blogheader fixing intellectual dishonesty in the workplace takes two

I was talking to one of the founders of a portfolio company that we’ve worked with many times before, and we found ourselves talking about “intellectual dishonesty”.

And what that means is… well, there’s a lot of possible meanings to it.

In debate and politics: “Intellectual dishonesty is the advocacy of a position known to be false,” or an argument “misused to advance an agenda or to reinforce one’s deeply held beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence contrary.”

In science, this term applies to the “fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism in proposing, performing or presenting research.”

In our industry, however, it basically refers to a personnel shifting blame and responsibility away from him/herself inside an organization.

And we’ve seen this a lot of times, some experiences more extreme than others: when an employee shifts the burden of blame to either another co-worker, another department, vendor, or outside agency.

When something goes wrong, the common “intellectually dishonest” response can either be: “Not my problem,” “They screwed up,” “I told them to do something about it, but they didn’t.”

But why does this exist in the workplace? It’s either:

  • The employee doesn’t feel it’s safe to fail, or;
  • He/she doesn’t feel safe to own up to the mistake and be “the dumbest person in the room.”

But most people aren’t inherently dishonest. Rather, this is a defense mechanism, brought about by one of two things:

  1. Either they claimed they could do something that they actually couldn’t do, and now they can’t take what they said back, or;
  2. They feel they are in an unsafe work environment.

Often, it’s because of the latter. Employees are often afraid of becoming the butt of the joke or being made to feel incompetent because that’s what their workplace culture insinuates.

This is where establishing the right company culture comes in.

If you’re going to give your employees, your team, an opportunity to work on something, you have to cut them some slack. You have to allow them to fail, to ask questions, and they have to be able to say, “I don’t know/understand this,” or “Why did we do it this way?”

You have to foster an environment that discourages pretense and politicism, and encourages intellectual curiosity instead. You have to make your employees understand that it’s OK to not be the smartest person in the room, and that they should be unafraid to make mistakes.

Why? Because 99% of the time, their intentions are pure.

They still want to reach a great outcome, same as you. Really, everyone wants the same thing: to do great at work, get that promotion, or eventually, work in their own company. But without that safe environment, you don’t get to inspire honesty upon your employees.

It’s like backing a wild animal into a corner. Bad things happen when you back an animal into a corner.

My advice to all the managers and executives out there: create a culture that allows people to honestly ask questions in a safe environment. Don’t judge your employees; let them ask.

And you can’t just write this in your mission statement; this culture has to come from the top. It has to come from the executives. It has to be a fundamental aspect of your company.

It has to be true.

To the employees, on the other hand: if you are stuck in an unsafe environment like that, try to speak up. Talk to your employers and just be honest with them. Tell them, “Hey, I want the same outcome you do, but I’m afraid to tell you my truth and the things that I don’t understand.”

Best case scenario: your employer realizes where the friction is, and both of you get to work in improving the situation, creating a fostering environment in your workplace where everyone can benefit. Worst case scenario: this doesn’t change a thing, and you remain stuck in a toxic work environment.

When that happens, it’s time to get out. Forget the promise of a high pay. Forget the benefits and the perks. It’s not gonna last. You’re suffering and it’s not worth it. Your mental health and well-being comes first.

Still, a lot can change in a company’s culture. Working life can become much better for everyone, surprisingly quickly. All it takes is honesty.

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