learnt so much from her. In the end, my company re-evaluated the proposed solution, advised the client that the solution was not going to meet their requirements and an amicable (I believe) agreement was reached to terminate the project. But while the company experts were re-evaluating the solution, the current project members had to continue to work as if the proposed solution was fine even though it was becoming increasingly obvious that it wasn't.

To me, truth is related to an openess and transparency that leads to trust. Maybe truth and openess are not the same concept but I feel that hiding the truth generates a toxic atmosphere of mistrust and negativity. Or so it seems on my current project.

My friend and I are currently working for an IT team within our company. Their ‘client’ is another team, also within our company. My friend is writing a user guide for an application developed by the IT team. At her first meeting, the client asked her whether she’d found any problems and she truthfully replied that she had. After the meeting the IT project manager reprimanded her because “she shouldn't be telling the client about problems with the application”. We are also asked to bill at least 8 hours a day even if we work less than 8 hours. Otherwise the IT project manager will need to explain to the client at the end of the month why the hours billed was less than the hours planned. Mind you, it's not a problem if we work more than 8 hours to bill more than 8 hours! I can only assume that these lies are to prevent confrontations with the client. However, the lies seem to contribute to the tensions between the two teams and my friend and I are continually tip-toeing along a narrow fence that separates the teams, only to find outselves toppling off to the chagrin of one of the teams.

So, is incorrectly recording our hours a problem? To me it is. I feel like I'm not giving the client what they ‘paid’ for.

Does it harm them? No. The client expects to ‘pay’ for 8 hours a day and they are getting billed for 8 hours a day. But if they knew, would they be pleased? What damage would the truth do to the fragile relationship between the teams?

Does it harm me? Yes. It is causing me mental stress. I'm keeping a spreadsheet of actual hours against billed, and working longer hours to try and make up the shortfall. But is that stress really related to my attachment to value and quality? Should I practise non-attachment, accept that I need to bill 8 hours, and then do the best I can without trying to cram more hours in a day?

Practising satya is not easy. Part of the practice involves confronting the falseness in ourselves and recognising the motives behind why we act a certain way or say the things we do.[2] Why do we lie? Is it to protect someone or ourselves? Avoid conflict? Show ourselves in a better light?

Satya comes from the root, sat meaning ‘being’ and in practising satya we are trying to discover that true being, that core part of us that is unchangeable and permanent.[2]

Every day brings new challenges. However, I believe that the honesty I've displayed at work has led to trust, respect and strong relationships. And, more importantly for the business, ongoing work.


  1. To Tell the Truth, Judith Hanson Lasater
  2. Let's Be Honest, Sally Kempton
  3. The Top Ten Principles for Telling the Truth in Business Relationships, Laurie Weiss
I also found the following article interesting: Truth in Business by Kristen Zhivago.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments for posts older than 14 days will not immediately display. These comments are reviewed before they are published for public display.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...