In the days of Ancient Greece, when the Greek army was trying to destroy Troy, there lived a young woman called Cassandra.
She was a special person. As well as being beautiful and one of the daughters of the king of Troy, she was an accomplished prophetess. Not surprisingly, such a combination of beauty, social status, and talent attracted the attention of a top executive in the prophesy trade. In this case, it was the god Apollo.
Apollo wanted to be her mentor. At least, he wanted her, since the Greek gods had some very sexist and macho notions about how to treat beautiful human maidens. She resisted. And when he got too pressing, she told a pack of lies as a way out.
Apollo was the god of truth.
Being pretty vindictive when he didn’t get his own way (not unlike many top executives today), and finding in her lies a way to wriggle out of facing his own bad behavior (ditto), Apollo placed a curse on Cassandra. From then on, every prophesy she made would be absolutely true . . . but no one would believe her. She would foresee every disaster—including the ruin of her city, her father’s death, and her own murder—and be helpless to warn people or prevent any of these things happening.
Valuing your credibility
That’s what happens when you resort to lying to get out of a tough situation. You forfeit your credibility and leave a route for others to weasel their way out of responsibility for their actions. Once the lie is discovered (and they nearly always are), no one will believe you again. Once you have acted dishonestly, other people will use it to hide behind.
Integrity seems a small thing, especially when times are tough and holding onto it promises nothing but misery and failure. Like the god Apollo, the people who rule over our working lives aren’t always fair or even ethical. Cassandra didn’t deserve to be faced with a demand to give sexual favors to the boss. Nor a choice between standing up for herself, and maybe suffering whatever rejected gods inflict on humans who refuse them, or lying to escape. It wasn’t a fair choice. It wasn’t right. But that’s the way the world is sometimes.
Hopefully none of you will ever have to face such a dreadful situation, but milder versions of the same dilemma are very frequent:
- You suspect that the figures showing your unit met its targets were manipulated for that purpose. Do you mention your concerns or keep quiet and hope no one notices?
- You know that inflating expense claims is common practice amongst many of your colleagues. Do you join in? Do you say anything?
- A report that throws doubt on safety and quality statements made in your company’s advertising is suppressed. Do you blow the whistle?
- A customer’s complaint is valid but will cost money to put right and embarrass the business. Do you argue to acknowledge the error, or help stonewall and delay until the customer gives in and goes away?
- Your boss tells you to do something you suspect is unethical, even illegal, to help bolster the quarter’s profits. Do you go along with it and earn a reputation for being a good team-player; or refuse and risk being top of the boss’s list for removal at the earliest opportunity?
Taking the easy way out
It’s so tempting to tell a few minor lies and walk away from the problem. Maybe you’ll even get a pat on the back and be praised for saving the business a few dollars. And it will be so boring and inconvenient to stick by the truth and risk being disliked by colleagues and put under suspicion by those in power. Everybody does it. Right?
There’s always a price.
The myth of Cassandra is about that price. Greek myths may use gods as players, but they are always about entirely human choices. Apollo acted like the worst kind of sanctimonious, bullying boss. Cassandra responded as many of us might: she thought she had found an easy way out that didn’t involve confronting someone powerful, so she took it. But sometimes, as she discovered, you pay more for trying to lie your way of out a problem than you might have done for dealing with it head on.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life, and its companion site Slower Living. His recent articles on similar topics include Integrity versus convenience and Is being right really worth it?. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.