When a Manager Lies

Stanford study tells how to spot a CEO who lies 

A recent Stanford study pinpointed communication tendencies that are common among CEOs who are later proven to be liars. Here’s what it said:

“For one, they seldom referred to themselves or their firms in the first person; “I” and “we” were replaced by terms like “the team” and “the company.” Deceitful executives passed up humdrum adjectives like “solid” and “respectable” in favor of gushing words like “fantastic,” and (not surprisingly) they seldom mentioned shareholder value.

They also tended buttress their points with references to general knowledge with phrases like “you know” and to make short statements with little hesitation, presumably because they had carefully scripted the untruths in advance and had no interest in lingering on them.”

The report also noted the tendency to swear as a tip off. 

The study lead to the question that a woman’s magazine editor asked me: “How do you get to the truth when bosses lie?”

Here are some tips I gave the magazine editor. 

Study the dynamics

1. We all need to be able to recognize the communication tendencies the study mentioned when we see them. We’ll be much more able to respond to them if:

a) we note when, how and why we use them ourselves, and

b) we become aware of how they affect us when others use them. Do we automatically stop thinking for ourselves when someone in authority says “as you know”? Do swear words intimidate us? Are we flattered enough by sweeping praise like “you’re amazing” or wanting to believe blanket dismissals of concerns like “everything is fabulous,” that we stop our own critical thinking? With the exception of the hesitation words, these patterns aren’t just clues to whether someone is lying. They’re tactics that hook unconscious authority issues and disempower us so we don’t directly address issues. They will work on us to the extent that we are unconscious of them.

Elicit a personalized response

2. We’re usually better off not confronting lying directly, but by elevating the conversation to a higher level of authenticity. “Lying” is a strong word and that can trigger an aggressive, distrustful approach that will entrench the “liar” in defensiveness. They may not think there’s anything wrong with how they communicate.

I recommend including phrases that tap into the boss’ humanity such as,

  • I’ve always trusted you to be straight with me, since this is much more than a business situation for me.
  • Could you talk with me here like I’m your daughter/sister/brother/son/best friend?
  • If I were a family member, what would recommend I do in this situation? Can I ask you a question as a mentor?
  • If you were me sitting here in my stage of career path, what would you say or ask right now? If there’s anything in this conversation that you think I need to know, even if I might not want to hear it, will you level with me?
  • I’m sensitive, but I also know that my future and my family’s future depends on you being able to be straight with me.
  • I look up to you as a mentor.

References to family, trust and their personal memories of being in your situation often breaks them out of their own spin. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say, without being mean when you say it.

3. Use the SpeakStrong formula: say what you mean and mean what you say without being mean when you say it, with emphasis on the not being mean. You don’t want this to become a power match. You want to change the game to one where they want to support you.

Target your responses

4. Use the say what you mean formula to target specific outcomes. Do you need the truth? Make sure you don’t get caught up in exposing them to your own detriment, or trying to be right or win.

What this looks like

Here is an example. In discussing a promotion, the manager says, “There’s just nothing open but we’ve got our eye on you for the near future.”

You’re not completely certain, but you suspect it’s a distortion and a cop-out.

Before you speak, ask yourself,

What does “nothing open” mean?

What does “having an eye on you” mean?

What kind of things do they have their eye on?

Who is “we”?

Then, use some adaptation of the following phrases.

  • When you say there’s nothing open, are you saying there’s nothing open that you think I’m qualified for, or nothing at all?
  • As tempting as it is to think I’m more important than I am, I need to plan my career track based on reality. Is there anything I need to know that I might not want to hear? Who has their eye on me?
  • What are they/you looking for?
  • If you were in my position, what would you do to prepare for that promotion? If I were your (family member, personal friend, protégée) what advice would you give me now?
  • I look up to you as a mentor. What would you do in my position right now?
  • I think I’ve earned a promotion and I’m feeling held back right now. Will you go into as much detail about what opportunities there are for me and how I can prepare for them?

Make sure it’s worth the trouble

One closing word. The Stanford study created the red flag list indicating when a CEO might be beyond hope and help. If your own manager is so deceptive you think the term “liar” is appropriate, it might be better to find someone to work for who is more honest.

After all, if you work for someone who is dishonest, what does that say about you?


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