The year of “tell a lie” (the year of lying dangerously)

Tell a lie

In the last 5-10 years, it feels like terms such as “strategy and planning” became buzzwords. That’s sad. But if anyone had a “strategy” in 2016 aside from “hope another musician doesn’t die,” it would probably be: tell a lie.

Obvious example here would be the U.S. Presidential election. Trump lied left and right, and Clinton wasn’t far behind. You could argue one of the big knocks on Clinton was the email server stuff — seemed like she was hiding a bunch of things, i.e. telling lies. Trump was maybe the best “tell a lie” candidate in U.S. history, and possibly even the world (if you exclude dictators and all that).

The “tell a lie” culture isn’t just in politics. Heck, politics is what we’ve come to associate lying with — but business and management ain’t far behind. Look at hiring as an example. For years we had this fear that candidates were lying — overstating their credentials, essentially. Now there’s a legit fear that employers are lying more. To wit: ever been on a job interview and they tell you they “don’t have a range” for that position? That is tell a lie time, baby! Of course they have a range, or otherwise their CFO/accounting people are miserable morons.

Beyond just hiring, we’ve got a decline in workplace ethics. That’s led to an erosion of trust between managers and employees. We’ve all had the boss who assigns you 73,191 “urgent projects” per quarter, takes a fat bonus for himself, and gives you a raise slightly below inflation. “I’ll get you next year, Mike!” No he won’t. He’s in tell a lie mode. Many are.

Don’t even get me going on fake news.

What does this all mean for us? Let’s explore.

Tell a lie: Some good Wharton context

Nice article here called “The Year Of The Lie.” Very detailed with a lot of studies, so give it a read. This part probably pops more than most:

The reason the onslaught of fake news is particularly important to consider is because “we’d like to believe there is a marketplace of ideas and that the truth will win out. It’s not true; that’s not how the world works,” says Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions. “It is not the case that the truth always wins out. In extreme cases, it can be a very long and torturous process.”

There’s an article recently from The Atlantic called “It’s Not The Economy,” and you’ve got a similar quote therein:

“People’s predispositions affect their factual beliefs about the world,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who has researched why people believe what they do about politics. “What we want to be true influences what we believe to be true.”

Two Ivy League-level professors straight up telling it like it is.

The psychology of telling lies

Everyone lies — but how people tell a lie is usually based on social class. Here’s the money quote from another top professor, this time out of Northwestern:

“Why does this happen?” Rucker asks. “Those high is social class, by definition, have more wealth and resources. They feel more empowered, and this psychological sense of empowerment leads them down the path of cheating to help themselves. Those who are low in social class do not feel empowered. They feel more communal and more dependent on others, which produces a willingness to help others, even when it involves behaving unethically.”

So high-class cheat to protect themselves — that’s called “moral decoupling,” by the way — and lower-class tell their lies to bolster the community. Makes sense, and you’ve probably seen this in practice. This is all at the root of our bonus-driven work culture, or our flawed attempts at incentive programs. It’s at the root of inequality issues too, obviously. We have this culture at work often driven by achievement, to the point that a term like “management innovation” has come to mean “He/she works on products that make us a bunch of money.” With so much confusion about who, what, why, and how we’re doing things, should it surprise anyone that people are hitting their tell a lie targets left, right, and center?

“This is all ivory tower bullshit”

That’s what some executive would sneer while reading this. “Professors? Those guys are jokes. I’m a world-builder!” Almost everyone in Trump’s cabinet thinks this way, as an aside. It truly is the tell a lie era, at least in America.

Look, look — I know companies are not beholden to moral norms. Most exist to make money for a set of stakeholders. I get all that. It’s not surprising that lying would be rampant in most companies. A lot of work is really a complex game of control and power anyway, and people having the chance to tell a lie is often crucial to their own personal “strategy” about surviving and advancing.

But we’ve got engagement numbers in the toilet globally. Trust numbers aren’t that far behind. Everyone is stressed. No one seemingly has time for anything. We’re running people in circles and burning ’em out on both sides — and it’s all driven by this culture of “If you do more, you’ll get more. I promise!”

Talk about those “tell a lie” moments, eh?

So what am I proposing?

That people should be better, more ethical? Sure. Although I myself am guilty there too. (We all are.)

Maybe that people should be open and honest at work? Of course, although that’s about six millennia from ever happening.


Is the idea that thinking about the consequences of your actions and words is meaningful? Yep, although work isn’t typically a place where much “thinking” happens.

Am I saying you shouldn’t be a lying dickbag to those who work for/with you? Yep. But for the target-chasers, this will never change.

I could be exhorting for The Gig Economy, which I personally have found some success with — but the fact is, we’re actually in the most bureaucratic time period ever (for first-world work).  Those lying middle managers, who promise you the moon and hand you dirt? Ironically, they’re mostly crippling the bottom line of where you work.

People should be better, and work should be made simpler — not more complex, which is what we tend to do. That’s the bottom line. I can’t go around and fix every human being’s mentality, though.

There was a lot of fraught hand-wringing about the world in 2016. Many themes and essays tried to explain where we’re headed. Concerns, fear, disillusionment, etc. If you want one theme that kind of encapsulates so much going on around us right now, it’s that we’re living in the Tell A Lie Era. Who cares if you don’t release tax returns, which no one has ever done? Tell a lie! Become President!

Anything else you’d add on this tell a lie culture?

Ted Bauer

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