IRM's VIEW: On the value of truth in risk management

Like most children I was taught at an early age that lying is a bad thing. I should always tell the truth. As they grow up, children also learn that truth is a social construct. Some lies are acceptable when they spare another’s feelings, and not every truth, view, or opinion merits being shared. What my parents really meant is that I should be honest with them when they asked me a question about something I had done.

Many arguments are not about empirical truth. The same facts can lead to different interpretations, some more defensible than others. The search for truth should be a search for common understanding.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the great success of Stalinism among intellectuals was replacing the debate about the merits of a position or argument with a challenge about motive. The truth or otherwise of a point of view is then not disputed but dismissed and ignored based on the perceived intent of the person making the argument. This deflection is a common political trick – in the UK, for example, it was used to create a gulf of misunderstanding about the consequences of leaving the EU between Brexiteers and Remainers. Each group dismissed the ideas of the other because of their allegiance.

Political scandals about lies are nothing new. I’m looking forward to seeing Gaslit, based on the podcast Slow Burn, which tells the story of Watergate. When actor Dan Stevens (who plays a White House lawyer) appeared on The One Show recently he summarised the plotline as having “a criminal for a leader who is wrapped in a messy war, embroiled in a stupid scandal, and surrounded by ambitious idiots” before drawing a comparison with Boris Johnson’s Partygate.

Christopher Hitchens’ excellent book on Bill Clinton No One Left to Lie To, first published in 1999, argues with typical panache that Clinton was a serial liar surrounded by sycophantic yes-men. The Monica Lewinsky affair was simply the lie that caught public attention, leading to impeachment by the House but acquittal by the Senate.

People often understand the cover up, the lie, better than they understand the original offence.

So why does this matter? Because the behaviour of those in authority shapes the behaviour and culture of others. This in itself becomes a risk, as effective enterprise risk management requires honest, fact-based argument about things that are often unknown. If being truthful and honest matters less, the risk of ethical fading in an organisation’s culture becomes higher.

Ethical fading happens when our innate psychological tendencies cause us to engage in self-deception. It manifests, for example, in euphemism, maybe not of the deceptive scale of calling an invasion a ‘special military operation’, but along exactly the same principles – intended to make it easier to ignore the reality of an action.

Ethical fading is often a slippery slope – think Shakespeare’s “primrose path of dalliance” – where each step seems small enough to be OK with, and the numbing effect of repetition, as in Trump’s ‘Big Lie’.

Risk managers are an essential part of building and strengthening organisational culture. Effective risk management requires honesty, clear assessment, listening, challenging, seeking other and different perspectives, accountability and accepting the limitations of our own experience.

At a time when truth and honesty are under assault in our society and the world at large, risk managers need to make sure these behaviours are explicitly reinforced through the work they do and the way they do it.

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