- Judi Ketteler lives with her husband and two young children in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and TIME.
- The following is an adapted excerpt from her book, “WOULD I LIE TO YOU: The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World that Lies.”
- In it, she writes that lying for benevolent reasons – what scientists call a prosocial lie – could be a key part of leadership. People who tell prosocial lies are perceived as more ethical and even trusted more.
- Important considerations for when to tell a prosocial lie include the timing of it and your insight into what the other person needs. Lying out of a sense of compassion can actually be detrimental.
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Does your company have a code of conduct? A motto regarding honesty? With dishonesty and poor corporate behaviour making daily headlines – from Theranos’s implosion to Facebook’s data privacy breaches and WeWork’s conflicts of interest – the new year is the perfect time to revisit basic standards of honesty in the workplace.
However, rather than blanket statements about honesty, organisations should consider engaging their employees in a critical discussion around the point of honesty, including when certain types of deception may help build a better culture. While we need more transparency and accountability in business, radical honesty when it comes to managing people often misses the mark.
Telling a lie for benevolent reasons – what behavioural scientists call a prosocial lie – may just be a crucial leadership skill.Emma Levine, assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, studies these types of lies and has found that prosocial lying isn’t just seen as acceptable, it’s seen as essential. Her research has found that we perceive those who tell prosocial lies to be more ethical than those who tell hurtful truths, if we understand the intentions of the deceiver. In other words, we favour benevolence over honesty, when it’s clear someone told a lie for benevolent reasons. She’s also found that prosocial lying can increase trust – which flies against the conventional wisdom that deception always destroys trust. In many situations, it’s seen as far more ethical to lie than to deliver raw truth.
The problem is that we equate all deception with self-interested lies – lies such as misrepresenting yourself, manipulating people for your own gain, taking credit for a great idea your coworker had, stealing money or office supplies, or cooking the books. Prosocial lying has nothing to do with the delusion of Elizabeth Holmes or the bad behaviour of Adam Neumann. Rather, it’s related to everyday person-to-person situations, such as managing, motivating, and inspiring people.
So when can prosocial deception be appropriate and actually help build trust and accountability?
One guideline for trust-building prosocial deception is around the notion of timing. For example, in my work as a speechwriter and scriptwriter for live corporate events, I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for a presenter to second guess themselves and nervously ask, “Do I have this?” mere minutes before they are set to go on. Even though I may be wondering the same thing, it’s too late at that point to change anything, and what they need in that moment is confidence and an unqualified, “Yes!” Being honest and saying, “I have serious doubts myself” would be cruel, and more importantly not helpful. On the other hand, if I’m working with a presenter the day before, and they don’t seem prepared or want to introduce some half-baked element to their presentation, I need to say the difficult thing that must be said, whether it’s, “You really need to spend time preparing tonight” or, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” In that instance, the truth is helpful to them because there is time to do something about it.
The decision of whether or not to tell a prosocial lie also depends on how much insight you have into what the other person needs. Levine and her team have worked with both patients and doctors, and found that patients are far more comfortable with false hope than doctors are. Some patients, for example, may want hope and optimism rather than the brutal truth. That’s something a doctor should know ahead of time. If a doctor offers a terminal patient a watered-down, more hopeful version of the truth when she doesn’t know the patient’s preference, it’s called a “paternalistic” lie. The doctor merely thinks she knows what the patient wants. Paternalistic lies can be as destructive as self-interested lies. On the other hand, a doctor offering a patient a watered-down, more hopeful version of the truth because she has discussed it with the patient and actually knows their preferences – that’s seen as a trust-building prosocial lie. “It’s about whether you have true insight into what is best for the other person,” Levine explains.
Managers often operate under the fallacy that employees need feedback about all areas of performance, and that radical honesty about their shortcomings will motivate them to improve. In fact, this kind of feedback often impairs people’s ability to learn. Imagine that someone more junior who lacks confidence and experience is previewing a presentation he will be giving to a client. His presentation style is lacking and the information is poorly organised. When he is done with the presentation, he asks, in front of the entire team (which contains some intimidating people): “So, what do you think?” A prosocial lie solution, or a side step that focuses on staying positive and building trust, might be to say, “Good job on a solid start. Let’s connect after the meeting and build on what you have.”
Being mindful of timing and sizing up whether or not you have true insight into what the other person needs can help you avoid falling into the trap of “the culture of nice,” where people are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. In fact, it’s important to be mindful of the detrimental effect compassion can actually have. Research from UC San Diego has shown that compassion can make us lie in situations where we should have been honest – like when a difficult truth could have been helpful for the other person to hear.
“Compassion attunes people to the suffering of others. So if a person sees lying as a means of preventing suffering or harm, it might increase dishonesty,” said study author Matthew Lupoli (now a lecturer at Deakin University). Consider a coworker going through a rough divorce whose work is slipping. You feel sorry for them, but you know that their poor work quality is putting them at risk of being fired. Rather than assuaging them if they ask for feedback or approval, look past compassion to find honesty, so that they can pull themselves together and produce the quality work that is demanded of their job (of course, you can still offer a sympathetic ear).
Even as we desperately need more accountability and transparency in organisations, honesty for honesty’s sake when it comes to managing people will often fall short of helping them be their best and most productive members of the organisation.
This piece has been adapted from “WOULD I LIE TO YOU: The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World that Lies” by Judi Ketteler (Citadel Press, December 31, 2019).
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