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The Danger of Telling the Truth

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
August 23, 2016


Political campaigns challenge us to discern truth from fiction. Moreover, this is a demand made on all public servants every day in their work places. We are challenged to tell the truth when we see it – or lies when they are evident. This is not what is normally labeled “whistleblowing,” but rather confronting the gestalt of our environment.

Regrettably, telling the truth is sometimes dangerous. Especially when it threatens long-standing understandings of how things are “supposed” to be. Telling the truth or uncovering lies can lead to a loss of friends, status, access to decision making or credibility. Telling the truth in an environment of deceit is, according to George Orwell, “a revolutionary act.”

We lie when we state something as true that we know to be an error, when we fail to admit that a previous statement is an error or when we intentionally fabricate a story. Admitting to an error, as any public administrator knows, is far better than continuing to invent stories to support the original statement.

We may lie to protect ourselves or because we believe that we know what is best for another person or group. When we act to “protect” others, we deprive them of their freedom and their ability to make choices for themselves. We act essentially in a non-democratic way.

Although John Stuart Mill believed that lying was justified when the good consequences outweighed the bad, the downside is that lying – any lying – eats away at trust. People or organizations that are seen as untrustworthy find it more difficult to convince citizens to support projects or approve budgets.

Lying, or failing to tell the truth, wreaks havoc in the lives of those around us. According to Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, identifying truth is necessary in order for there to be predictability and control. Peck suggests that lying, when it becomes consistent deceit, is evil at its core and includes consistent scapegoating, excessive but subtle intolerance of criticism and undue concern with a public image.

Sunshine laws at the state level and the federal 1967 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are legislative guarantees that truth will be available to citizens. However, some agencies use exceptions in those laws to redact documents so that it is impossible to discern the truth. A heavily-redacted document suggests that the agency has something to hide. This practice increases distrust and misunderstandings between agencies and the citizens or clients they serve.

Expressing what one sees as the “truth” can have consequences. About 10 years ago, Laura Berg, a nurse with the Veterans’ Administration, criticized the Bush administration for what she saw as the truth of the war in Iraq and for its handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Despite guarantees of freedom of speech for public workers, her computer was impounded and she was investigated for sedition by the FBI. As those familiar with the Flint water issue, employees in state and municipal governments also have experienced pressures to lie, either by commission (telling a lie) or omission (failing to tell the truth). Such actions threaten protected First Amendment rights, as well as the long-term credibility of the individual agency and government in general.

While feeling pressured to either tell the truth or to lie makes most people anxious, anxiety can be seen as a positive emotion—that, in the face of threats and feelings of powerlessness, anxiety gives humans freedom to act courageously according to Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety. Facing threats, May believed, is the mark of an authentic adult, who is creative, responsible and ready to move beyond conformity and traditional values. In Power and Innocence, May argued further that failing to confront lies is symptomatic of powerlessness and the feeling of powerlessness contributes to corruption and violence.

One complication is those most likely to lie (feel no anxiety about lying) tend to be those with power. According to Dana Harvey, a sense of power buffers individuals from the stress of lying and increases their ability to deceive others. Terry Newell, in his Aug. 9, 2016, PA Times Online column, referred to this as the “Bathsheba Syndrome.”

The need, then, is not only to tell the truth, but to confront power with power—telling truth to power. In this time of heightened political awareness, as well as in our daily lives as public administrators, we must discern truth from fiction, tell the truth when we see it or confront lies when they are evident.

Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected].

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2 Responses to The Danger of Telling the Truth

  1. Pingback: Truth, Honesty and Transparency in Public Administration | PA TIMES Online

  2. john pearson Reply

    September 12, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Agree but truth in the political sphere can be difficult to discern. Politicians often are careless with the facts. They engage in spinning, half-truths, self-deception. We have people who do fact checking but who checks on the fact-checkers?

    A good example is the claim that Social Security is a government Ponzi scheme and will eventually blow up and leave people with nothing. People say that because benefits are paid from current workers and the program’s actuaries estimate there will be a need to reduce benefits by around 25%
    in the 2030s unless changes are made. Business Ponzi schemes leave investors with nothing in a fairly short time. Social security will pay out for nearly 100 years before limited benefit reductions are necessary. There is only a slight resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. To me it’s misleading to apply that label to Social Security. It’s a half-truth at best.

    In 2010, Republicans charged ACA would cause a government takeover of the entire healthcare system — 1/6 of the economy. There has been no government takeover whatsoever. Most healthcare assets are still in private hands. I think this charge was an example of self-deception not deliberate lying. Republicans were disturbed by the complexity of another big government program and somehow thought it would lead to a government takeover.

    Secretary Clinton has made numerous erroneous statements with regard to her emails. But is it lying, self-deception, or just plain being mistaken?

    It’s easy to hurl the charge of “lying” but the reality may be more complicated.

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