OPINION: HARVEY MACKAY — You can handle the truth!

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Charles finally made partner and propped his feet on the desk in his new corner office. He was dreaming of all the perks that accompanied his promotion when a knock on the door snapped him out of his reverie.

He picked up the phone so he would look busy as a young staffer came into the room. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” Charles mouthed to the employee, before engaging in a mock phone conversation.

“Yes, I know the congressman quite well. We go sailing with the governor every other week,” he said. He glanced over at the employee standing near his desk. “One more minute,” he whispered before returning to the phone call.

“I’d be happy to introduce you,” he continued. “In fact, if you’re free next Wednesday, we’re having lunch. Great. Wednesday it is,” he said as he hung up the phone.

“Thanks for being so patient,” Charles said to the young staffer. “Now how can I help you?”

The employee blushed and said, “I’m here to connect your phone.”

Try to tap dance out of that one!

I am convinced that often, the hardest language to speak is the truth. Sometimes it’s easier to tell an embellished truth, or a half-truth or a little white lie to save face or spare others’ feelings. But eventually, when the truth comes out, there are consequences.

Ron Ashkenas, co-author of the “Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook,” explains that there are three fundamental concerns that cause people to be less than completely truthful.

First, the impact of truth on yourself. “It’s human nature to want people to think well of us, particularly those who have influence over our lives and careers,” he writes. “At the same time, we all make mistakes, so we create justifications and excuses — many of which are at best half-truths.”

Next, the impact of truth on others. “One way to gain others’ approval is to avoid pointing out things that may damage their self-image,” he continued.

Finally, the impact of truth on business success. “To be successful almost every organization needs to sell — be it a product, a service, a story or a promise. But much of that selling is done without truthful disclosure of what it will take to fulfill the sale,” he maintains. “The wiser course in many cases is to limit the truth and figure out how to ‘deliver’ later.”

While his first two points are recognizable to most of us, I find his third concern very troubling. As a lifelong salesman and businessman, I cringe to think that a sale based on partial truth would be OK in any forum.

I certainly wouldn’t appreciate a supplier promising me a product without knowing exactly what I would be receiving, and I absolutely do not want a reputation that I didn’t deliver what I promised and then some.

But I understand that some businesses operate that way and do so at their own peril. Customers find out quickly that promises made and kept are worth their weight in gold. A tarnished reputation is mighty difficult to polish.

I constantly preach that trust is the most important word in business. Of course, the most important part of establishing trust is being truthful — all the time, even when the truth is painful.

If we are not up-front with our customers at MackayMitchell Envelope Company as soon as a problem arises, whether it’s a supplier issue, equipment breakdown or a mistake with an order, we deserve to lose that customer. And I really, really hate to lose a customer. I’d rather lose money than lose a customer.

The good news is if we can find a way to fix a problem — and we usually do — our customers appreciate our honesty and efforts to turn lemons into lemonade. But that happens only when we tell the truth.

Abraham Lincoln once said of a man who was attacking him, “He’s the biggest liar in Washington.”

Honest Abe said the man reminded him of an old fisherman who had the reputation for stretching the truth. The fisherman bought a pair of scales and insisted on weighing every fish he caught in the presence of witnesses.

One day a doctor borrowed the fisherman’s scales to weigh a newborn baby. The baby weighed 47 pounds.

Now that’s what I call a whopper!

Mackay’s Moral: Even when the truth hurts, it’s more painful to hurt your reputation.

• • •

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website, www.harveymackay.com, by emailing harvey@mackay.com or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

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