The Truth about Lies in the Workplace
How to Spot Liars and What to Do about Them
By Carol Kinsey Goman
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Carol Kinsey Goman
All rights reserved.
Liars at Work
You work with a bunch of liars.
You're a liar, yourself.
So am I.
That's the truth.
But wouldn't it be nice if it weren't? Wouldn't it be convenient if the workforce were divided neatly into "us" versus "them"? We, of course, would be the good guys who were always up front and truthful. They would be the rotten apples whose destructive lies betray the confidence placed in them and ruin everything for the rest of us. If that scenario were valid, imagine how simple it would be to create totally candid corporate cultures: the human resources (HR) department could develop a test for truthfulness to eliminate liars before they were hired, promotions could be awarded to the most honest employees, and alert managers could weed out any extrawily deceivers who somehow slipped in and were later exposed.
But if the truth is that we're all liars—if the line between "us" and "them" is not as definitive as we'd like to think—how in the world do we deal with lies in the workplace? That's the question that makes this subject so provocative and leads to a host of issues that I will be addressing throughout the book.
There is no universally agreed upon definition of lie, lying, deception, or liar, and each of us has his or her own opinion about what constitutes a small, inoffensive fib; a diplomatic white lie; or a big, damaging slander. In this book I use the words deception and lie interchangeably; however, I view deception as the broader umbrella term that includes every imaginable way to mislead, whereas lying refers to specific acts of generating falsehoods or omissions for the purpose of deception. With this as a starting point, my goal is not only to help you spot liars in the workplace but also to help you determine which lies and liars can be overlooked or forgiven and which are truly destructive and need to be dealt with seriously.
Development of a Liar
In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith poses the theory that lying is deeply embedded in our subconscious as a result of evolution. In evolutionary terms, being a successful liar constitutes a "selective advantage"—which means simply that our ancestors who didn't develop the knack for deception died off and those who survived by lying passed on stronger and stronger genes for this ability.
But being born with a predisposition for deception doesn't mean we are born knowing how to lie. The fact is, we have to learn that skill. New research shows that lying may even be a positive developmental milestone. A Canadian study of 1,200 children ages two to 17 suggests that those who are able to lie successfully have reached an important developmental stage because only children who have advanced cognitive development are able to carry out the complex juggling act that involves saying one thing while keeping the truth in the back of their minds. Only one-fifth of the two-year-olds tested in the study were able to do that, whereas at age four 90 percent were capable of lying advantageously. The rate increased with age to a peak at 12. By the time children are teenagers, they become even more adept at lying—moving from basic deceptions to quite intricate fabrications.
When we finally grow up, do we at last see the error of our youthful ways and take the honesty pledge? Of course not! This is a life skill we're talking about. We go right on lying—either occasionally, frequently, habitually, or pathologically—for the rest of our lives.
Most of the lies we tell are self-serving, meaning they are lies that benefit us: the job candidate who exaggerates his or her accomplishments does so to look more qualified for the position. Some are intended to benefit others: the co-worker who compliments a nervous colleague does so to put him or her at ease. And some lies are a mixture: the manager who tells competing candidates that he backs each of them is wanting to boost the self-esteem of both people, but he also wants to be "on the winning side" regardless of which candidate gets the job.
In the workplace people fib, flatter, fabricate, prevaricate, and equivocate. They take liberties with, embellish, bend, and stretch the truth. They boast, conceal, falsify, omit, spread gossip, misinform, or cover up embarrassing (perhaps even unethical) acts. They lie to avoid accepting responsibility, to build status and power, to "protect" others from hearing a negative truth, to preserve a sense of autonomy, to keep their jobs, to get out of unwanted work, to get on the good side of the boss, or to be perceived as "team players" when their main motivation is self-interest. They lie because they're under pressure to perform and because, as one co-worker observed about his teammates, "they lack the guts to tell the boss that what is being asked isn't doable."
Some types of people are better than others at lying. If you are creative, you are one of them—not because creativity makes you more likely to be dishonest but because you're probably good at convincing yourself of your own lies. If you have a charismatic or dominant personality (as many C-suite executives do), you probably also have a special capacity to deceive—which doesn't mean you lie more than others; it just suggests that when you do, you are more skilled at it.
