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LEGAL: Embracing truth can make business decisions easy

November 27, 2006

Despite what we would like to believe, most people struggle to live in the truth. It's hard and can be intensely painful.

At times, the truth confronts us with issues we would rather ignore-the employee who isn't working hard enough, for example, or the suppli er whose products have gone downhill. So to flee this harsh reality, we avoid the truth with other people. Tragically, we also avoid the truth with ourselves, at times to the point where we no longer know the truth.

During the first weeks of law school, we debated "truth." The point was that "absolute truth" did not exist. After days of discussion, we concluded that "truth is merely shared perceptions at a given point in time." If you could convince a jury the defendant didn't kill someone, then it didn't matter whether he really did it-he wasn't going to jail.

Since law school, I have struggled with this conclusion. I see absolute truth every day, and it has little to do with percep tions. In fact, many times perceptions only hide the truth.

The business community trades on perception-this store has an unparalleled selection, that company provides outstanding customer service-but perception and truth often cannot share the same space.

We confuse judgments and opinions with the truth. They are not the same. When we don't know the truth, we substitute judgments or opinions and form beliefs. I believe my competitor's product is inferior, but do I really know that to be true? How can I convince a customer, if I don't know or speak the truth?

Truth requires no explanation, justification or defense. The truth stands on its own and cannot be altered by debate, interpretation or contradiction. If an elaborate explanation is required, the explanation typically spins the truth into something it is not.

While such spinning is standard fare for politics, it is also ever-present in law and business. This is often seen in business plans we read and write that "overhype" the business.

Where do we find the truth? Not amid the words, judgments or opinions of others or even of ourselves. The truth lies within our hearts. Wise counsel can help identify the truth in business situations and in life.

To find truth, we must ignore the words and the spin and ask "What is really going on?" To discover the answer, if is helpful to ignore the words and watch behaviors and actions. Words typically cover up the truth. The underlying actions seldom lie.

The truth is liberating and, ultimately, necessary. We have all heard that "the truth will set you free." It withstands attack. People may not like it, but they cannot defeat it.

The truth also saves us from the stress of having to remember which version of the story we are telling. There is only one version of the truth.

The truth is always found on the high road. With truth, there is no anxiety about traveling the low road. Even the worst among us feels a sense of guilt on the low road. In negotiations, this anxiety often is telegraphed through body language. Again, ignore the words and watch the actions.

While the truth can be painful, sacrificing truth to avoid pain is the coward's way out. Faced with enough pain, many of us will become cowards, particularly with employees, partners and customers.

Great character is required to stay in the truth. We laud ourselves for charitably sparing others from the painful truth, but this is a meager justification for cowardly acts. How can it be better to be free of pain at the cost of truth? Does it serve employees to ignore their poor performance?

Truth often is sacrificed in the name of sales, and that is generally accepted. It is considered spinning, not lying. The flaw in this thinking is we forget that the goal must always be to serve, not to sell.

You sell with your personality, but true service comes from the heart. Without service, what we sell has little benefit to our customers. Eventually customers realize this and relationships are lost.

When it becomes habit, living in the truth is easy. There is no posturing or posing. Decisions are clear when based on the truth. When businesses are grounded in the truth, what they sell speaks for itself.

Once we see the truth, the lies and the spin around it become apparent. Probably the greatest discoveries are the spin we use on-and the lies we tell-ourselves.



Millard is vice chairman of the Business Department for the Barnes & Thornburg LLP law firm. He can be reached at 231-7803.
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