The Age of Deception: Can leaders avoid the trap of lying to get ahead?

Posted October 23, 2012 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

It seems everywhere we turn these days, we’re surrounded by liars.  And, I don’t just mean Lance Armstrong type liars.  Statistics suggest that over 50% of people lie on their resumes.  Whether by inflating their titles, accomplishments or academic credentials, it appears many of us apply for jobs with the assumption that our best isn’t going to be good enough.  All this lying got me wondering why being honest is so difficult.

I have a friend whose son is a professional cyclist and good friends with one of the members of Lance Armstrong’s shamed team.  A lot has been written about the pressure Armstrong put on his teammates to dope up, but why did people ultimately do it?  It’s easy to say it comes down to a set of personal ethics, but in my observation ethics seem to get very blurry when the temptation placed before us is impossible to resist and we’re surrounded by people who make the “wrong choices” seem o.k..

For a professional cyclist, who knows that doping is rampant amongst the sport, I think it would be very tough to resist the temptation of succumbing to peer pressure if it ultimately meant walking away from your personal dreams and ambitions.  Our minds have a funny way of justifying things when you’re trying to get what you want and are surrounded by people telling you it’s o.k.

In corporate life, how else can you explain CEO’s who can justify multimillion dollar salaries for themselves while squeezing the hell out of front-line and middle management?  This isn’t good, ethical behaviour, but it’s become normalized because Boards and senior leaders have lied themselves into believing that they are somehow worth more than 50x the average frontline leader’s salary.

Now, I don’t think that most leaders set out to become liars in the same way pot smokers don’t plan to become meth addicts.  I think it’s a slow, slippery slope that starts to gain momentum over time, with the right conditions.  It often starts with “innocent” little white lies like this…

  • “Oh… sorry, I was late for the meeting.  My printer wasn’t working.”  (Actually, the printer was fine, I just spent too much time jamming “one more thing” before the meeting.)
  • “We’ll definitely consider your proposal.” (No we won’t because we have an incumbent vendor that we really like but we needed to go through a bid exercise to appease the Board.)
  • “You’re doing a good job.” (Actually, you’re doing an o.k. job and we’d like to replace you, but we don’t want to tell you that because we need your help to get through a busy time at work and don’t want you to quit.)
  • “I love that idea.” (I hate that idea, but I won’t tell you that… instead I’ll just let it languish and nothing will become of it.)

Don’t think you’re a liar? Here’s an interesting exercise:  try tracking the number of times in a day where you exaggerate, tell a “little white lie” or omit information (which is like lying by omission).  Then reflect on why you were lying.  I tried it and found that, for me, in many cases my lies were all in an effort to protect my personal image of myself and they were all over extremely stupid things.  Being conscious of the triggers that caused me to lie has made me more aware of it and got me thinking: if we all got a handle on the small lies, maybe we’d be in better shape to avoid telling the world (and ourselves) the really big whoppers.   What do you think?

Happy leading!

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