If you're an extrovert, you lie at a higher rate than do introverts. If you are intelligent, you can think strategically and plan ahead like a good chess player—and you can better handle the cognitive load imposed by lying. If you are manipulative or overly concerned about the impression you are making on others, you tell more lies. If you are adept at reading body language, you are also adept at sensing when other people are getting suspicious. And if you have a good memory, you are less likely to be tripped up by your falsehoods.
You may even be in a profession that produces "polished" liars. If you are an actor, poker player, evangelist, salesperson, politician, marketer, negotiator, coach, company spokesperson, lawyer, or (my profession) a professional speaker, you have probably learned to "bluff" convincingly.
Four Types of Liars
Occasional liars. Most of us fall into this category. We don't like to lie but do it every now and then. Occasional liars feel the most uncomfortable about lying and are the easiest to detect through the verbal and nonverbal cues that I detail in chapter 2.
Frequent liars. These are more comfortable with lying, even though they know it's wrong. Because they are more practiced, their lies are more difficult to detect.
Habitual liars. They tell lies automatically and effortlessly. Their deception comes across as "natural" behavior because for these people it is. But oft en they get lazy or sloppy with their content, and that is what trips them up.
Pathological liars. This is the hardest group to detect because they lie compulsively—oft en for no apparent advantage—and have totally bought into the veracity of their own lies. Fortunately, this kind of liar is rare and far less likely to be encountered in the course of normal business dealings.
Workplace Lies at All Levels of the Organization
Workplace lies run the gamut, from everyday fibs to whoppers, and from benign to destructive. Small lies are easily forgiven or overlooked: "My manager gave out an earlier due date for the completion of a project than was necessary. She knew that some people would procrastinate, and she wanted to make sure the work was done on schedule." Big lies destroy trust and are almost never forgotten or forgiven: "My boss assured me that my position was secure—then he accidentally copied me on an e-mail about interviewing my replacement."
One thing to keep in mind is that not all untruths are lies. Different people recall different details from the same event. That's why eyewitness statements are oft en contradictory, and why two co-workers can attend the same business conference and come back with two very different opinions of the event.
Liars deliberately choose to mislead others, and lies may be encountered throughout a person's career, from résumé inaccuracies when applying for a job to disingenuous answers on exit interviews when leaving an organization. And they can occur at any level of the organization. From my survey of 547 business professionals, the following are the most common workplace lies. (All of the quotes in this section are from anonymous survey respondents.)
Lies from Senior Leaders
Leaders' lies matter most because the behavior of leaders has a greater impact on more people and because others model that behavior. Of the respondents to my survey, 67 percent said that the senior leaders of their organizations didn't always tell the truth. Leadership lies cited most oft en were those of omission and misrepresentation—executives either didn't tell the whole truth or they presented an overly optimistic view of the company's current state and future prospects.
Withholding crucial information. The number one complaint from employees is that executives lie by telling half-truths and omitting negative information, especially during a merger or restructuring or at any time the organization is facing potential layoffs.
"I work with the senior leadership team on a daily basis, so I'm pretty much in the communication loop. I've seen members lie blatantly to their own staff members about layoffs and plant closures that have actually been decided on weeks before and in some cases have already become hot rumors on the company grapevine. Why bother lying about something people know is going to happen? Company culture, I guess. 'It's what we've always done.' Why? You tell me!"
"Our leaders don't provide the whole truth about anticipated impacts of organizational changes. In fact, the information they do present is so garbled and wrapped up in big words, it's like listening to politicians trying to put something over on us."
Glossing over the truth. Whether you call it "corporate spin," "excessive optimism," or "irrational exuberance," talking about things going well when they obviously aren't is the second most frequently observed deceptive behavior of corporate leaders.
"Board reports are always routinely revised to present a better picture of the company's status and performance. It's expected. I know because I was part of the senior leadership team charged with overseeing the rewrites."
"The executives keep saying that things are fine and there will be other work to do. Meanwhile they keep outsourcing our jobs. Do they think we don't notice?"
Lies from Managers
The relationship between manager and staff is the most crucial for employee satisfaction and engagement. As is oft en noted, people rarely quit their jobs due to disputes with organizational policies; they quit because they work for ineffective or uncaring bosses. In my deception survey, 53 percent of respondents said that their immediate supervisor lies to them. The most common lies were avoiding responsibility for mistakes or failures and, conversely, taking too much credit for team successes. Managers were also accused of not keeping promises and of lying because they were afraid to admit that they were fallible.
Avoiding responsibility. "My boss said it was my fault, but she was the one who missed the deadline—not me."
"He blames others to cover himself in front of his own boss."
