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Employees lie

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Employees lie.

How does that statement strike you? Do you respond with, “Yeah, of course!” Do you want to argue that “people are mostly good and wish to be honest?” Do you find yourself wanting to fall back on platitudes like, “Everyone tells white lies?” Do you believe that your context—a family business, church, for-benefit organization—makes your employees different?

As a leader trying to understand employee behavior, the most important question to pay attention to may not be, “Do employee’s lie?” But “Who is it that employee’s lie to?”.


I grew up an a small midwestern town where you knew everyone in town—at least by reputation, even if you didn’t know them personally. If you didn’t know exactly “who they were” all it took to find out was a quick query and you’d soon find out. . A person’s reputation was regarded as paramount in that small town context. In that context, everyone saw others through the lens of “who they are;” meaning, of course, how their reputation had them labelled. From a sociological point of view, this it could be argued, was both helpful and harmful at the same time. But the good and bad of that societal epoch we will not debate here, I simply mention this context to paint for the reader the idea of the community in which I was raised.

Within that microcosm, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family with parents who had integrity. Their private persona was no different than their public one, that as, they were who they appeared to be. The persona the public saw was actually who they were in private.

As a child in my home there was no confusing duplicity by my parents, no behavioral “skeletons” in the home closet, no hidden addictions or unexplainable emotional, cognitive or behavioral anomalies. I was blessed to grew up around people whose behavior, thinking, and emotions were predictable and reliable. Thus, my parents modeled a trust-worthy lifestyle (For example, see my post on the Greatest Act of Leadership) and I grew up trusting people and assuming that others were much the same. In short, I learned to trust too much.

Public school, particularly the washboards (waterboarding?) of “middle school” began to make me aware of the myopathy of this view, that people could be trusted. Fellow students, I noticed, were not always honest, self-critical, or displayed integrity. Amplifying my surprise, I learned that, many times, their parents did little to model better patterns than their children. Still, most of the people I “hung around with” had good models for parents and didn’t display “really bad” behavior. The others, were easily labelled, relegated to the “proper” recitative category, and dismissed. So, some residue of trust remained.

While life continued to educate me in terms of human behavior, It wasn’t until later—probably when I was working on my master’s degree—that I really had to come to grips with the variability in the true “nature” of humanity, good and bad. Or if you don’t like the terms “good” and “bad” perhaps you prefer, “useful” and “dysfunctional.” A step in the process of understanding the full variability of people’s behavior was discovered it in a Tennessee penitentiary.

Interviews with Inmates

As a student, we had to go interview people in many different contexts. One of them was in prison. Our professor gave us a list of questions to ask, in each context, during the interviews. The first question we were required to the prisoners was, “Why are you here?” So, I made the drive through the razor wire, past the towers, and into the interview room, and dutifully asked the question.

“They got the wrong person,” one said. “The judge had it in for my family,” said another. “I got set up,” a third told me. “No one else got sent to prison,” a fourth told me. The pattern was unmistakeable. It clearly wasn’t their own fault that they were in prison!

At first, I felt confused by their answers. “Could this be true?” I asked myself after the first few interviews. Could all these people be in prison for the reasons they state they are in prison? Had I, somehow, drawn a sample that was somehow skewed and not representative of the population in the prison—a population obviously deemed responsible by the judicial system? (Later I found that this pattern occurred across all grad student interviewers, which bolstered my conclusion that this might be descriptive on the population.)

Next, I decided they were lying to me. The excuses and blaming was stretching all bounds of credibility. “It can’t be true that all these inmates are here due to the action of others alone,” I began to think. While some explanations were more plausible than others, most had the characteristics of a thin veneer masking a much more complex surface—and one that certainly held some personable responsibility. “Yep, that’s it, I concluded. They’re lying.”

But . . . .

As I observed their behavior, I also noticed that there were few “tell tale” signs of lying. The eye-contact was steady. Their manner compelling. No flickers of guilt. A ready answer for any possible contest to their preferred story. I began to edit my summary judgement. It wasn’t only that these inmates were lying. They weren’t “simply” lying to me, no, I concluded they were in fact lying to themselves—and believing the lie.

I was not surprised later to find research that said that criminals, compared to other populations in the community, tend to have high levels of self-esteem. They think of themselves as good people—better than most. This belief persists, even when society has deemed that they have done something worth of incarceration.

People labelled “Employees”

Inmates are people of course. So are ones labelled as employees.

