Truth is relative and changes with perspective

My post about ambiguity and alignment provoked some really interesting comments, which I wanted to circle back to.  One comment in particular got my attention

It was an observation that truth is relative and it changes with perspective.  At a certain level that makes sense to me.  Truth can seem to be defined by the winners of the battles, by the dominant doctrine, by the loudest voice. 

The person commenting also observed that because of the relative nature of truth “good people can make poor choices at the crossroads.”

And this brought me to realizing that not only is truth relative, it quickly gets intertwined with morality.

In startup companies I think this is super important.  We’re battling the dominant doctrine of the market, striving to fight or become the loudest voice, working so hard to win.  And we’re doing so under enormous, constant pressure.  Keeping hold of what you believe is true and right can be difficult when it seems like survival is the order of the day, every day.

So you might find yourself in an environment where the pressure is explicit and relentless to place your company’s interests ahead of your customer’s, or your investors.  What is true then?  Well, the Entellium duo felt it was true that if they missed their revenue forecast they’d be fired, and made some really poor choices at that crossroad.  The truth was certainly relative for them.

But the more I talked to my friends about this “truth is relative” conundrum, the more I seemed to be saying there is no real truth.  I was explaining it away.  And it shocked me.  My initial reaction was that the last place you want to go is to say there is no absolute truth.  But actually the more I think about it that’s where I do end up.  The truth in your daily life is completely relative, it’s not absolute.  Except that what it’s relative to is what’s true to you.

When I was at LSI Logic in the early days as a product manager I remember going on a sales call at the end of the quarter to help a salesperson close a huge deal.  We found ourselves seated across from the purchasing manager, who was the wife of the founder,  reviewing the terms of our proposal only to hear her ask for a gift.  She said “I’d like a Gucci purse”.  I heard it as a non-sequitur.  Maybe her birthday was around the corner.  I tried to keep the conversation moving, but it quickly dawned on me that the gift was separating us from this order.I looked over at the salesperson, and we exchanged nervous, and puzzled looks.   

The salesperson and I ended the conversation as quickly as we could, got up and left, I called my boss (using my spiffy “car phone”) and relayed what had happened.  I was in a turbulent state of mind.  We needed this order, and I just made the call to walk away from it.  He was disappointed, really disappoint we lost the deal but supported the decision to walk.  I was relieved to be in a company where we shared this same sense of right and wrong.

I’ve told this story a lot, to me it’s a pure ethics example – it’s the one I put on my business school applications (they all had a question like “Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve encountered and how you handled it”). 

Except I’ve repeated it to people I have first hand experience with and know to be people of solid integrity and had them say “Hmmm…not sure if I wouldn’t have just gotten the purse, and the order.”  And it made me realize I made my choice based on my personal “truths” and these people would have made different choices for their own.  And each of us would have felt like the choice was aligned with our morals.

Another friend told me this topic sent her to look up the meaning of “moral relativism” – that moral/ethical propositions are measured relative to their circumstances.  More important, that only personal subjective morality expresses true authenticity.  Your personal sense of truth = the authentic you.  The other person looking back at you in the mirror.

That means you have to know that person in the mirror really well to remove the ambiguity in what happens at the crossroads.  You need to have an intimate and unabashed knowledge of what you yourself believe to be true about yourself.  If you lack that, well the easier it will be for you to be seduced by or succumb to the loud voices, the accepted doctrines, the winners of the battles.

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2 Responses to “Truth is relative and changes with perspective”

  1. Jediah White Says:

    Peter,

    It’s been a long time since I touched based, but thanks for blogging! You have a perspective of ethics and, dare I say it, empathy that “feels right” to me.

    Truth is relative, but it is also “real” in the sense that it drives behavior and decisions. People with similar truths (worldviews) are likely to build trust with one another more easily. The eternal struggle in business, politics, and life is finding a way to connect your personal truth to the truth of others in order to get something done. This can’t happen if you aren’t grounded in your own beliefs; the bridge will become unmoored and the relationship will fall apart.

    Like

  2. guidoamm Says:

    Hello all,… just stumbled in this blog whilst meandering online…
    Interesting topic and conversation. I am an Italian living overseas. Specifically, in the past thirty years I’ve spend significant time in the Middle East.
    From first hand experience, I can most emphatically say that things like priorities or common sense do not transcend cultures at all. What is a priority for a French man/woman is most certainly not the same for a Saudi man/woman. What is common sense to an English man/woman is most assuredly not for a Qatari man/woman.

    Once social values and priorities differ, then it follows that “truth” must differ too. Hence if truth not absolute across cultures, I’d be inclined to think that social or business subsets of a society may hold a view of the same truth that varies to some degree.

    Like

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