How and Why We Lie at Work



Although every society condemns lying, it is still a common feature of everyday life. Research suggests that Americans average almost two lies per day, though there is huge variability between people. In fact, the distribution of lies follows Pareto’s principle: 20% of people tell 80% of the lies, and 80% of people account for the remaining 20% of lies.

So how do you deal with a coworker you suspect of lying? It depends on the type of lie, and the type of liar, you’re dealing with.

Frequent liars have two salient characteristics. First, they are morally feeble, so they don’t see lying as unethical. Second, whereas most people lie when they are under pressure (e.g., anxious, afraid, or concerned), recurrent liars do it even when they are feeling good or in control of things – because they get a kick out of it. For these reasons, studies have found that frequent liars are more likely to admit to lying. If there’s nothing wrong with it, why hide it?

If you’re dealing with a frequent liar, he or she probably has strong social skills and a fair amount of brains. For example, neuropsychological evidence suggests that lying requires higher working memory capacity, which is strongly related to IQ. As Swift said, “he who tells a lie is not sensible how great a task he undertakes; for in order to uphold one lie he must invent twenty others.” Accordingly, effective lying also requires a vivid imagination, particularly when it comes to producing excuses and bending the truth; studies have indicated that creative people and original thinkers can be more dishonest. As Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely have noted in their research, “a creative personality and a creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their behavior, which, in turn, leads to unethical behavior.”

In addition, effective liars tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence, which lets them manipulate emotional signs in communication, monitor their audience’s reactions, and avoid something called non-verbal leakage – when our body language doesn’t match what we’re saying.

The key point with frequent liars is not to pinpoint whether they are telling the truth, but whether we can predict what they are likely to do. I may say “I enjoy working with you,” and I could be lying. However, so long as I keep pretending that I like working with you when we work together, then who cares about how I really feel about you? When lies are based on objective facts – “I graduated from Stanford” or “I will finish this project by Monday” – then they are self-defeating, because they damage the reputation of the liars when they are found out; so while it can be tempting to feel responsibility to punish the liar, recognize that simply exposing the lie may have the same effect.

Systematic liars are therefore as problematic as people who are systematically late: all you need to do is work out their typical patterns of behavior and plan around them. Unless you want them to stop lying to you, in which case you can gently expose their deceptions to show them you are not as stupid as they think.

Further Reading  – HBR Guide to Office Politics

An infrequent liar has a different psychological makeup. Many of their lies are the product of insecurity. These are lies motivated by fear, and they provide temporary psychological protection to the liar’s ego. For a trivial example, when asked whether you know someone important or have read a popular book, you may instinctively answer “yes” in order to avoid rejection. But this in turn actually increases your insecurity – what if you’re found out? – which will increase your probability of continuing to lie in the future.

Such insecurity-driven lies are often an attempt to gain status – exaggerating an achievement or claiming undue credit for a project. Status-enhancing lies are also often used to establish or maintain close bonds with others, for instance by making empty promises (offering help you can’t follow through on) or framing oneself as an insider rather than an outsider (saying bad things about Joe even if you don’t mean them, just to get along with Jane.)

The best way to deal with insecure liars is to make them feel accepted. Insecure liars are extremely self-critical, so it takes time and effort to compensate for their neurotic perfectionism and make them feel appreciated. Show them that you value them for who they are, rather than who they would like to be.

Whether you are dealing with a frequent liar or an insecure liar, there are a couple of important caveats. First, remember that while most of us perceive lying as a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the truth, as Nietzsche noted, “the most common lie is that which one lies to himself; lying to others is relatively an exception.” Both pathological liars and insecure liars are capable of self-deception. A great deal of psychological research suggests that people will generally act “dishonestly enough to profit, but honestly enough to delude themselves of their integrity.” Furthermore, it is quite plausible that the evolutionary basis of self-deception was to enhance our ability to deceive others, since it is much harder to persuade others of anything when we have not been able to persuade ourselves. To paraphrase George Orwell, “if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” And when someone is capable of distorting reality in their favor, they are not technically lying, just incapable of – or unwilling to – see the truth.

The key decision, in such situations, is whether we should help the individual see things in a different way. Truth can be taxing from a psychological point of view, when it inflicts a wound to the person’s ego. As Diderot pointed out: “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.” Before you accuse a colleague of lying, ask yourself whether he’s actually deliberately misleading others – or just sincere in a mistaken belief.

The second big caveat: not all lies are immoral. In fact, lies may be pro-social – “Mm, this is delicious!” or “Your new boyfriend seems nice,” or “That looks great on you.”  Lies can even be ethical, such as when Nazis knock on the door and ask about the Jews hiding in the attic. This is why adults teach children to appreciate white lies and to develop a healthy degree of dishonesty, and why many people become “too honest” after they’ve had a couple of drinks. Indeed, successful interpersonal functioning often requires the ability to mask one’s inner feelings. Total honesty can take the form of amoral selfishness. Self-control is a moral muscle that not may inhibit not just dishonesty, but also honesty, when the goal is to behave in socially desirable or altruistic ways.

It is easy to get upset when someone lies to us, but there are many shades of dishonesty, and many motivations to lie. There are also many ways to react to a lie. Yes, you may feel insulted at being the target of deception, but reacting emotionally or confrontationally can backfire. A better approach is to politely demonstrate to the liar that they have failed to deceive you. Or just pretend to have fallen for it, which effectively means to deceive them back.

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