Let’s face it, every one of us has been caught up in the moment and claimed an event, an experience or an accomplishment was greater than it really was. That customer contract was for more than you really sold it for, the experience at the restaurant was your worst ever, or you were the greatest player on your college football team.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed this happening often in the news and it has brought down the credibility of some very notable individuals. First it was Brian Williams, followed by Bill O'Reilly. Both newsmen allegedly embellished the truth about their previous conflict reporting. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald apologized on Monday for lying about serving in the Army's Special Forces.
What happens if you misstep and make something bigger (or worse) than it really was? How can you protect yourself from a similar fate?
Face Up Before You're Found Out
The best rule of thumb is to admit your exaggeration as soon as possible.
Far better to face the discomfort of making a correction before someone else finds it on their own. This takes a great level of humility and self-awareness, but the end result will be an increased level of respect from those around you. Your employees, customers and colleagues want to follow someone who is authentic and real.
Others May Already Know
It’s likely that others may already be talking about your indiscretion without your knowledge, and the back channel can be as damaging to your career and future endeavors as any public outing might be.
One of my client companies was run by an executive who constantly stretched the truth. She knows everyone, has done everything has lived or visited any place you could think to mention. Regrettably, everyone around her knows she is stretching the truth.
Because none of her employees can trust her to tell the truth in the unimportant things, they don’t believe her when she talks about the really important things - like raises and company stability. This has created a situation of heavy turnover for her and it holds her back from developing authentic relationships with her peers.
Think Before You Speak
This is the advice I have started following the most. I want to resist getting caught up in the moment and saying something I may have to recant later. It’s human nature to try to fill empty space and it’s in our fear of silence that we are in the most danger with our speech.
My wife recently got her real estate license and one of the principles they taught her when working with a homeowner during her onboarding class was the acronym WAIT, which stands for:
Why Am I Talking?
I have kept this in the back of my mind as I have conversations with others. If the answer is “I am just trying to fill empty space”, then I stop talking and get comfortable with the quiet. This is especially important advice during a sales cycle where you may be tempted to stretch the truth a little to get the deal.