Being honest about what we can do

How exhaustion and a plate of yams can make you tell the truth.

In part one, I told you about my struggle to renew my visa while working in Nigeria. I finally managed to pin down a meeting with an immigration official that agreed to restamp my passport with a new visa. I still had a long journey, and I was exhausted, but I learnt a good lesson in the importance of integrity.

At 6 am the next day, with the sun just breaking through the morning haze, I leapt into yet another overfilled taxi heading to Makurdi to meet with the zonal coordinator.

When I arrived in town, I went straight to see the coordinator, a round-faced, short man in his 60s with dark sunken eyes. Almost immediately, a young officer entered his office and delivered him lunch.

“I’ll never get my visa renewal, the guy’s having lunch now”.

It took five days to get in front of an officer that could renew my visa, but I still wasn’t sure he was ready to give it to me.

We shared his small plate of red yams, dried fish and some green leaves that tasted a bit like bitter spinach. He had diabetes and told me that the red yams are better than cassava at controlling his insulin levels.

He told me all about each of his twenty children by three wives; they were all successful. We talked long enough to digest lunch fully before asking me what I was doing in the national park.

I remembered what Klaus, the director of our monkey project, told me to say when asked what I was doing in Nigeria.

“I’m working on a health-related study for the local community living in the forest enclave”. That’s what Klaus wanted me to say.

Klaus told me that I should never say that I’m there to study animals. If I said that, I would never get my visa renewed, and I would destroy any hope of the project getting visas renewed in the future.

But instead, I said, “I’m in Nigeria to study the social behaviour of baboons”.

I passed him a small brochure that explained what I was doing. There were glossy images of baboons, chimps, snakes and hippos. His dark eyes lit up as he smiled, flipping the pages.

As our conversation was winding up, he said,

“I’m pleased that you told me the truth about what you are doing in Nigeria. I knew you weren’t health workers.” He had heard that lie too many times before.

I left his office satisfied, with a belly full of yam and a new visa stamp in my passport.

It still took me another three days to get back to my research camp in the forest.

Over the following year, I returned to Jalingo to renew my visa another three times. And each time, it took less than an hour and no travelling between towns.

By being honest about the work I was doing in Nigeria, I saved time, money and energy. And probably, I improved the reputation of our project.

When asked what I was doing in Nigeria, I didn’t feel right lying. It wasn’t because I was afraid of the authority of his position. It was because he had been kind and generous with me. He shared his lunch and told me about his children graduating from University, building large families and reaching high positions within the Nigerian government. And I was also proud to be studying monkeys.

Few people would argue that being honest in business is a good thing, but there are many ways we can compromise our integrity that isn’t necessarily apparent.

In the feedback I’ve received from my clients, integrity is the most frequently praised aspect of my service.

If I agree to a deadline, then I will do my best to stick to it. If I need more time to finish a task, then I will let my client know as soon as possible. And I won’t use excuses for not finishing on time.

Sometimes a client asks me to do work that’s beyond my current skill. Rather than tell them I can do it and mess up the job, I tell them I cannot do it. There is always plenty of other work I can do for my clients.

And sometimes I make mistakes. But when I do, I claim it, apologise and do everything I can to correct the error. And I learn from this so that I don’t make the same mistake again. It’s not about being perfect but doing my best.

Honesty builds trust and stronger relationships. Not only will you have long-standing clients, but they’ll trust you enough to recommend you to their friends and clients.

To give a referral is a big deal. It means that someone is willing to vouch for you and the service you provide. But most often, clients are recommending you, not the services you provide. They trust you.

Be honest and truthful, and you’ll build a solid reputation that will attract plenty of clients that you’ll work with for years.