That’s a good point! (No it isn’t.)
I’d be happy to join the team! (I’d rather be eaten by warthogs.)
Your cake is delicious! (Thanks for the food poisoning, Julia Child.)
These are but a few examples of the lies we tell at work. Most aren’t risky or nefarious. They tend to fall into that nebulous “little white lie” category.
But if there’s one thing I learned while getting my PhD in workplace advice generation from the Oxford University College of Achievement Believability, it’s that honesty matters.
In the wrong environment, even small lies can evolve, crawling from the primordial waters of good intentions, sprouting arms and legs and fangs and growing into a snarly thing to manage.
So a workplace needs to find honesty equilibrium — enough permissible white lies that co-workers aren’t beating each other up for saying, “Those jeans DO make you look fat!” combined with a culture that promotes honesty.
Carol Kinsey Goman, author of the new book “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace,” conducted a survey of “business professionals” and found that 53 percent admitted to lying. The lies were largely to cover up job performance issues or as a means of career advancement.
“I think people under-self-report their lies because they don’t realize how much they lie,” Goman said. “People are really reporting the large, uncomfortable lies, particularly if they were ever caught and embarrassed by them.”
She breaks liars down into four categories: occasional, frequent, habitual and pathological.
The pathological liars are destructive, and no workplace culture will stop them. The occasional liars don’t mount much of a threat. But frequent or habitual liars — those who have a comfort level with dishonesty — need to be contained by leaders who demonstrate honest behavior.
“The setting is very important, and it’s not just the senior leaders,” Goman said. “Every team leader, every manager, all the way up and down the chain creates this miniculture. So that one boss or supervisor who says, ‘I’m going to keep your confidences, I’m going to have your back, I’m going to be there for you,’ and has the body language that supports that, can create something very special and very high in trust.”
Keith Murnighan, a professor of risk management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said a workplace needs employees with enough “social graces” to tell white lies when necessary.
“As a leader and a manager, you actually do want white lies,” he said. “Sometimes, white lies are really helpful because they prevent people from stirring up trouble that you don’t need.”
Beyond that, Murnighan said, leaders have to tell the truth and be willing to reward people who come to them with bad news: “If there’s never any bad news, something’s wrong. You have to reward people for being honest. The natural tendency is when someone is honest and tells you something you don’t want to hear, you punish them. That phrase ‘Don’t kill the messenger’ exists for a reason — because we kill the messengers. But we can’t do that. Honesty has to be rewarded.”
Goman agreed that trustworthy leadership is the key to managing honesty.
In her book she gives suggestions for reducing workplace lying, which include: Provide honest leaders as examples, look for solutions to problems rather than placing blame, get rid of policies that lead people to lie (this could range from letting workers take “mental health days” so they don’t lie about sick days, to offering incentives that promote honest behavior) and communicate.
That last one is key. Employees want information. They want to know when they’re doing something right and when they’re doing something wrong. They want to know whether the company is in good financial shape or having problems. If “the company” is honest with employees, employees will be more inclined to be honest back.
“Think about every coach you read about who’s successful,” Murnighan said. “The players will tell you, ‘You might not like it, but he tells the truth.’ What people need is accurate feedback. From a leader’s perspective, you don’t want to gloss over things.”
Goman ends her book — spoiler alert! — with a wonderful sentence that sums up the importance of what I’ll call the “honesty health” of your workplace.
She writes that “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.”
Or as we used to say when I was a four-star general/movie star with rock-hard abs and a fleet of solid-gold Army tanks: “Honesty matters.”