The truth behind workplace lies that form the norm

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Lying at work is probably more common than we appreciate, until we stop to consider all the ways in which we deploy untruths. It can start with exaggerations and falsehoods when applying for jobs.

Once in place, we may express agreement in meetings with ideas we think are wrong to keep the peace. We may be tempted to call in sick tomorrow (I write this on Melbourne Cup day). We lie because it is political and strategic for us to do so. Furthermore, we should not be surprised therefore to discover that capital-P politics is no different if recent world events are anything to go by.

Lies: looks like the nose have it.

Lies: looks like the nose have it. Credit:Simon Letch

It seems to me that we often have an open relationship with the truth in work and life. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Chameleon, “if one tells truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out”. We frequently operate in a murky world of half-truths and little deceits. The so-called white lie is regarded as a necessary social lubricant. We might never get out of the door to the restaurant if we answer too honestly regarding the visual impact of a lover’s chosen garment on their posterior. However, overdo this and we run the risk, as Margot Asquith pithily observed, of telling “enough white lies to ice a wedding cake”. Or to fill up a job or promotion application.

In politics, misdirection, lies and deceit seem to be accepted tools of the trade. After all, as Henry Wotton noted in the 1600s, “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”. Surely, many of us could be forgiven for agreeing with US entertainer Oscar Lavant’s cynical observation of a politician, “he’ll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it”.

But it is not just politicians. We see misdirection in those promises that the goods or service will be delivered before Christmas, or that the report will be ready by Friday (I didn’t say which Friday). Besides, 5pm Friday is really the same as 9am the following Monday.

The three-way spat between Scott Morrison, Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden is remarkable, not so much because we are shocked at the possibility that a politician might be lying (and you can place your bets on whichever of the three runners you prefer), but rather because it has put the spotlight firmly on these dark arts of “diplomacy”. But this is no different to what goes on in most workplaces, is it? If you ask team members to estimate how much they contributed to the result, the combined figure comes to way more than 100 per cent. The extent to which we deceive is a matter of good taste or diplomacy.

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Whether this is a rare moment of truth, one can too readily predict that things will return to normal operations rapidly, where all sides expect there to be some varnishing, gilding, bending and stretching of the truth. Just as Winston Churchill observed of a colleague, “he occasionally stumbled over the truth but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”. There is an acceptance at work that there will be “exaggerations” and deflections from time to time.

Occasionally, we get to glimpse behind the magician’s curtain to appreciate how some tricks work. Robert Armstrong, head of the British civil service, famously defended a statement during the Spy Catcher case in 1986 with this gem: “it contains a misleading impression, not a lie. It was being economical with the truth.”

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