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INSIGHTS

Is honesty always the best policy? Some candid comments
By Robert A. Wilson |

THERE’S PROBABLY nothing that we say we want more-and for which we have such limited capacity and true affection- as candor. A friend who tells you what he really thinks will, by the next morning, become an acquaintance; by the week’s end, his card will have disappeared from your Rolodex. The most dangerous statement of all is, “Tell me what you really think.” How many relationships have been poisoned by a candid response to that request?

A friend of mine was having lunch during a noisy noontime at the Stoneleigh P. A man he knew but hadn’t seen for months approached him and said hello; then my friend thought he heard him say, “I think I’m going to get a divorce.” In a fit of supportive candor, my friend said, “Don’t worry, it’s all for the best. I’ve always thought she’s been an anchor to you. You’ll do much better on your own.” While he was saying this, my friend noticed a change in the man’s expression. His pupils had dilated; he looked grimly perplexed. It was the look of a person encountering a bad odor in a wholly unexpected place. My friend took these signals to mean that more support, more candor were needed. So he went on to say, “Believe me, you’re doing the right thing, and as a matter of fact, I’ve even seen her around town with someone else.” Now, his face white and 3 inches away from my friend’s, the man said, “What I said was, ’I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.’ ” This time my friend heard him correctly. They don’t get together much anymore.

More than a few marriages are kept together by an absence of candor and by what isn’t said. I know of one marriage of considerable durability where for a time the wife lamented that her husband didn’t share his innermost feelings. She once asked him if he loved her, and he answered, “Don’t pry.” That’s certainly a better response than “Sometimes.”

Don’t we really require-more than we will readily admit-small hypocrisies? Don’t they provide an essential level of civility for our dealings with each other? Bluntness, the gloves-off variety of candor, can so extinguish a person’s spirit that it’s left paralyzed and-maybe worst of all-suspicious of its own ideas. The saddest manifestation of this can often be seen in our dealings with our children. I know this now, but I haven’t always known it.

When they ask us how we liked their term paper or what we thought of their football game, these are the questions that are really being asked: “How much did you like the term paper?” and “How much did you like the football game?” A too-critical analysis, however accurate, can stop a kid in his tracks. Even the most gentle candor with a child can cause confidence to evaporate almost visibly. I heard of one case in which a mother felt compelled, in all candor, to tell her daughter that she wasn’t very pretty, so she had better really shine in the classroom. The girl did indeed turn into an academic star and eventually went off to college far away. She doesn’t see much of her mother these days.

I have a friend who believes that candor is a form of respectable aggression, but aggression nevertheless. When candor is used, there is no safety net. Unlike honesty, it suggests something that’s unedited and neat (as in without dilution), something like those bullets terrorists favor that explode on impact. Honesty can be abridged, but candor cannot-and that, I suppose, is its simultaneous strength and weakness. Candor enunciates truths about a subject that are often better left unstated. Candor can illuminate thoughts that might be better left in the shadows.

There is another side to this subject. It has to do with candor’s capacity for good in councils of power and influence. But candor and power are often uneasy roommates. One of the generals who was involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion told me that the saddest mistake of his career was not speaking up to the president with his reservations about the whole plan. Why? Because he didn’t want to diminish the president’s enthusiasm by striking any sour or discordant notes. The general made a big mistake, and the president made a bigger one by going ahead with the invasion. The are-you-on-the-team-or-not attitude of so many leaders makes candor seem foolhardy to those who might be moved to display it.

In executive suites, you often find a deep affection for wide moats. These moats are loyally staffed by executive assistants, secretaries and others whose jobs depend on their ability to agree and to keep candor at arm’s length. How many meetings have you attended where you have seen not bad, but horrible ideas embraced because of an atmosphere in which candor is unwelcome? It’s almost as though it’s preferable for an ill-advised course of action to become a mistake than for it to be recognized and averted at the outset by someone who has the courage to say, “That will never work, and here’s why.”

Harold Geneen, the man who put all the parts together that became ITT, formulated what he called the Inverse-Time-to-Veracity Law (you could just as easily substitute “candor” for “veracity”). Geneen’s law holds that the higher up you are in an organization, the less time you have to verify facts of greater and greater importance. You therefore have to rely more and more on everyone else’s veracity (or candor), and that, of course, can lead to debacles of undreamed proportions.

My favorite example was Dupont’s invention, Corfam, which was designed to do away with our need for leather. To me, this product represents the ultimate solution to a non-existent need. The people responsible for the product said that Corfam had a memory. They claimed that no matter how many times you wore shoes made of Corfam, the shoes would bounce back to their original shape. Dupont would have saved millions if someone had candidly said, “But don’t people like their shoes broken in?” Anyone who expects to lead well had better keep his ears open for the little voice in the back of the room that’s saying what’s on its mind.

Remember that candor, however necessary, can be dangerous. Proceed at your ownrisk.