Being Honest Is More Than Just Telling the Truth

Honesty is more complicated than categorizing statements as true or false, according to an Academy of Management Annals article.

“When we think about honesty, we think, ‘Did someone say something that is accurate or false?’ ‘Did they tell the truth?’ or ‘Did they lie?’ But defining honesty as lying versus telling the truth ignores the relational aspect of communication with another person,” explained Binyamin Cooper of Carnegie Mellon University.

“You can mislead by telling the truth. For example, when someone invites a friend over for dinner and the meal isn’t that good, the guest might say, ‘The wine paired beautifully with the meal.’ Even though the guest never said something false, the host could incorrectly assume that the guest enjoyed the meal,” Cooper said. “This exchange tells us there’s much more involved in communicating accurate information that doesn’t get captured by the narrow question of whether someone said something that’s true or false.”

For their article, “Honest Behavior: Truth-Seeking, Belief-Speaking, and Fostering Understanding of the Truth in Others,” Cooper—and coauthors Taya R. Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University, Elizabeth Huppert of Northwestern University, Emma E. Levine of the University of Chicago, and William Fleeson of Wake Forest University—analyzed 169 scholarly articles published from 2000 to 2021 in 15 journals on the Financial Times 50 (FT50) list. The articles were in the fields of organizational behavior, business ethics, applied psychology, human resource management, and management, including Academy of Management Journal.

The authors wrote that for behavior to be fully honest, individuals, groups, or organizations “must seek the truth, speak the truth, and foster understanding of the truth.”

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Binyamin (Benny) Cooper
Binyamin (Benny) Cooper
Assistant Professor

My research explores how communicators and receivers navigate difficult conversations in the workplace.