I routinely get pitched by PR people to interview authors with new books coming out, and such was the case last week when I took the opportunity to interview Richard Keith Latman, author of the book, "The Good Fail: Entrepreneurial Lessons from the Rise and Fall of Microworkz." But this interview was different. This interview provided textbook examples of the deceptive behaviors outlined in another forthcoming book, one I happened to co-write: "Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception." If the interview was a test of his truthfulness, Latman failed it miserably.
First, a little background is in order. Microworkz was a company that Latman founded in Seattle in the 1990s to sell low-cost PCs. Latman bit off way more than he could chew, and the company began taking orders and accepting payments for PCs it couldn't deliver. Microworkz died a very messy death in 1999, leaving a lot of extremely unhappy people who had paid for computers they never received. The Washington state attorney general's office filed a lawsuit against Latman, alleging deceptive business practices, and won a $1.5 million judgment against him. Latman filed for bankruptcy and never paid up. He was subsequently indicted by a grand jury for bankruptcy fraud, and a guilty plea got him house arrest and five years' probation, which ended last year. This March 2006 Seattle Times article provides more details.
The convicted felon went on to start two new companies - iMagicLab, a Baltimore-based provider of software for automobile dealerships; and Latman Interactive, which makes video games for mobile devices. Latman wrote "The Good Fail," which was released earlier this month, with the message that we need to learn from our mistakes and move forward in life. A "good fail," then, is one that enables you to gain more from the lessons of the experience than you lose from the ramifications of the failure.
What I took away from my interview with Latman is that one lesson he didn't learn from his experience is the lesson of how essential it is to be truthful in life. I came to that conclusion in my capacity as a partner in QVerity, a company that provides training and consulting in deception detection and critical interviewing techniques, and as co-writer of "Spy the Lie." So I'll share and explain some of the deceptive behaviors I observed during the course of the interview.
The very first question I asked Latman was, "What did you learn about business ethics from the Microworkz experience?" It started off badly for Latman, because this was his response:
You know, it's funny, because when some people say the word "ethics," I think they mean, "intrinsically being honest." And I think the word "ethics" needs to be broadened, because what Microworkz taught was that ethics aren't just [about] whether you're telling things that are true, but whether or not you've actually gone through and done the requisite soul searching and measurement of whether what you're saying is, in fact, possible, whether you believe it or not. I think from an ethical perspective, the big lesson learned here is that you can try to change the world, that's fine; but you still have to have a semblance of reality that comes into your dreams, and certainly that wasn't there at Microworkz.
The deceptive behavior here is what we refer to as "failing to understand a simple question." Here's an excerpt from "Spy the Lie" that explains it:
When you ask a question, you often use certain words or phrases to establish boundaries that define the scope or magnitude of the question. If that particular wording traps the person, one strategy he might employ is to get you to change your phrasing or terminology. The aim is to shrink the scope or magnitude of the question, to give him just enough wiggle room to answer it to your satisfaction and to his. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the testimony of Bill Clinton before the independent counsel in the Monica Lewinsky case in August, 1997. During the proceedings, there was a reference to a statement that had been made by Clinton's attorney: "Counsel is fully aware that Ms. Lewinsky has filed, has an affidavit which they are in possession of saying that there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton." Clinton was asked whether that was a false statement. His famous response: "It depends on what the meaning of the word is' is. If is' means is and never has been, that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement." Clinton was trapped by the magnitude of the statement under question, so he was forced to try to shrink the scope of it so he could answer truthfully.
In Latman's case, he changed the scope of "ethics" from "intrinsically being honest" to a simple belief that what you're saying is possible, so that he could respond in a way that he found acceptable, and that would hopefully satisfy me.