Recently, I experienced an extraordinary epi­sode in which lies, half-truths and untruths were spouted by someone in a position of leadership. The who and where is irrelevant but the lessons learnt are worth sharing.

At first, I was shocked. I mean I couldn’t believe the persuasiveness of the ‘narrative’, the seeming ‘authenticity’ of the delivery and the passion injected into the communication.

The reality is that leaders lie as part of their efforts to remain in power and retain power or extend power. So do the heads/managers/employees who work with them. Research shows that people tend to lie in 25 per cent of all social interactions.

Psychologist Robert Feldman argues that lies and liars are part and parcel of social fabric; it is ‘normal’ to lie or be lied to. For more information, please refer to his book The Liar In Your Life: The Way To Truthful Relationships.

This means that management or leadership just got harder since there is a truth bias at the workplace which prevents managers and leaders from spotting the liars or dealing with them.

According to research carried out by Harvard University, “we lie if honesty doesn’t work” and the four biggest reasons why people lie are: (1) to cover up a mistake (2) to gain economic advantage (3) to gain personal advantage and (4) to escape or evade other people. 

What strategies, therefore, can we employ to deal with liars at the workplace? I think this is the key question for any manager or employee.

The first strategy is to recognise that one of the most common types of liars is to lie by omission. An example would be the sales/marketing manager informing the director of sales/marketing of the quarterly sales but withholding material information which would qualify the good results. In such a situation, one needs to ask direct questions which probe beyond the surface. The liar will simply avoid the subject but, if asked direct questions, will feel compelled to slowly release the truth.

The secret is never to accuse the liar of being a liar

As the truth is released, and more and more direct questions are asked, what was originally omitted will be revealed. The secret here is never to accuse the liar of being a liar! The liar must feel like s/he is from a position of power directing you in the right direction and you are appreciative of their revealing answers.

A second strategy is to be less formal and more friendly. Research shows that the more formal and official one is, the less willing people are to reveal all. A classic example would be the final interview of a successful interviewee. The applicant will be less likely to reveal what s/he currently earns if the HR head/manager sets a formal tone to the interview, while, if a casual and friendly approach is adopted, the applicant is more likely to open-up and volunteer information. 

A third strategy is to invite the other party to ask you questions. Imagine you have identified a preferred bidder for the provision of a service or product and in the final meeting before signing contracts, you invite the service provider to ask you any question.

This is an astute way to glean information out of them without sometimes them even realising. The preferred bidder might ask, for example, what happens if the delivery dates need to be moved or deadlines agreed need to be modified. This would reveal that the bid is based on promises that the bidder may not be able to honour and you can drill down how/when this scenario might unfold. 

A fourth strategy is to maintain eye contact throughout and ask unexpected questions requiring unexpected details. So, for example, if the operations manager is pushing for the sacking of an employee and briefs his head about a meeting held with such employee, the head could throw in a question like “What was the colour of the tie? Was it a striped shirt or plain shirt?”.

Often liars would have worked out the more significant details in advance but wouldn’t have given the smaller details a thought. So by asking about seemingly irrelevant details throws them off and sucks out the confidence from the lair.

A fifth strategy is to learn how to master the art of empathy. If you empathise with the liar and disarm his/her need to lie, they might be more likely to stray back to the truth. Don’t forget that lying is a type of self-defence, so if there is no need to defend oneself, there is less need to lie. This strategy works best when the person knows the liar and has a good working relationship with them.

The place of work has become a minefield of lies, half-truths and untruths and the successful employees are those who enter the workplace with that realisation. Since being prepared is half the battle!

If we assume that a degree of lying takes place in most negotiations, meetings, interviews and/or work interactions, we can extract the truth or enough of the truth to be able to take informed decisions which have a positive valuable effect on the business.

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