Perhaps you’ve worked in that kind of organization.
Managers claim credit for others’ work. The chief executive twists the facts and sugarcoats unpleasant information. Employees conclude that the bosses are
liars, and cynicism sets in.
The bad news is that lying can corrode an organization, says Carol Kinsey Goman, author of the recently released
“The Truth About Lies in the Workplace.” The good news: Communicators can help establish the trust needed to create a collaborative workplace.
“There’s no place that could have a greater influence than PR or corporate communications,” Goman says.
Goman, who addressed the International Association of Business Communicators world conference this summer, added further
thoughts in an interview with Ragan.com this week.
Lying isn’t always bad. It’s part of our evolutionary makeup, a glue that holds society together. (Goman cites one guy who says, “I always lie about
meetings I don’t want to attend.”) It’s not that that organizations should ban the white lie; they do have to eliminate harmful lies.
“You work with a bunch of liars who tell lies for all sorts of reasons,” she says, adding, “If you are discovered and branded as a liar, it kills your
career and it kills your reputation.”
Sixty-seven percent of people think that their senior leaders lie, withhold information, or embellish, Goman says. Some 53 percent think their direct
supervisor lies by taking credit for the team’s work or blaming the team when things go wrong.
Half of people say their colleagues lie, and 53 percent confess that they themselves do, often to avoid hurting feelings. Frighteningly, as many as one in
25 people may be pathological liars.
“They will damage you, they will kill your career, and they won’t think twice about it,” Goman says.
Here are some ways to catch liars, avoid being lied to, and foster trust:
1. Look beyond people’s appearance.
Why do you think Hollywood frequently casts ugly bad guys? Goman cites research showing that we are biased toward attractive or baby-faced people—and
against those we think look unpleasant or shifty. Some of this is as basic (and irrational) as the slant of the eyebrows or shape of the cheekbones.
This harms our ability to recognize deception (or truth). Rein in bias: Be aware that just because your colleague reminds you of that hated vice principal
who suspended you at the drop of a fire alarm, it doesn’t mean he’s a liar.
“It has helped me so much by saying, I might be making snap decisions about someone because they look like my least favorite aunt or their eyebrows might
be wrong,” Goman says.
If you happen to have a face others find untrustworthy, smile when you approach people. Goman recalls a colleague who looks like a thug. He knows it. It’s
What to do? “He goes down the street, and he whistles classical music, because he knows that makes people look at him differently,” she says.
3. Beware of other biases.
In-group and out-group biases distort our view of people’s truthfulness. It’s not just about race, gender, religion, or political views. Tech guys or
communicators, for example, may regard themselves as the cool kids, while the rest of the organization isn’t to be trusted.
Another danger is “vested interest bias.” Goman describes it thus:
“I joined this organization; I have a vested interest in believing in it. I married this man; I have a vested interested in believing him. I raised this
little girl; I have a vested interest when she tells me, ‘Oh, I wasn’t part of that group that took drugs.'”
4. Watch for selective wording, quasi-denials, and other evasions.
YOU: Have you ever taken drugs?
JOB CANDIDATE: I don’t take drugs.
YOU: Did you steal office supplies?
EMPLOYEE WITH PENS SPILLING OUT OF HER BRIEFCASE: Do I look like the kind of person who would steal office supplies!?
Toning down the charge:
YOU: Did you steal that computer?
SHOCKED AND INDIGNANT COWORKER WITH COMPUTER CABLE HANGING OUT OF HER TRUNK: I would not borrow a computer.
YOU: Did you finish that report?
EMPLOYEE PRACTICING HIS GOLF STROKE IN HIS CUBICLE: The report didn’t get finished.
Also, be alert for qualifiers (“to the best of my recollection”) and overly formal language (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss
5. Look for stress signals.
You have to be aware of false positives in this category, but still. Most of us are uncomfortable lying. When fibbing, Goman says, people often fidget,
speak in higher tones, move their hands under the table, rub their hands together, say “uh” and “um” a lot, or get angry. (How dare you suggest..!
Establish a “truth baseline” by posing a question you know the answer to, such as asking a job candidate, “Do you know anyone who works here?” See how they
look when they’re telling the truth. Then return to the question that made you suspicious.
6. Don’t make it necessary for your employees to lie.
Organizations can adopt policies that make liars of their employees. People need time off to go to a kid’s recital or basketball game. If you say they
can’t get out of work unless they break a leg, you’re turning them into liars, Goman says.
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