Lying II

VOST 143

Pic also unrelated; before I was on YPs I sailed.

Reading this week:

  • Do Morals Matter? by Joseph S. Nye (this was not, as I was hoping, an analysis of how moral frameworks impacts presidential foreign policy decision-making)
  • Disasters and Development by Frederick C. Cuny
  • Famine, Conflict, and Response by Frederick C. Cuny with Richard B. Hill

It was a lie by omission, to be sure. I very purposefully didn’t tell the Engineer what I had done. Instead I frantically tried to call the divers back down and get them to sign my tagout sheet, because if they signed that then there would be no evidence that I cleared the tags improperly. I guess that’s more than just lying by omission, and I was trying to implicate others (unbeknownst to them) into my scheme. Eventually the diver came back down, because he realized he had not signed the sheet. He signed it, and we were Good to Go. Until I was discovered the next day when my Shutdown Reactor Operator reported me to the Chief of the Boat. He didn’t actually know I lied, he just thought there were double standards at play over what an officer would get in trouble for versus an enlisted sailor. But he made the right call and I never begrudged him for reporting me.

Once I was discovered to have lied, everything I thought would happen did in fact happen. I was removed from watchstanding, issued a letter of reprimand, and it affected my reputation with the crew and the chain of command. I learned lessons from all of that, but that’s not really the lesson I wanted to share with you. I learned that day why people lie.

I learned that it isn’t stupid people that lie, or lazy people, or bad officers, or bad people. I learned there isn’t anything inherently wrong with someone that lies (let’s except sociopaths and the like from this discussion). I learned that people will take the easiest path, and people lie because it is the easiest path.

That sounds disingenuous to people. People make the tough decision all the time. They take the courageous path and certainly don’t take the easy way out. But I think it is a matter of framing. We train people on integrity so as to make the thought of lying so distasteful and so unimaginable that it won’t be perceived as the easy way out. We try to make it so that to lie would be to condemn yourself to endless days of questioning your own identity and self. We punish lying severely so the consequences of lying are clear to all. But still I lied that day about the tagout violation, and I lied because the consequences of telling the truth and reporting myself seemed so unimaginably overwhelming that lying was simply the easier thing to do, and I did it.

The lesson I learned about leadership is that if one of your subordinates lies, that is a huge and immediate signal that something has gone wrong with your leadership and the system you have set up. If someone lies, they are still responsible for that lie, and that lie should be met with the appropriate consequences. But if a person lies that means that you, as a leader, have set up an environment where telling the truth is no longer the easy answer, and you need to immediately rectify that. Sometimes that is hard or impossible. The sheer nature of the submarine service means that there are huge pressures on everyone nearly all the time, and so a lot of times the only option is to make lying have even more devastating consequences.

But nonetheless analyze the rest of the situation. Why did this person feel like lying was the easy way out? Is it that when they tell the truth, it is met with such negative consequences that it doesn’t make telling the truth worth it? Have you set up bad incentives? Do you shoot the messenger so no one wants to tell you the truth and only tells you what you want to hear? Maybe instead your subordinate has been heaped with such responsibility and innumerable tasks where it is impossible to get them all done. If they’re honest that the tasks they have been assigned are impossible, is something done about that, or are they told to just get it done anyways? And if the answer is that these impossible tasks have to get done, no matter what, why wouldn’t they lie? What other choice were they left?

When a subordinate lies, look at the situation they were in and figure out why the choice they made was the easy choice to make. Expand your scope to the other people that work for you. See if they are in a similar situation, and be proactive to make telling the truth the easy and obvious answer. Training people on integrity is important, and it is important to do it regularly. But people only ever act in response to the situation and environment they are placed in. You, as a leader, don’t get to make people’s choices for them. But you are the one that creates the environment in which they make those decisions. Make sure it is an environment in which people can make the good choices you want them to make.