Truth is overrated

Dec 17 2007 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Two articles in the last week caught my attention and the theme is the same. Lying at work, it seems, is on the rise. While the tone of the articles is more of the "tsk tsk" variety, I prefer to take a contrarian approach. Lying - especially at work - has its place and always has.

Before condemning me I want all of you who have ever agreed to a sales quota, time line or new hire you knew wouldn't pass the sniff test to sit back down and stop sneering.

The first article that caught my attention was from the National Ethics Resource Study. It was a little article in Business Week, not even worthy of making the website, but it declared that corporate lying is up even in the face of corporate accountability laws like Sarbanes Oxley.

In other words, revealing enough to pass the law, it seems, is not the same thing as telling the whole truth. (This, by the way, qualifies as news in some circles but not mine).

The other article that caught my attention was in Discover magazine. One of their "Top 100 Science Stories of 2007" was that as robots evolve, they learn how to lie. In experiments, some robots will intentionally give bad information to other robots to make sure they have access to resources they need and the others don't.

Now that DOES qualify as news, and I can't believe they buried it down at number 80. My theory, for what it's worth, is that as robots become more human they have become more, well, human.

Lying, my friends, is as human as breathing and if the article is to be believed robots are lying for the same reasons human beings do- to preserve scarce resources and ensure their survival.

A polygraph for email would be a truly killer app
I suppose a definition is required. According to my sources, lying is defined as: "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood". Sounds about right.

Understand, I'm not saying that honesty is not, in general, a fine option and one that should be our default. I'm saying that it's not always possible to live up to that standard and function in our day to day work.

This is nothing new, by the way. St Peter told a whopper when he denied Christ - but the alternative was joining him in jail. How this is different than you or I throwing our old boss under the bus when the new owners take over I am struggling to understand.

"I never knew the guy" is not as different from "I always thought Susan's strategy was flawed, and I believe you folks have a better handle on it" as you purists would like to believe.

Think about this for a moment- what would the workplace be like if we all told the unvarnished truth all the time:

  • "We have committed to quotas there's no way in Hades we'll meet, it's only February and there's already no chance anyone is making bonus this year. Please continue working as hard as you can"
  • "We don't anticipate a reduction in head count this year- of course we didn't anticipate the competition kicking our tails either, so what do we know?"
  • "People are our most important asset- at least until we get the bugs out of that new software"
  • "It's you, it's not me

The issue is not whether we lie, but why. Anyone who's been married longer than a week knows that to be true. If you think the divorce rate is unacceptable now, wait until everyone finds out that those jeans DO make them look fat- and always have.

Telling less than the truth for the sake of building relationships or inspiring people is, I submit, considerably less a sin than lying out of greed or laziness.

One reason lying is on the increase has to do with the fact we're not face-to-face and it's easier to lie if you don't have to look someone in the eye. Even then, I'm not sure that "I'm sorry, it's a little late but I'm working on it now and you'll have it in the morning" is a greater sin than admitting the person's request was somewhere below your need to surf eBay as a priority and you forgot all about it in your quest for the perfect Christmas present. Still, a polygraph for email would be a truly killer app.

And those robots? They'll never really be human until they can look an interviewer in the eye and say, "I, Robot? Blade Runner? Never heard of them, why do you ask?" with a straight face.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.