We all frown upon people who lie to us at work; we call it integrity and, in many cases, like to shun such colleagues first time or on repeated lies.
“Keep it to yourself, for now, as it is still confidential” is a famous overused line with our favorite colleagues. Has this phrase unknowingly created a huge trust issue across the organization between managers and their teams. Team members judge/trust their manager based on how they fairly disseminate information. As a leader/manager, I have found myself fairly inconsistent over a period of time on this issue. I can’t say if I lied, exaggerated, withheld information due to my role or the context I was in. One thing is true I was economical with the truth on many such occasions in the name of contextual confidentiality. Now, when I look back, I can clearly trace those roots.
There were above 400 people in the MG road hotel compound when I walked in for my first job interview. I felt like walking away, intimidated by the atmosphere and the sheer number of people in suits & ties waiting for their turn. The energy and smart conversations around me were simply overwhelming. I made a few friendly conversations with other first-time jobseekers as I waited for my turn to be interviewed. I was eventually called in and told that I was shortlisted for the written test and needed to come the next day. But the interviewer told me strictly that I can’t tell this anyone outside. If anyone asks, I was to share that I will be informed later once everyone is screened.
As I came out, one of the candidates whom I had befriended also walked out of another room after his screening round. He looked happy, and We walked together to the bus stand, sharing our experiences. He mentioned that he did well and he would be informed later once everyone is screened. I shared with him the feedback I got too. As he left for his bus, I felt very uneasy about the situation. It wasn’t the first time I had lied. I had done that maybe a million times with my parents, which wasn’t new for me.
I was worried if he too turned up tomorrow for the written test and how awkward it would be if I bump into him. I walked in the next day uneasily anxious about facing him than about passing the written test. Luckily I did not see him there and went on to pass the written test too. After that, the drill while waiting for the interviews was similar. We made new friends, but we would lie to each other on the same topic, though some of us knew we were coming the next day. In the end couple of us got offered and joined. Luckily I hadn’t met these two joiners during interviews, and it was easier to start with them as colleagues.
So what’s the summary of all the English above? The guys who were clearing the so-called interview rounds were every day practicing the art of lying and the guys who were being rejected were telling the truth, at least on the interview results!
Lie to Lies
When I landed my first job, should I say I had successfully passed the test of lying with a straight face? I thought lying to parents about bunking classes for movies wasn’t a crime. The interview act, anyhow, was the pathway to my first job; Hence, justifiable? Later, the induction slides talked about the definition of integrity. Amongst many things, it meant violating the norms of the company, lying to bosses and colleagues. At least that’s how I understood it. Some of the colleagues were fired based on integrity. Mostly, we believed they cheated on the company either by misappropriation of companies materials or transgressing the company’s rules and, in some cases, blatantly lying to supervisors.
Exaggeration vs. Lies
In many of the internal settings, we end up confusing our colleagues. The proof of it is seen is in sales where there is a thin line between exaggeration on capability and delivery. If the customer says do you have stocks to deliver, you possibly would say off course and then come back and beg your distributor/retailer/manager to stock up because you have promised to your customer. When you see your boss exaggerating to the customer that the company has already done this before or well-staffed to execute a new project, you sort of pick up the hints that it's ok to lie as it seems harmless to win a deal or tide over a situation.
The Manager conundrum
As you grow up the ladder, you tend to specialize in this art of exaggeration or lying as you have to get exposed to them frequently. You go to a strategy meeting, and after all the discussions, you are told to please wait till the CEO officially announces it. Till then, it's confidential. Meanwhile, some of the managers would have already shared this with their confidants, and before you know, your reportees already know what you hid from them. So, it would look as though you withheld information from your team. Or, in some cases, you couldn’t contain the excitement on the new strategy that you leaked it to some of your favorite team members, and they told their friends. Everybody in the team knew about it unofficially, and you were still waiting for the official announcement. So it’s a nice game we all play knowingly, acting ignorant in the name of confidentiality. Think of that famous test you put your boss into or your reportee played on you.
Team member: I heard that there is going to be massive restructuring, and there will be layoffs
Supervisor: Who told you there is nothing like that? Won't I tell you if I knew any of these
Team Member: Everyone is talking about it, some of the managers who came back from Hq have mentioned it to their team members, Please please don’t ask who told me, But everyone on the floor is talking about it.
Then we end up admitting about the news not to appear ignorant or left out, we end up closing the conversation by saying, “keep it to yourself, it's still not official.”
The Confidentiality Bollocks
The attraction of being a manager or aspiration leadership roles have been the access to information and, of course, power. It seems like every piece of information you get from the top of the decision you take is worthy of it if it remains accessible to a few, or you can share it discreetly. What’s the fun of everyone knowing everything? Imagine if every decision is announced directly to all by the CEO as soon as s/he makes it. There is no fun in it. Let’s list the information we hide or lie about in the name of confidentiality…
- Hiring & firings (who is coming next and who is going & why )
- Promotions, new vacancies, new projects, restructuring
- Salary freeze, cuts, bonus payouts, next offsite, overseas trips
We can argue that these are delayed information and not lying per se. But, every time any of our team members ask us about any of the above, we can't help but say it's confidential?
There are times when we withhold the “Why” even if we know it as it would hurt the integrity of certain roles or people who are affected by it. If you know your peer/colleague got fired and one of your curious colleagues asked ‘why’ it would be difficult to share the information even if you know s/he were terminated. So, there are many situations where not being truthful at the moment is not equivalent to lying. But, when your boss asks why you are leaving and you replying that “taking a break, going overseas, pursuing studies” and then joining competition next week is a lie, however, that’s done for self-preservation! So, let us park that elsewhere.
To survive, grow, self-preserve or follow instructions, we need to resort to communication patterns that might discredit the person we are or the role we hold. This may render us dishonest, liars, not trustworthy, or exaggerators in many contexts.
The Cultural Extension
The instances and the contexts I have explained might appear trivial to some of us. However, If this becomes the way, it has a huge impact on its culture and performance. Accenture’s Competitive Agility Index — a 7,000-company, 20-industry analysis, for the first time tangibly quantified how a decline in stakeholder trust impacts a company’s financial performance. The analysis reveals more than half (54%) of companies on the index experienced a material drop in trust — from incidents such as product recalls, fraud, data breaches, and C-suite missteps — which equates to a minimum of $180 billion in missed revenues.
Neuropsychological evidence suggests that lying requires higher working memory capacity, which is strongly related to IQ. As Swift said, “he who tells a lie is not sensible how great a task he undertakes; for to uphold one lie, he must invent twenty others.”
When you look into the mirror, can you recall the instances where you were economical with the truth with your colleagues and still did not feel bad about it?