Most people have told a little white lie at work at some point. Maybe you told your boss you were late because of the traffic when you overslept, or told a colleague you were working on a task “right now” – when it was actually at the bottom of your to-do list. You may have even told someone they were doing a great job, when they weren’t.
According to a survey of more than 1,000 UK employees by Glassdoor, 49% have lied at work. The most common reasons for doing so included to avoid getting into trouble (44%) and to hide mistakes (34%).
Of those polled, 40% said they had lied because it was easier to agree with the majority, while 24% said they had done so because their boss or colleagues do not like to hear diverse opinions. An older study by the University of Massachusetts found that 60 percent of adults could not have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once.
Telling a little white lie every so often isn’t going to cause too many problems for most people. But workers with a tendency to lie can cause a whole host of issues for businesses and their employees.
Rob Ball, director of Work Horizons, an organisation supporting business leaders to make the most of individuals and teams, says there are many reasons why some people lie frequently at work.
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“Incompetence, ambition, politics, impossible targets from impossible bosses, boredom, sociopathy, control over others are some,” he says. “Too often we are just embarrassed by missing a target, or not knowing something. We cover up and this means falsehoods of various levels of significance.”
Research suggests people who are skilled at lying have several characteristics. There is evidence to suggest that successful lying requires significant cognitive effort and memory capacity, which is related to intellect. Frequent liars also often don’t see anything wrong with it, with studies showing that people who commonly lie are more likely to admit to lying.
In addition, frequent liars can be hard to detect because they may have higher levels of EQ – or emotional intelligence. A 2011 study suggests this can lead to a “heightened ability to simulate emotional expressions” and the ability to avoid emotional “leakage” when deceiving people. In other words, they’re good at controlling their emotions and any non-verbal signs that may give away that they’re lying.
While many people tell the occasional lie, problems occur if lying becomes commonplace at work. A “vicious cycle” can begin with one little white lie from a co-worker, diminishing the ability of other employees to read others and undermining the entire workplace, researchers at Michigan, Harvard, Virginia and Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis found in 2019.
Dishonest deeds diminish a person’s ability to read others’ emotions, or “interpersonal cognition,” the research found. In addition, one dishonest act can lead to more dishonesty.
This can harm businesses because our ability to read emotions is crucial in negotiations and in building relationships. “Everything in business, as in life, is founded on relationships and all relationships must be based on trust. Lying totally undermines this. Reputations are easily lost and if you are a supplier to a client, this can have dramatic effects,” Ball says.
“Indeed, just one example of lying can be terminal in a relationship. I like the story of the new CEO who asked his secretary to lie to a supplier regarding his availability. The secretary refused because if she did the CEO would know she lied and his trust in her would be undermined.”
Of course, this means the better the liar, the more dangerous they are. When you have that first inkling that someone isn’t being truthful, it can be helpful to consider their intentions and how they would benefit from the lie.
Persistent liars may be adept at hiding non-verbal cues, but this can be difficult and people often wring their hands, fiddle with something or avert their gaze if they are lying. Consider their tone and how they come across – they may appear nervous, over confident or fast-talking.
Certain phrases may be used to conceal a lie, too. The statement “as far as I remember” suggests the person is relying on memory, which is notoriously unreliable and provides an excuse if their lie is discovered. Phrases like “in all honesty” emphasise the sincerity of what they are saying, or they may repeat questions to give them more time to think of a lie.
Ultimately, though, a truly skilled liar can be extremely difficult to detect and outing them requires guesswork, which can easily backfire.
“Spotting the liar can only be based on subsequent factual information being in conflict with the statement,” Ball says. “However, very many people indulge in white lies, perhaps to cover themselves.”