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Little White Lies with Dark Reputational Consequences

Monday, July 16, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Dr. Michael Porter, APR
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By Dr. Michael Porter, APR

Distinguished Service Professor/Director, MS in Health Care Communication

Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas


A critical element of networking, according to Guy Kawasaki in “Art of the Start” (And many other seasoned networkers) is the exchange of favors and following through on commitments to others. Having been an active networker in the Twin Cities business community for over 25 years, one thing continues to confound me. Why do many people choose to forgo honesty when it comes to responding negatively to a request?


Part of the problem - people confuse knowing and meeting people with actual networking. Real networking requires more effort, reward and some risk. Since so many people fail to “follow up” (another core Kawasaki networking element) or “follow through,” people don’t always see the importance or impact of not doing these simple things. This means people say yes to others about things, even though there is no real intention to make good on that commitment.


Sure, when someone takes your card and promises to send you a link to an article, both parties may quickly forget the commitment. Unfortunately, many people are equally careless with things that may be more important, at least to the person who is expecting something after the conversation.


Perhaps people think it is easier to say yes in person, or blame someone else for not being able to assist, rather than face the disappointment reflected upon them after denying the request. While it may seem harmless to tell that white lie, what could it do to your reputation or that of your employer? Consider the following examples:


Recently, a colleague suggested a need to access a specific business for a research project. I used a contact of mine to leverage her network to get the professor connected to a decision maker at the firm. The contact told the researcher that the firm could not assist with the research due to a contractual obligation precluding such relationships. What the decision maker did not consider was the researcher had other contacts in the market, one of whom working in a related organization assured no such obligation existed.


Rather than telling the truth - “No, we are not interested,” or “We are too busy,” – this lie to shift blame ultimately reflects poorly on both the person who told it and the organization. Maybe most of these little infractions happen to people who seem unimportant to those who fib, but experience suggests that over time, many unimportant people rise to success. So, the repercussion of the lie may not occur today, and may be invisible when it happens.


Consider the owner of a printing company who consented to do an informational interview with me 25 years ago during a job search. As an unemployed agency copywriter and creative person, I had gotten the appointment through the brother of a friend. I arrived a few minutes early, his assistant let him know right away. I sat outside his office patiently. After not being acknowledged again for over an hour, I left and wrote a nice follow up note hoping to catch him at another, less busy time.  I never had any contact with him. Within a year, my new job included a budget for nearly a million dollars in printing annually. His firm did not receive any of our business.


More recently, my requests for assistance tend to be on behalf of students. In a number of cases regarding MS in Health Care Communication mentors, people have said yes to helping students, only to avoid making connections over time. Again, a simple "no" would have been preferred, because these students only have a few months to experience the mentoring. For a potential mentor, a few months passing by is nothing, but to the students it can be a critical loss.


While we always manage to get the students mentored, it is difficult for both students and myself to forget the individuals and the firms that didn’t follow through after saying “yes.”


So, next time you are faced with an acquaintance or referral who asks for something you can’t or won’t be able to offer, just tell a truth or say no. Most people can’t tell you the names or organizations of those who said no to a networking request, or even many of the ones who said yes, but anyone hurt by a white lie will remember. 

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