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 upfront 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: Human Resources 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 extra-wily deceivers who somehow slipped in and were later exposed.
But if the line between them and us is not as definitive as we’d like to think – then how in the world do we deal with lies in the workplace? That’s the question that makes this subject so provocative and led to a host of issues that I addressed in my book, “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace.”
In the workplace we all tend to fib, flatter, fabricate, embellish, “take liberties with,” “bend,” or “stretch” the truth. We boast, conceal, omit, and spread rumors we aren’t sure are true. We lie to look better, get out of things we don’t want to do, to fit in, to protect others, or to get on the good side of the boss.
We may even lie before we get the job – and lie on our way out. In job interviews, we may embellish our resume or claim to have skills we haven’t yet acquired. In exit interviews, we may make up our own “alternative truth” about why we’re leaving, because we don’t want to burn bridges.
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. Research shows that lying may even be a positive developmental milestone: A Canadian study of 1,200 children ages two to 17 suggests those who are able to lie successfully have reached an important developmental stage, since only children who have advanced cognitive development are able to carry out the complex juggling act which involves saying one thing while keeping the truth in the back of their minds. Only a fifth of two-year-olds tested in the study were able to do that, while 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.
Some of us 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 to believe your own lies. If you have a charismatic or dominant personality (as many business leaders do), you probably also have a special capacity to deceive – which, again, doesn’t mean you lie more than others, it just suggests that when you do, you’re more skilled at it. If you’re an extrovert you lie at a higher rate than 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 probably have learned to “bluff” convincingly.
And guess what? Lying can be good for our careers – as it is a key part of building relationships and maintaining smooth social interactions. According to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, the type of lies that are good for business are “pro-social” lies, what most people refer to as “white lies.” It’s the kind of lie we tell when we don’t want to hurt someone (“I’d love to come to your meeting, but I’ll be on an important phone call”) or when we flatter them to make them feel better (“No, those pants don’t make you look fat”). Dunbar and a group of researchers with the Aalto University School of Science in Finland devised a complex mathematical model that demonstrated how pro-social lies help create stronger bonds in a network.
Of course, there are destructive lies too, such as lies of omission by a manager who decides not to be honest about the downside of a change process, the false boasting of a team leader who takes credit for the work of others, or the spreading of malicious gossip. That kind of dishonesty kills trust, collaboration, innovation, (and, eventually, productivity and profits) as it derails workplace relationships.
When we lie, we may also pay a personal price. Here are a few consequences to consider:
Lies are bad for your health. Psychologists at the University of Notre Dame conducted an “honesty experiment” in which 110 individuals, ages 18-71, participated over a 10-week period. Each week, they came to a laboratory to complete health assessment. When researchers tallied the number of physical and mental health complaints, the study found that as people increased the number of lies they told, their health declined. Conversely, when lies went down, the subjects’ health improved.
Deceiving others increases self-deception. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that those who cheat on tests are more likely than non-cheaters to rationalize their superior performance into a genuine sign of intelligence. This unconscious act of self-deception, while providing a short-term psychological boost, comes with a longer-term price to pay; when asked to predict their own future performances, the cheaters erroneously presumed they would perform as well as they had previously – and of course, couldn’t.
Lies can destroy your reputation. Embellishing your resume or company track record may not seem like such a big deal until you realize how many people who rose by this method also came crashing down. In the era of personal branding, two things are most important to success: Your professional network and your reputation. Nothing can weaken a network or destroy a reputation faster than being exposed as a liar.
So, you work with a bunch of liars. You indulge in a bit of lying, yourself. And we can’t eliminate it because lying is one of the core strategies human beings have evolved over the millennia to deal with the complexities of a largely chaotic, unpredictable, and sometimes threatening life.
Luckily, most of that lying – yours, mine, and everyone else’s – is either benign or falls under the heading of the pettiest of petty crimes. And just because it’s hard-wired psychologically, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to reduce the negative impact of lies. In fact, in an emotionally nourishing environment, where we feel safe, trusted, and valued, we also feel less compelled to fabricate in order to protect or defend ourselves. When leaders of organizations, departments, or teams this create this kind of work culture – when those leaders model openness, candor, trust, and caring – the most damaging workplace lies diminish with startling rapidity, leaving the kindly, well-intentioned social lies to do their good work.
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit CarolKinseyGoman.com