On Lance and lies

Jan 17 2013 by Bob Selden Print This Article

With all the publicity this week about the Oprah – Lance Armstrong interview, the subject of "lying" has been centre stage. Did he or didn't he? And what's the truth anyway?

Armstrong has denied for many years that he used performance enhancing drugs of any kind.

However, the mountain of evidence brought against Armstrong over recent months has become overwhelming and when he decided not to fight the USADA charges, his seven Tour de France titles were stripped. Through all of this Armstrong remained unrepentant. He is finally to be interviewed by Winfrey this Friday.

What can we learn from this episode for management? After all, one of the things we most need to hear from colleagues is the truth, so that we can make reasoned decisions. Who and what can we trust?

In a previous article, "Lies, Lies, Lies" I discussed findings about lying via text versus lying face-to-face. That research highlighted two things. First, we all lie. Every day, we tell between two and five lies (or if you're a bit sensitive about that, let's call them "fibs"). And second, people trust face-to-face and video more than text when it comes to telling the truth.

I also suggested in that article that one lesson for managers would be that it would be better to trust face-to-face reports from colleagues rather than information sent via text.

Guess what? Some new research from Jeff Hancock, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science and Communications at Cornell University, has thrown another spanner in the works. Whilst his research agrees with the fact that we all lie regularly, he and his team have also found that people are most honest when communicating via email and least honest when communicating via phone.

Additionally, there's a real kicker to his findings. According to Hancock's research and despite the intuitive notion to the contrary, we are not all that good at picking liars in a face-to-face situation - in fact only slightly better than 50% of the time.

So where does that leave us as far as honest communication is concerned?

In a recent lecture on TED, Hancock did not debunk the previous findings about text being less accurate versus face-to-face, but found that of all the media used to communicate, emails prove most trustworthy.

Although there's no hard evidence as yet as to why email is seen as such a truthful medium, the hypothesis is that it is recorded and can be retrieved (if necessary) later. Face-to-face and phone communication are subject to time lapse and faulty recall (by both parties). Texts don't stay around long; and are generally short and cryptic.

Now, the challenge for managers is that whilst email communication may be more trustworthy than others, it lacks the ability to express the appropriate emotion and likewise, elicit or engender an intended emotion – something that is essential for motivating others. In fact, emails can at times elicit emotions in the receiver that are opposite to those that were intended.

So, where does this leave us?

It would seem that as managers, if we have important messages to give or receive, we should use email to establish the facts then back this up (or precede it) with face-to-face communication (or if impractical, via video).

Above all, avoid the use of texting to send or receive information that depends on critical accuracy. Perhaps Lance Armstrong should have been asked the hard questions long ago via email!

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.

Older Comments

I suspect it is easier for people to disclose information -- truthful or otherwise -- via email because of its 'impersonal' nature and not having to divulge their transgressions in person, i.e., 'hiding' behind an email, particularly if it is an uncomfortable topic. Emails hardly do a good job in creating closure.

I'm also not sold on the suggestion to communicate an issue via email first and then take the matter up in conversation, whenever possible. If the issue is important, it needs to be addressed in person WITH a follow-up note that documents the conversation and findings.

In our world of email, texting, and twittering, people need to get back in the habit of talking to other people and coming to terms with their values, conscience, and integrity.