Think You’re An Honest Person? Think Again!

I’ve been doing this personal branding thing for a long time now. For nine years I’ve been digging into people’s brains to find out what makes them tick and therefore what’s important to their brand.

When I come to the bit regarding people’s values and what it is that sets their moral compass (a very important aspect of the brand pyramid), there’s one that’s far and away the most commonly cited:


Maybe you’re someone for whom that’d be pretty high on your list too. (Which is a good thing I reckon, what with it being the best policy and all that.) But whilst the lion’s share of people know that honesty is a key value for them, it’s amazing how few have an firm answer to my follow-up question:

“So what does honesty mean for you?”

When they do scrabble around in their head for a response, the vast majority say something along the lines of, “It’s about telling the truth.” (Others talk about honesty in different ways, for example being genuine, or doing the right thing, or taking responsibility.)

That’s when I hit them with my third question:

“So do you always tell the truth?”

Out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who have answered that question, only two have ever said “Yes”. And because it’s so rare, I stress tested it by giving them various scenarios and asking what their response would be. Turns out, they weren’t lying (again backing up their claims).

For everybody else, this is the point where the caveats start coming out:

“Well, it depends on who I’m talking to.”

“Well, it depends on how the other person might take it.”

“Well, it depends on how big the issue is.”

“Well, it depends on whether it’d be detrimental to me if I said it.”

“Well, it depends on how you say it – you don’t always have to give the full truth.”

[Plus plenty more variations]

If it’s not not honest, is it dishonest?

Are these people all of a sudden discovering they’re dishonest? No. But they are finding out that honesty isn’t black and white. (Even the dictionary I have lists six different definitions.)

That’s important to realise, because if you’re going to include honesty as a central tenet of your brand and then promote that to others, you’d better be clear about what you mean. Otherwise people might buy into one thing, then think they’ve been sold a pup.

Here’s what I’m talking about…

Person A works with Person B.

One day, Person A says to Person B, “You know, honesty is really important for me,” and Person B says, “Great, because it’s a value I hold deeply too.” At that point, Person B decides they’re buying into Person A’s personal brand. They figure they can trust Person A is an honest person, just like they are, and will always tell the truth, just like they do.

Fast forward to a future meeting, where a major problem is being discussed that both Person A and Person B know is due solely to the ineptitude of Person C, who is also in the room.

Because Person B holds the value of honesty which, for them, means always telling the truth, they list the bald facts, which all point to Person C as the cause of the problem. Then Person B sits back and waits for Person A to back them up because, after all, they value honesty too.

Only Person A says very little on the matter, because their honesty comes with the caveat that they’ll tell the truth, but always with an eye on the other person’s feelings. And with Person C sitting there, they don’t want to make them uncomfortable.

In Person A’s eyes, they are being honest. In Person B’s eyes, Person A has shown their claim to value honesty is a ruse and they now can’t be trusted.

Actually, Person A wasn’t being dishonest, they just hadn’t been clear about what honesty meant in that initial discussion. But if the extra clarity had been provided from the outset – maybe they’d added to their initial comment, “Of course, I’d always take into account someone’s feelings” – their subsequent actions would have made total sense to Person B and therefore the trust that had been put in Person A’s brand would remain intact.

Think about it

So if you do consider yourself honest – and want people to buy into that as part of your personal brand – it’d be a good idea to ask yourself: so what do I mean by that?

What’s your version of honesty? And what are the caveats that come with it? Or have you been in Person A or B’s shoes and found out someone’s honesty wasn’t what you were expecting? There’s a comment box right below and I’d love you to share your views please.

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