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“I cannot tell a lie . . .” Oh yes you can. And you do.

February 7, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Joe DeSantis  

In a recent study out of Oxford University in the U.K., researchers contacted people in their homes and found that they were generally willing to answer questions truthfully even when it cost them something—in this case, small promised rewards if they gave “right” answers. But when they put the same types of questions to people in a lab setting, they found more of them willing to lie. Their conclusion was that people are more willing to lie in the workplace than they are at home.

Why does that happen, particularly in organizations that consciously work towards building a culture of transparency? The general answer is that in any organization with a healthy culture, absolute transparency not just impossible to achieve. It is undesirable too.

Consider that there are any number of everyday contexts in the workplace where lying is tacitly if not consciously accepted. This is because in those contexts lying keeps the wheels of the organization, or of the commercial transaction, turning when telling the absolute truth would make the wheels fall off. Therefore, lying is expected and both parties are complicit in it. Here are some examples:

In negotiating: Skilled negotiators expect, and accept, that the other side will deliberately mislead, if not outright lie, in what they put on the table. Starting out with an outrageous price for a product, where both parties know it is outrageous, is an easy example.

“Sucking up”: Agreeing with the boss’s opinion about something, even when it runs counter to one’s own opinion, is a calculated way to avoid unnecessary conflict and therefore a survival skill. Wise bosses know their subordinates do it and they let it go for exactly the same reason.

Public relations: Readers of organizational literature, whether meant for external or internal consumption, know that its purpose is to present the organization in its absolutely best light, and therefore exaggerates if not actually deceives. They accept it as long as they believe it is not outrageously untrue. Employees in town hall-style meetings with management expect the same phenomenon to happen, if (hopefully) to a lesser degree.

Excuses for not getting something done: Sometimes even the best workers drop the ball for no justifiable reason. They lie to cover their tracks (e.g., “I didn’t get the email.”) and the boss knows it but lets it go.

Not bad-mouthing a co-worker (or a former employer during a job interview): At the very least, healthy workplace cultures consider bad-mouthing a coworker bad form if not plain dirty play. Again, the wise boss will know enough about the people and the circumstances to know whom to believe, and will tolerate the lie. The same thing applies in conducting job interviews. The smart interviewer knows the sharp interviewee will lie to avoid bad-mouthing a former employer.

The real issue is the overall health of the organization’s work culture. The healthy organization understands that transparency is something to strive for but not to fully, literally, achieve. Untruths that keep things moving smoothly and do not undermine the mission of the organization are tolerated if not consciously encouraged. Everyone, at every level of the organization, is complicit in the process to one degree or another. In fact, there is a theory that most organizations really have two complementary systems of procedures: one that is overtly taught and official, and the other that circumvents the first one and is expected to be covertly learned.

The unhealthy culture, where lying and deception start at the top and cascade down the organization—the notorious case of Ken Lay and Enron come to mind—is far different, far more toxic and far more harmful not just to its honest employees but to its markets as well.

We all lie, because under certain circumstances we need to and our employers expect us to. But we do it to protect a higher truth—which is to say the achievement of the organization’s mission by honest and ethical means.

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