Making a case for more candor at startups
In an age where seemingly everyone in the startup community now blogs, tweets and leaks his or her news, stretching the truth has become de rigueur. But Iâd argue that itâs creating distrust; itâs also distorting the way that founders, the real engine of Silicon Valley, see the world.
What can be done about it, if anything? Recently, I asked neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris, whose new Kindle essay, âLying,â explores our fundamental inclination to lie and self-promote. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Q: In your essay, you say your interest in lying was piqued as a Stanford freshman in a popular ethics course. What was so life-changing about it?
A: The course is surprisingly simple in its format and content. Basically, 10 people sit around giving (professor) Ron Howard â a pioneer in management science â examples of lies they think worth telling, and he just shoots them down. You learn the really poisonous role that lying plays, and that the lies you think people are justified in telling have hidden costs that most people find quite unacceptable at the end of the day. He teaches the course every year and I know many Stanford graduates in tech have been influenced by it.
Q: Thatâs interesting to hear, given that so many startups continue to operate in shrouded secrecy, or else they exaggerate some aspect of their business.
A: Well, secrecy on its own is a phenomenon that can be maintained without deception. You can ask, âHow much money do you have in your bank account?â And I can truthfully tell you that I donât want to say. Whatâs deceptive is when a company pretends not to have secrets, or it withholds important information. Thatâs a problem.
Q: Do you think businesses need to abide by the same ethical codes as people?
A: Many people think itâs ethically justified to have two, distinct ethical codes: one for the way they treat their friends and family and another that applies to business relationships and customers. Itâs a problematic practice, and it becomes this engine of embarrassment and misbehavior.
Think of going into a store, where the salesperson tries to sell you something. But the moment they learn that youâre friends with their cousin, they tell you not to buy the thing theyâve just recommended to you. Subtly, or even grossly, their behavior changes, but thereâs something really unseemly about that. It punctures your trust in the person.
Q: In Silicon Valley, many companies depend on spin to get from one financing round to the next, or one customer win to another. Is that so terrible?
A: There are so many costs to a culture of spin. Itâs kind of a situation of mutually assured destruction, where you have this arms race of good news, and the price you pay for being candid about your missteps or problems on the horizon is that everyone will turn to your competitor â who will be busy lying about whatâs happening on their side.
So the price is high. Yet the fact that we know everyone is spinning builds cynicism to the point where people are pricing in the possibility of peopleâs deception.
Q: Whatâs the case for people to change their behavior?
A: Thereâs a real power to simply being honest in a context where many people are so often dancing around the truth. Thereâs an integrity that comes with that, even if the reward for having integrity isnât always immediate.
Steve Jobs came out and told people how sick he was (and Apple shares never nosedived). Meanwhile, people can lose a tremendous amount of money when CEOs are deceptive where they can be.
Another aspect to spin to keep in mind: When people donât have good information about reality, they think their difficulties are theirs alone. Take the culture of spin around parenthood and motherhood. We had our first child 2.5 years ago, and while obviously, people complain about being parents, most people tend to conceal a lot of the details about just how hard the experience is, beginning with the delivery. So you can think: Why is this happening to me? Youâre isolated in your stress when people arenât giving you good information.
Q: OK, a random example: What do you say to the startup that has five employees but a couple of major customers that have been led to believe itâs far larger?
A: Thatâs a high-wire act thatâs likely to end in a great fall, because if youâre pretending one thing about your business, and the truth can be found out one way or the other, the disparity will make you look bad. Besides, if youâre providing value, itâs easy to make the truth look good because the truth is good. If you have five employees and you have something good to offer your clients, you probably have five incredibly productive people working for you, or else youâve automated a particular practice. Either way, five employees who seem like theyâre doing the work of a hundred should be a selling point.
Q: Whatâs a classic thought experiment that you like to use?
A: You go to a garage sale and you see someone selling something for a dollar â say a book â that you know to be worth $10,000. Do you buy it for a dollar, then turn around and sell it and feel good about yourself? From a business point of view the answer is probably yes. But if you knew the person was a friend of a friend, you might feel like that relationship precluded you from profiting off his or her ignorance.
Most people, when they think about it, conclude that the truly ethical solution is to say, âThis is truly valuable and you shouldnât be selling it for a dollar.â And the truly ethical thing for the other person to say is, âI had no idea, but now Iâm going to sell it for what itâs worth, and Iâm going to cut you in for half.â Everyone walks away happy there; thatâs a real business. But the zero sum alternatives are the state of nature.
Q: Which is the inescapable problem, isnât it â that weâre just sort of wired to lie in certain situations, even if theyâre lies of omission?
A: Weâve developed a strong ability to deceive others and a poor ability to detect deception in others, and the cost of both is huge. Meanwhile, the commitment to telling the truth is purifying in many ways. Youâre often humbled to discover what the truth is, and that you can be a better person.
Q: How do you do it, practically speaking? And â tell the truth â does anyone dare ask you what you think anymore?
A: You can train people to know who you are. And yes, if people donât want [unvarnished] information from me, presumably they donât ask.
Itâs not that I havenât told a lie in 25 years; I have. But for the most part, theyâve been lies that you stumble into. You didnât intend to lie but you realize mid-sentence that perhaps youâve mixed two anecdotes and you have to decide if itâs too trivial or pedantic (to interrupt yourself and start over).
You can find yourself occasionally just talking and noticing that thatâs not quite true what I just said. Everyone falls into that, and itâs not an accident that many of those errors are in the direction of making yourself look good and not bad. Everyone has this self-serving bias in how they present reality. Itâs good to dampen it as you can.