Taking undue credit. "My manager takes credit for the efforts of the entire team. One day I'd like to see how he gets on without us."
"We do all the work. She takes all the bows."
Not keeping promises. "My boss said she'd write a letter of recommendation. I reminded her several times, but she never followed through."
"I was promised that I could go to the training seminar, but when the time came my boss made some lame excuse."
Not admitting fallibility. "My boss routinely lies to the executive team because she wants them to think she can handle everything. In reality she is too weak to tell them what they don't want to hear."
"He just makes things up. I think he's afraid of looking uninformed by admitting he doesn't know."
Lies from Colleagues
Because we interact with them so closely during the workday, almost without realizing it we subject our immediate colleagues to more or less continual judgment regarding their performances and behaviors. Most of the time, we find that co-worker lies are small, insignificant, and easily forgiven or forgotten, involving nothing more serious than excuses for missed deadlines or failure to follow through on requests. But over time a pattern of these seemingly inconsequential lies can erode workplace relationships and inhibit teamwork.
About half (51 percent) of survey respondents said that they have had to deal with colleagues who lied to and about them on a variety of matters a good deal more serious than missed deadlines. Especially egregious to my participants were backstabbing behaviors, lies to hide unethical acts, and deliberately withholding or misreporting information.
Backstabbing. "The other department head thanked me for my idea, then told our boss that I'd stolen it from her. Luckily, I had documents that proved otherwise."
"My co-worker made up terrible things about another person and said that I started the rumor."
Unethical behavior. "One of my colleagues lies consistently on his expense reports, pads them, and uses extra days of travel to get frequent-flyer miles so that he can take his wife on vacations."
"She inflates her expense account excessively for food and drinks—but when I asked her about it, she said that there was an 'unwritten rule' that this was okay so long as she didn't exceed her budget."
Information hoarding and misinformation. "Some people on the team hoard information or misinform other team members as a way of making themselves feel more powerful and in control."
"I wasn't invited to the meeting—deliberately, I'm pretty sure—so of course I couldn't come up with the details when my manager asked for them later. I felt like an idiot. I also felt like someone on that team has it in for me."
What about You?
According to a 1997 study jointly sponsored by the American Society of Chartered Life Underwriters (now the Society of Financial Services Professionals) and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association, 48 percent of the workers interviewed admitted that they had engaged in one or more unethical or illegal actions during the year—including lying to a supervisor or direct report, deceiving customers, covering up incidents, taking credit for co-workers' ideas, and faking sick days.
When I talk with managers about the worst kind of lies they hear from their staffs, they oft en mention lies of omission: "There is nothing worse than getting blindsided by a project that has gone offcourse."
What about you? Do you always tell the truth? When I put that question to my survey participants, 53 percent admitted lying—primarily to cover up job performance inadequacies, to control time, or as part of a job or career strategy.
Lying to cover up job performance. "I lied and said that I was almost finished with the project when I hadn't even started."
"I didn't want to look unprepared, so I said I knew all about the situation. But I knew nothing."
Lying to control time. "When I'm at a meeting and find I am wasting my time, I leave, saying I have to attend another meeting. I also lie about my agenda when I don't want to attend meetings. Or sometimes I will pretend to forget a meeting. I use this technique only for meetings that I view as a waste of my time, however. I do attend important meetings."
"I'll say I'm sick when what I really need is a sanity break."
Lying as part of job or career strategy. "I assure my staff that everything is fine, even when I know it isn't. It is my role in the organization to play dumb about big executive decisions until I've been told when the announcement is scheduled; I then tell whatever lies I have to to keep panic from spreading."
"I flatter people to make them feel more important so they'll be more likely to pay attention to me and listen to what I have to say."
"I said I resigned 'for professional growth reasons.' It would have been career suicide to tell the truth."
Liars, Lies, and Diversity
Although there hasn't been a lot of research to determine if gender, socioeconomic class, or race or culture changes the frequency or the type of lie being told, here are a few preliminary findings.
Who are the biggest liars—men or women? I've uncovered no valid research to suggest that men and women lie at different rates—with the exception of one study on deception in an economic setting: researchers at the Stockholm School of Economics found that men are significantly more likely than women to lie to secure a monetary benefit. There is, however, wider agreement that men and women lie differently.
Excerpted from The Truth about Lies in the Workplace by Carol Kinsey Goman. Copyright © 2013 by Carol Kinsey Goman. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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