• Tamar Balkin

Why Do Leaders Lie?


“A constant battle for the ultimate state of control After you've heard lie upon lie There can hardly be a question of why…. But that can't happen to us 'Cause it's always been a matter of trust”

A Matter Of Trust by Billy Joel (click here for the song)



Personal Photo of advertisement in The Weekend Australian May 21-22 pg10


“ they promised us an exciting new organisation and now they have sold it.. no one has any idea if they will have a job.. trust is gone..”

Coaching client


Why do leaders lie?

People may lie because they believe the lie is critically important, even though it may seem inconsequential to others.

Control Often, people tell lies because they are trying to control a situation and exert influence toward getting the decisions or reactions they want.

Earn respect: People who tell lie after lie are often worried about losing the respect of those around them. They want others to like them, be impressed, and value them. The are concerned that the truth might lead to rejection or shame.

Caught in the loop: once a little lie is told, often more lies are required to maintain the narrative and each lie gets bigger and bigger.

Self-deception: the liar might want their lie to be true so badly that their desire and needs again overwhelm their instinct to tell the truth. There is a warped belief that something come true by saying it over and over with out any evidence or action.

What about Personality variables?

For a long time, leadership research has focused too much on idealised, romantic, and “good” forms of leadership (e.g., transformational, empowering, authentic, and ethical leadership), but neglected the antagonistic part or dark side. Financial scandals and fraud cases within large corporations prompted organisational psychologists to research leaders with negative personality traits. Such leaders can damage the entire organisation by, for example, making riskier decisions, manipulating policies, and using strategies like bullying, fraud, or the distorting of financial information.

The dark triad of personality encompasses narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism all of which have their destructive outcomes. The decreased moral and social emotions, the use of self-centred interpersonal strategies (exploitation and manipulation of others, duplicity), and decreased honesty and agreeableness is the perfect recipe for high levels of deceit.

Of great concern, is the finding that individuals with these negative tendencies are three times more likely in senior leadership roles.

Are any lies socially acceptable?

It is important to remember that lying isn’t always meant to harm others or to protect one’s own interests. People can also lie to protect someone else’s feelings. Researchers have found that people’s tolerance for lies relates to the motive behind the lie such that the deception is more acceptable when the lie is less self-centred and more other-oriented. In addition, the context in which a lie is told also influences its appropriateness. For example, telling a lie to a stranger to protect one’s privacy is considered acceptable, while it is considered unacceptable when a lie to protect one’s privacy is told to a spouse.

Never the less researchers have found that the general census is that deceiving others is unconscionable, despite the fact that not only do people lie daily, most of lies are undetected. As expected, when lying is uncovered, receivers of lies tend to react negatively to liars and feel less satisfied with relationships that involve frequent deception.

How do leaders get away with lying?

No one finds out: Researchers have found that many lies stay undetected by others, in fact we have a fifty percent chance of detecting a lie in everyday life. In addition, humans tend to assume that others are truthful irrespective of their actual behaviour and thus leaders can lie often and get away with it.

Cognitive Laziness. When we hear something from a leader, we often don't (and don't want to) engage in the mental effort (or actual physical effort of fact checking) to question the assertion. Regular readers would be aware everyone likes a quick fix to their problems, even though, despite the evidence, the any ‘silver bullet’ solution is an illusion and potentially counterproductive. ( click here for my blog on the silver bullet and here for my blog on evidence based practice). In addition, people are more likely to be persuaded when a message reinforces their prior beliefs. Even when one is aware of a leader’s ulterior motives, their direct reports are motivated to trust them to preserve some self-integrity.

The Ends Justify the Means. Politicians, and other leaders, often adhere to a poor code of ethics that says the ends justify the means. This is partly responsible for the mudslinging and dirty politicking. "If I make up a lie about my opponent, it's ok, because if he is elected it will be a disaster." The means, and being ethical, are what is really important.

What about the liar?

Researchers have found that lying increases negative affect, regardless of what type of lie was told. Interestingly, people might feel satisfied with the effectiveness of the lie and their own performance of telling a lie, but not with themselves after they told the lie. There is the fear of being ‘found out’, the pressure to keep their story consistent, and they experience a decrease in self-esteem. Of concern is the finding that liars perceive lying as more acceptable than those who typically tell the truth.

Final thoughts

“A good manager, then, won’t lie if asked to do so by the company. She’ll speak up and refuse. That ethical act can do something dramatic: It sets the stage for an honest workplace.” Thomas A Kolditz

Many leaders especially in the context of organisational change, mergers acquisitions etc, struggle with finding the balance between honesty and transparency. When a leader is asked a direct question about a confidential aspect of the future of the business many have the mistaken belief that an awkward silence or half-truth will be reassuring. Regular readers would be aware that employees will read into the lack of an answer and assume the worst. Researchers have found that when a leader honestly tells their team that they are unable to answer the question for reasons of confidentiality, transparency is conveyed and trust is built. ---------- References:

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