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Go Ahead - Lie to Me


Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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In the workplace people boast, conceal, falsify, omit, spread gossip, misinform, or cover-up embarrassing (perhaps even unethical) acts. They lie in order to avoid accepting responsibility, to build status and power, 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, to be perceived as “team players” when their main interest is self-interest. These are the anti-social lies that can damage reputations, derail careers, kill team morale and any hope of collaboration. Lies to cover unethical or illegal activities can even bring down an entire organization.

But according to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, there is another type of lies that are actually good for business — and for business relationships. It’s called pro-social lying, although most people refer to it as telling “white lies.” It’s the kind of lie we tell when we want to protect someone or make them feel better.

To see how these two types of lies affect relationships, Dunbar and a group of researchers with the Aalto University School of Science in Finland devised a complex mathematical model. The model showed how anti-social lies erode bonds over time and how pro-social lies help create stronger bonds in a network.

When I was doing research for “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace,” I asked people which workplace liars they were most grateful for. Here are a few of their replies:

I like liars who say, “That’s a nice jacket.” I don’t care it it’s true, it makes me feel good.

I’m grateful for co-workers who ask me how my project is going, even if they’re just being polite.

My team leader tells us what a great job we’re doing. We all know it’s not the truth, but we try to live up to her expectations.

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.

Most of the lies we tell are self-serving deceptions that benefit us. (The job candidate who exaggerates his/her accomplishments does so to look more qualified for the position.) Some, the pro-social kind, are intended to benefit others. (The co-worker who compliments a nervous colleague does so to put him/her at ease.) And some lies are a mixture. (The manager who tells competing candidates that he backs each of them, wants to boost the self-esteem of both people, but also wants to be “on the winning side” regardless of which one gets the job.)

As we now know, white lies actually preserve the social order and can even be selfless. But this is not to underestimate the kind of lies that seriously damage relationships and organizations. I realize that this distinction can be like the “I know it when I see it” test for pornography, but most human beings are extremely nuanced in gauging another person’s selfishness as a liar. The boss who gives you a false deadline because she knows you procrastinate might actually seem canny and clever to you. The boss who gives you an early deadline so that she can take credit for your work to her supervisor is much harder to forgive. The early deadline might be same in each example, but only one is hurtful and harmful.

With this distinction in mind, I hate lying. I hate lies from others that are mean-spirited, and I hate telling lies that force me to remember conflicting stories and that I fear will shame or embarrass me if found out. Those lies are too stressful and take too much of my emotional, physical, and mental energy.

But in an emotionally congenial, high-trust environment, where thinking you have to protect or defend yourself happens less and less frequently, the most destructive kinds of workplace lies diminish with startling rapidity, leaving the kindly, well-intentioned social lies greater and greater scope to do their good work.

So, I’d love to come to your meeting but I’ll be on an important phone call at that time.

And, no, those jeans don’t make you look fat.

About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, an international Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body language in the workplace. Communications coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Office: 510-526-1727
Berkeley, California

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2014-08-13 09:06:15 in Personal Articles

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