This phenomenon, of lying to oneself, is not limited to inmates. Although “criminal minds” may take the “cat-bird’s seat” in the pervasiveness of this self-deceptive trait—it still demonstrably exists in smaller quantities in many others. Some teenagers for example, will blame everyone, except themselves, for the consequences of their decisions and actions. These “oppositional” teens may, or may not, be headed into criminal behavior but the thinking is reminiscent of the mind-set of the inmates and maddeningly resistant to parental “reasoning.”

But it is not limited even to populations we might define as “oppositional.” More normative populations exhibit it but in different ways. What about a individual with low self-worth? Or one with a super-inflated ego? Well, a close examination reveals that they too lie to themselves! Only the outcome is different. The first, blieving that they have little value, are unlikeable, doomed to failure, they act on those beliefs and co-create that self-fulfilled outcome. Giving up on tasks, assuming others know more or could do it better, self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom. These employees may avoid engaging at work due to their own self-doubt, and thus are not providing their very best to their teams or organizations. While the second, keep the focus on themselves and create an erosive effect on their team.

Here we are not talking about common reasons communication fails (we’ve written about that elsewhere) or problems with the “creating a positive employee culture” but ways that individual employee’s beliefs constrain their ability to become high achievers within a team.

Leadership and Employee Lies

So, what’s to be done? Well, if you are a leader, trying to evaluate your team, ask yourself, “How is this particular employee lying?” and “What does this lie do for them?” Then ask, “How does this lie prevent them from being their very best?” Then begin to find a way to help the employee confront their own lies about themselves and to begin to again, grow and learn.

(Be careful here. Understanding human motivation and behavior is quiet complex. Still, every leader has the need to evaluate employees. The question is, will they do it well or poorly? Evaluations can be a subtle way to blame and shift the focus away from the leader. Thus, our final comments, below, on item 10 in our list of ways employees lie to themselves! If this still doesn’t make sense, check out our post on leadership and facts.)

[Jimmy Carter lacked] . . . the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. Carter often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time.
— James Fallows, The Passionless Presidency, The Atlantic, May, 1979

Okay, here we go . . . Ten lies employees tell themselves . . .

  1. I am well-aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. Few people develop good self-awareness without considerable “work” and an outside viewpoint. Coaching, mentoring, training. Self-awareness should be a continual process. (Have an employee who is not real self-aware? Here are some extra tips for dealing with a Maverick.)

  2. I am not a good/capable/smart/effective employee. Some employees fears stop them from continuing to grow. They hide, avoid, or give up rather than to strive, learn, and grow.

  3. If I fail, I am a bad employee. Some fall trap to a perfectionistic mind-set. Do things right and you will succeed. Fail and you will be a failure. The truth is we all strive to not fail but our failures or mistakes can be some of our best means to improving.

  4. Being open or sharing feelings makes me look weak. While no one respects someone who “over-emotes” and makes work a personal counseling session, that doesn’t mean being cold, distant, and aloof is better.

  5. I am a very valuable employee—more valuable than most. While “confidence” can be a good thing—event if it may be a beneficial myth—if it borders on arrogance or narcism it can be destructive to a team. If it is an unrecognized bid for control then it works to undermine leadership if not addressed.

  6. Playing it safe, avoiding conflict, and taking no personal risks makes me a good employee. Some employees “hide.” By playing the “yes person” and appearing to be a team player they are protecting themselves and not providing their full input into the team.

  7. I am good with people. I am a good listener. Any conflict is due to other’s poor behavior. It is remarkable how some employees, despite conflict or problems consistently “swirling” around them, can maintain the belief that they have good or even superior skills with people. But they do.

  8. I am not good with people. Despite the fact that I have a following. The opposite of the item mentioned above, some employees struggle to see that they have good people skills and may even be an informal leader within their team.

  9. People will “get over it” if I lose me temper or am reactive. Employees whose behavior is unpredictable, impulsive, or reactive often believe it is a virtue. Comments like, “It least everyone knows where I stand” or “I don’t play games” cover up the fact that others accomplish these same outcomes without the behavior that is damaging to the team.

  10. A final lie you should examine—once you’ve finished assessing your employees . . . is this, “What lies am I telling myself?” This may be the most important analysis of all. After all, “I’m the boss, this doesn’t apply to me!” may be the biggest self-deceit of all.

    (P.S. Here is a personal story you might like on teams and trust: My Coach is the Coach of the Year! Trust and Team building.)