You’re a Lying Liar at Work, and You’re Not Alone
You lie once every three and a half minutes. If you’re shaking your head to that, well – you better restart the clock. Research by Paul Ekman, PhD, an American psychologist and the author of Telling Lies, has found people lie an average of three times in a 10-minute conversation.
If it makes you feel better, you can think of it in terms of people lied to: Research by Bella DePaulo, PhD, a social psychologist and professor, has found people lie every three to five interactions.
But perhaps what’s most interesting is where we lie: Research is fairly conclusive that we’re lying at work. A lot.
Do a mental scan of your day, and lying in the workplace quickly adds up. We lie to fit in socially (‘Yes, I love cricket too!’), to avoid punishment, blame or embarrassment (‘I was just getting to that’). We lie to satisfy our own needs or enhance our status (‘I love jazz’), and we lie to avoid awkwardness (‘I can’t meet because of a dentist’s appointment thing’). We even lie to get the job in the first place: Resume padding is expected, and stepping beyond that to full-blown lying about job experience is common enough that, in India, background verification is a whole industry.
Blurring the line further is the fact that some industries even reward lying. Marketing and advertising’s relationship with the truth has always been nebulous – and protected; “puffery” is a term used in the legal profession for any exaggerated, promotional statement meant to bolster a position or claim.
But the fact that lying at work is commonplace and occasionally encouraged doesn’t fully explain why people lie so much at work. After all, the same could be said of nudity, and most of us still turn up at the office in suits not of the birthday variety.
Why people lie at work
There is, perhaps, a clue in that. Just as a suit doesn’t typically reflect our naked bodies underneath, a lie told at work doesn’t reflect on our true character. Such is the theory of Johannes Abeler, an Oxford University behavioural economist, whose research has found that when people are randomly contacted at home on the phone, most will tell the truth even if it causes them to lose a small reward.
However, take the person out of their home – put them in a suit, so to speak – and people tell a different story; roughly a third lied when the experiment was repeated in a lab setting.
“If people are given wriggle room, as they are in office settings, they can convince themselves that their behavior isn’t fraudulent, and this doesn’t attack their sense of self,” Abeler said in a 2013 interview with Bloomberg.
Offices perhaps also provide more opportunity for lying. We are social creatures, and while offices are places of work, for most of us, that work requires interaction, collaboration — teamwork. This means not only plenty of opportunity for “black lies” – that is, selfish lies that benefit only ourselves (‘No, I didn’t touch your yogurt’ or ‘Yes, I filed that yesterday’) – and “white lies” – that is, altruistic lies that benefit others (“You look fabulous today”) – but also “blue lies.”
Blues lies are lies told in service of a group, often at the expense of another, and they are the last kind of lies we develop the ability to tell. While kids start trying out black lies by around age 3, and white lies by around age 7, a 2008 study by Kang Lee, PhD, a University of Toronto psychologist and an expert on the development of lying, found that 11-year-olds were more likely than 7-year-olds to tell blue lies – in the instance of the study, to lie to an interviewer to cover up others’ rule-breaking in try-outs for their school’s chess team. (The children did not benefit from their lie in any way; only their school benefited from the rule-breaking.)
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Other researchers have found blue lies flourish most in an environment of anger, resentment and hyper-polarization – characteristics not uncommon in many of today’s corporate workplaces. (“The project was totally under-budget when we finished our part; it’s the creative team that drove up costs with all of their creative creativity.”)
It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg, that: Those office characteristics may create a toxic environment in which lies thrive, but they’re also the feelings lies are often blamed for having fostered. Yet having a liar around in an otherwise pleasant workplace could be a good thing: Frequent liars tend to have higher working memory capacity (because they have to remember all of the lies they tell) which correlates to higher IQ levels. They also often have higher EQ – that is, sensitivity to others’ emotions — from monitoring others’ verbal and body language to make sure their lies are believed. If harnessed, this could make them highly intelligent, effective and persuasive workers.
If you’re still shaking your head after all of this and smugly noting it’s been more than three and a half minute since your last lie, consider this: Your honesty is admirable, but not necessarily rewarded. A 2011 study out of Drexel University found that honest workers were more stressed than colleagues who sucked up with falsities to their boss.
No wonder you swear so much.