It was a lie so obvious and about something so utterly unimportant, I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In the process of tracking down a fairly minor issue, I asked if a contractor had done work on a particular floor over the weekend. “We didn’t touch this floor,” they said. So how did all of that new equipment get installed? And why was one of their coworkers now telling me about all of the wiring changes that they had made? They were so clearly lying to me, and it tainted everything they said for the reminder of my time on-site.
When confronted with an uncomfortable question, many people are tempted to make something up on the spot. Sometimes, because they don’t want to appear ignorant (It can be surprisingly hard to say, “You know what, I don’t know.). Sometimes, because they know you’re not going to like the real answer. Either way, a small white lie often seems like the easiest way to make the uncomfortable conversation go away. Unfortunately, those “little” lies often mean that you’re just kicking the can down the road. And then, when it all comes back to you, the problem is usually orders of magnitude worse.
Getting caught in a lie, even a minor one (sometimes especially because it’s a minor one), can poison a working relationship. When a contractor lies about something stupid, something that can very easily be disproved, it makes you wonder what else they’re lying to you about. It means you’re not likely to give them the benefit of the doubt in future interactions. And it often creates more work for them. Someone who is inclined towards lying to you is not generally someone that you will trust to own up to their own mistakes. Which means that they tend not to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to figuring out where a problem might be originating.
I feel like this should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Do not lie to your customers. Do not lie to your coworkers. Do not lie to the other trades. Practice saying, “I don’t know the answer to that one, but I’ll look into it and get back to you.” Own your mistakes.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” You know I’m a very productive person because I make mistakes. All the time! But I’m also pretty confident in the general quality of my work. If you ask me to look into why something isn’t working, and I realize it was something I did, I’m going to tell you that I goofed. And then I’m going to tell you how I’m going to fix it. I’ve had far more clients thank me for my candor than have complained that I am not 100 percent perfect.
And if you don’t want people to lie to you? Practice saying, “Thanks for letting me know.” Toxic environments breed toxic reactions. I’ve worked jobs where the client flipped out over every single minor problem. Nobody wanted to own their mistakes, because they knew that the reaction would be disproportionately negative. They also knew that none of the other trades was going to own up to their part of any problems. It’s amazing we got any work done at all. Mutual honesty means mutual cooperation. Troubleshooting in the figurative dark is about as effective as troubleshooting in the literal dark. Sometimes it’s even less effective.
Ultimately, being honest about our mistakes is the first step in making sure that we don’t repeat them. Even if the client never notices, we need to be honest with ourselves. It can be painful to think about the things that we could have done better. But it’s a pretty good feeling to know that we haven’t made the same mistake twice.