Lies, damned lies and business

Business is full of lies. FACT.

Sometimes the lies are big, sometimes the lies are small. Sometimes the lies are inconsequential and sometimes they rock the foundations of the civilised world. But like the urban myth that you’re never more than 8 foot from a rat, in business you’re never more than one cubicle away from a lie.

And that is just the way that it is.

I’m not going to try to argue that the Nick Leeson, the Olympus Corporation, Lehman Brothers or Jérôme Kerviel lies are in any way appropriate or defendable.

But the only difference between these and the others is the size and the consequences, those that make a moral judgment would be better off looking closer to home.

Is it a coincidence that so many public limited companies come in within their stated profit targets every year? Good management or good financial management? Over perform and you run the risk of raising expectations for future years, underperform and you run the risk of your share price being devalued and your tenure being reduced.

If you release provision in a bad year to bolster the bottom line, or take bad news in a good year to managed down profits, are these really lies? Well yes, in the truest sense of the word they are. But they are universally accepted and ignored.

And in the same way how many companies that state “people are their greatest asset” would stand up at the AGM and announce,

“Profits? Shareholder return? Pah…..we’ve got great people….we rock!”

Business is full of lies.

Anyone who has ever answered the question, “Which dress do you prefer?” with a, “they both look great, but I prefer that one because it matches your eyes, not because there is anything wrong with the other one which is perfectly lovely and looks great on you in every single way…..” (you can tell I’ve practised that).  Can easily transfer this to, “you performed really well and we really enjoyed meeting you, unfortunately we need to make a decision and there were candidates who better matched the criteria for the role”.

Likewise the “bijou property with unusual features and scope for improvement” can easily become, “we are committed to the development of all our employees and helping them fulfil their career potential”.

The language of business is a weasel mix of truth and lies, correct. But it isn’t any different from any other part of society. Politicians, Teachers, Doctors, Sportspeople, Charities, Husbands, Wives, Children.  Let he is who without sin etc. etc.

It is very easy for the press, for the public, for the politicians to highlight individual failings and to find a helpful scapegoat.  Business shouldn’t be held to any higher moral standard than we would hold anyone else. We shouldn’t confuse profit-making with profiteering, we shouldn’t engage in duality or assertions of duplicity. We should be open and honest about our imperfections and the societal need for conformity and complicity.

Lies are an everyday part of our lives and in covering over this fact we are of course reasserting its veracity; an inconvenient, but inescapable truth. Just like any other context, business needs lies to survive, it needs lies to maintain balance and it needs lies to underpin its existence. But like in our social lives, like in sport, like in the church, sometimes a lie becomes so big, so grave that it causes damage, hurt and concern. The fact that in business they are reported more sensationally, doesn’t mean that they are more prevalent or indeed any worse.

Business is full of lies. Guilty as charged. But lets face it, it isn’t in the dock all alone.

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple

With all the explosive power of a damp squib, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee came and went.  Of course there was a lot of attention and a lot of talk and a lot of commentary, but the morning after are we really any better off or more informed? Are we really any closer to understanding what happened at the News of the World?

The reason that the committee was interviewing Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks is because of the serious actions that seemingly took place at the News of the World and a need and desire to understand what went wrong.  Yet from a lot of the online commentary yesterday you would be forgiven for thinking that this was more about trying to get one over and humiliate an individual media mogul, than any exploration of truth.  If you haven’t seen the witch’s scene (below) from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – it was pretty reminiscent.

In the end, what we got was a relative plausible story from the Murdoch family about how their business was run (personally I think Brooks was less convincing).  I know saying this won’t make me the most popular with many, but anyone who has actually worked in a large multi national conglomerate will know that there is an absolute requirement to devolve power and responsibility to people within the organisational structure. It is also worth pausing for thought here at the number of HR commentators that talk about devolution of responsibility and empowerment as being positive attributes – until it involves someone who they politically or morally dislike when it becomes a character flaw.

What we didn’t get was any further insight into the events that took place or indeed any revelations that would help us to better understand.  Apart from one shameful incident with an intruder and a foam pie, there was little to talk about. And in truth they were the only one to land a blow and the foam had more substance than anything else to come out of the MPs’ questioning (sorry all you Tom Watson fanboys – but he didn’t get anywhere).

As I’ve said many times before, organisations are complex and intricate.  If we genuinely want to understand the reasons behind the issues at the News of the World – to then help us understand what is also probably going on at other newspapers too and how to prevent it – then we need to take off the blinkers of preconception and start to think about how large organisations work, how cultures develop and the balance between control and leadership.  As a profession HR is perhaps best placed to lead some of this thinking.  We should be talking about the issues that really matter and considering how the insight that we have from working in businesses, might shed some light on the goings on at the News of the World.

It might be helpful, it might be developmental  and it would certainly be more productive than a peasant mass screaming for a hanging.