Leading an entire business or even just a specific department is a tough job, you rely on your teammates to tell you the truth so that you can make decisions and feel confident in what is going on. While most of your employees will repay your trust with honesty, some will occasionally mix in a bit of self -serving spin.
Unfortunately, sometimes you are faced with that employee who bends the truth a bit too far, or one who straight lies to your face. As a leader this is one of the toughest situations to face because you aren’t sure what’s really happening- or because you convince yourself that you must be mistaken.
It’s difficult to take action even when you have concrete evidence of lying. During childhood we are taught that lying is wrong. We may feel hurt that the other person didn’t trust us, or angry that they were able to manipulate and take advantage of us at all. But once you surpass the normal reactions of hurt and anger, you may may be left to wonder how to remedy the situation without losing faith in all your team members and your ability to manage them.
When trying to figure out the most effective response, you must start by assuming positive intent and focus on trying to understand why the employee has chosen to lie. You proceed with action once you can clearly see what the employee is trying to accomplish by lying. The three most typical motivations that we see with clients are the following:
Fear of triggering conflict or upsetting someone.
Some employees are fearful that you or others will have a negative reaction to the truth. They feel personally involved and are fearful of creating a bad outcome for themselves or for you. They want to make sure that you’re not disappointed in them, or that you won’t have any need to discipline them.
As an example, we recently worked with a client who tasked a newly hired manager with setting up a new location and he would fudge his numbers because the build out was not hitting the targets set forth by his ownership team. As he stated, he didn’t want to “disappoint them or make any trouble for them.”
For employees who are afraid to be in trouble, it’s your job to help provide the psychological safety net that will encourage them to tell the truth. This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences. But you need to make the point that they’re helping you do your job when they’re honest with you and they’re making your work much harder and riskier than when they aren’t, so you’d rather hear the real truth as they understand it — even when it’s not the answer you said you wanted.
Not wanting to expose their inadequacies.
Sometimes, employees have gotten themselves in over their heads and don’t know how to extricate themselves. They try to make themselves look more effective than they are, or they may be trying to mask their own incompetence and lack of success, often because they can’t figure out why they’re not successful and don’t know how to fix the situation. It’s not enough just to call out the lying, because their underlying incompetence will still be present and the negative outcomes will expose them anyway. See if there are structural changes that can help reduce their risk of messing up so they’re not on the hook for situations they can’t control. This may eliminate or reduce their need for lying.
For instance, you might change the delivery period for information or results so the individual has a higher chance of getting them right, or provide them with training and coaching so that they can effectively deliver against their goals without needing to bend the truth.
As an example we came across a somewhat disorganized leader of a nonprofit organization who was the source of a series of errors and missteps that affected the scheduling for several programs and events, and she lied to her colleagues about the mistakes so she wouldn’t be blamed. Because she was so skillful in other aspects of her job, the leadership team restructured her responsibilities so that she was no longer the point person for scheduling, and her lying significantly diminished.
Serving their own needs.
Finally, some employees have personal goals, like advancing their career, that they believe they can’t achieve honestly through good old fashioned hard work. These employees can be even trickier to deal with because their lying often takes the form of subtly or not so subtly undercutting other team members. Pointing out the lie can often push them to “be better liars” to achieve their desired result, and it becomes the leader’s responsibility to protect other team members from damage.
At a client organization, a senior administrator used passive voice, oblique language, and gaslighting to convey negative, untrue information about some of her teammates. Several initiatives lost forward momentum as her colleagues eventually caught on and avoided collaborating with her. She continued to create a fog of mistruth, accusing others of refusing to cooperate with her. In a situation like this, there are no helpful structural changes that will reduce the liar’s perceived need to lie.
We coached her boss to draw a clear line about the inappropriate behavior and its consequences: “It’s not acceptable for you to damage your colleagues’ reputations. I want to know your concerns, but you need to understand that if you keep setting people up, I won’t be able to trust you even when there are other aspects of your work that are good.”
Be sure to document the lying employee’s behavior and your feedback so that you at least have a private record. If you’re dealing with someone who repetitively lies, it may be an ingrained habit that’s hard for the liar to break. Even if they suspend the habit temporarily, when they find themselves under pressure again, they’re likely to revert to lying as a coping behavior. If that’s the case, you’ll need to let them go if their inaccurate information causes poor decision making or disrupts relationships. Plus, you can’t afford to have other team members think that you’re willing to tolerate a culture of lying — that will set you up for more strife, faulty operations, and increased turnover.
But if you can catch small mistruths quickly, correct them, and lay out the correct behavioral norms or restructure the rewards or processes, you may be able to coach and train an early liar into better behavior, thereby salvaging the employee relationship and showing your team that you can keep everyone safe and productive.
We all want to believe the best in people – especially those who show up everyday and work to keep our businesses running. But the unfortunate truth exposes the uncomfortable and slightly discouraging reality that people do lie, whatever their reasons may be. This not only highlights, but demands the ongoing need for quality leadership, truthful employees, and a strong, open relationship linking it all together.
Some issues stand to be be repaired on their own, whereas other business owners may not know where or how to begin improvements. It can feel overwhelming, and that’s how you can benefit from a professional helping hand.
Here at MCDA CCG, INC. (headquartered in Placentia, Orange County, California) we want our clients to thrive, and know that before a company can successfully grow, there must be an established team behind it working towards a similar vision. We provide relation solutions to identify any underlying issues with one-on-one sessions with problem employees, maintain a healthy culture with training courses and seminars for entire departments and/or organizations, while supporting the top tier through ongoing coaching/leadership support, and more.
Where we differ is in our ability to customize our unique approach to meet your most critical needs.
Call us today and speak with one of our experts with a free, no-obligation call to see how we can help you!