Paul LaFontaine left Bertelsmann Music Group in March 1997 to advise other businesspeople about radical honesty. He has lots of work to do. "There are as many lies in business as there are people in business," he says. Here are his nominees for the five most common lies:
Lie: "People are our most important asset."
Truth: "People are our most worrisome and unpredictable asset. Our most important assets are really our financial assets."
B.S. Detector: This may be the leading lie of our times. "When management starts talking about how important people are," LaFontaine says, "you can bet there is going to be an unpopular human resources decision coming soon."
Lie: "This was a rational decision."
Truth: "I wanted to do this."
B.S. Detector: People "want what they want just because they want it," says LaFontaine.
Lie: "We judge people by their performance."
Truth: "I judge your performance based on how much I like you."
B.S. Detector: "Why do most people who keep their jobs keep them?" LaFontaine asks. "Because the people they work for like them. And you get fired when the people you work for don't like you anymore.
Lie: "This is business, it isn't personal."
Truth: "Everything's personal."
B.S. Detector: "As people, we get mad at each other," says LaFontaine. "Attempts to avoid it are cowardly. So get mad. Then get over it and move on." LaFontaine believes that any disagreement can be handled with an honest conversation.
Lie: "The customer comes first."
Truth: "I come first."
B.S. Detector: "More often than not, 'the customer' is an abstraction," LaFontaine warns. "People take care of customers when it benefits them and ignore customers when they can get away with it. Nobody says 'I come first,' which is what's usually going on."
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.