We’ve been brought up to believe that lying is unacceptable, but what if successful deception is actually a prized skill in the office? Stylist investigates the art of untruth
During the first month of my first magazine job, my new manager sidled over to ask how I was doing. I was, I confided, a little overwhelmed. I couldn’t understand how she kept so on top of things, while I was a mess if I was a second over deadline. Did she have any advice for me? “Lie!” she whispered. I nearly fell off my chair. “I never hit my deadlines. And if I know what the editor is asking for can’t be done, I fib and say I’ve exhausted every avenue, when I haven’t made a single phone call.” That manager is now the editor of her own magazine, after a meteoric rise through the ranks. I learned the lesson early – liars rise to the top.
According to a growing body of research, the ability to carefully manage the truth is a sign of intelligence and, alongside ambition and dedication, is becoming a major CV plus point. Liars are not only more intelligent – they are more creative too. New research from Harvard and Duke university, recently published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, has found that telling lies is intrinsically linked with an ability to think outside the box.
Fib to Succeed
Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at Toronto University, believes that as children we learn the three fundamental types of lies: lies that are kind to others; lies that are a form of self-deception; and lies that protect us from punishment. “These are the kinds of lies that we continue to tell into adult life,” he explains. In fact, you’ve probably either told, or heard, all of the above today, at your desk, or in the boardroom. There is a sliding scale – we are not suggesting you’re committing fraud in your office daily – most of us simply stretch the truth to our own ends. Researchers who asked a group of people to keep tabs of all falsehoods they told in a week found that about 10% of ‘lies’ were simply exaggeration. These are the hardest lies for others to catch too – you’re telling the truth, but in a way that leaves a false impression.
Zuzanna Rafalat, CEO of online beauty company Zuneta perfected this art early on. “We’re a retailer, selling luxury brands,” she says. “When we started, these brands assumed we had an expensive office and a big team. I didn’t feel the need to correct them. Now, we have all these things, but initially we just needed creative omission of the truth.”
The inextricable link between lying and success is partly because, as a society, we are telling more lies than ever – so if you’re not peppering your own working life with half-truths, you could be at a disadvantage. Robert Feldman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Liar In Your Life says, “We’re seeing a kind of cultural shift where we’re lying more. It’s easier to lie and in some ways it’s more acceptable.” The way we communicate in offices makes it easier for us to lie too. A study of 2,000 Brits found that on average people lie 28 times a month through email, social media and mobiles, compared to 17 times face-to-face. With much of our work being conducted remotely, this is increasing lying in the workplace by over a third. A University of Massachusetts study confirms this, finding that people told five times as many lies over email as people speaking face-to-face. Hands up everyone who’s used the ‘Didn’t you get my email?’ fib.
Born to Deceive
Lying is bred into us since before we can walk. There is an evolutionary basis for deception – animals play dead when threatened, until their potential attacker loses interest – but humans learn how to fib from their parents. Whether it’s watching them tell Gran that her vase has pride of place on the mantelpiece when it’s actually at the back of the wardrobe, or being encouraged to make-believe that we are fighting dragons in the garden, we are taught that lying is, in many circumstances, perfectly OK.
By the age of three, most children know how to fib, and by six most children lie several times a day. Interestingly, how good they are at it can be a strong indicator of future success, according to research by the University of Toronto. They found that at the age of two, only 20% of children lie, but almost 90% were liars at the age of four. When they tested the IQ of 20% of the two-year-olds who had worked out how to fib, they were found to be higher than average, as lying successfully is much more taxing on the brain than telling the truth.
So if lying is a sign of intelligence, and is strongly linked to success, how are we harnessing it in the office? Take the first kind of lying – to be kind to others. One in every four lies is told solely for the benefit of the other person – and women are much more likely to tell these. They are the lies that grease the wheels of social interaction, and can be hugely important at work. Our ability to stretch the truth makes us popular, according to Feldman, who has spent 25 years studying the science of deception. “Convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills,” he says. “Good liars get ahead because they know how to make people feel better and feel valued.”
“Lying is a social skill. good liars get ahead because they know how to make people feel better and feel valued”
According to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, telling lies that make people feel good about themselves will get you far. “Tell the boss you liked her leadership style, or a younger employee they’ve done a great job, even if it was only average,” he says. “These lies help not only them, but you.” Research bears this out – a 2011 study conducted by Drexel University suggests that workers who charm employers as a way to enhance their standing in the office may avoid the stress of those who are less shrewd about their workplace behaviour.
We are also prone to telling lies to cover our own backs. These can be taken too far – as was the case when Martha Stewart was found guilty and convicted of lying to investigators about a suspicious sale of shares. Of the same ilk are the lies that make us appear better than we are. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, a third of us lie on our CVs, exaggerating achievements and qualifications – but Norman Burden, from HR management consultancy, True North Human Capital, says it’s much higher
“In my experience, 80% of people embellish their CV – and within reason I don’t object to that. In the current climate, self-promotion has to be part of the DNA of any successful person.” Interestingly, women are less likely to stretch the truth in this way. “A man will brag that he’s won a £400,000 client when it is actually a £200,000 client. Women are more reticent about telling the world their achievements – real or exaggerated,” Cooper explains.
Self-deception is perhaps the most frequently used tool of successful people – in fact, the biggest lies are the ones that people tell themselves to drive them forward, according to Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars. Research shows that we all tend to think we’re better than we actually are – and this is good for our mental health (only people suffering depression don’t believe this, according to researchers at UCLA). In very successful people this is even more pronounced. “Evidence shows the people who are better at lying to themselves rise to the top of the business world,” says Leslie. “Apple, Starbucks and Dyson all started because people had inordinate confidence in their plans, even though the odds were against them.
The Lies to Avoid
Little white lies we tell ourselves and others do very little harm for the most part, but there can be consequences if you take it too far. If you are whitewashing the truth on your CV, rather than merely embroidering it, you could be caught out as there has been a recent rise in pre-employment screenings. One such company, Powerchex, analysed 3,876 applications and found that 17% of CVs contained some form of discrepancy. Since a CV is not a legal document, it is not illegal to lie on it – but if you get the job and are found out, you could face disciplinary action.
The key to expert fabrication, believes psychologist Charles Ford, author of Lies! Lies! Lies! is to lie as little as possible, only when you truly have something to gain. “Pathological liars can’t stop themselves from lying, so they tell a lot of little lies and wind up getting caught.” Cary Cooper believes there are some lies you should avoid telling altogether. “Anything that gets a colleague into trouble, or makes them look bad, is not good in the long run. It might get you ahead now, but it’ll bite you later on.
People may try to get revenge, or won’t work with you or help you out in the future,” he advises. “Overall, a white lie here and there can work in your favour, but getting a reputation as a liar won’t. We all want to trust the people we work with.” If you do get caught out, by far the best course of action is to avoid going on the defensive – admit your mistake and offer a short explanation to avoid further questioning.
So while we may have been taught that ‘liar’ is the worst insult you can throw at someone, as long as it’s not harming anyone, dishonesty can contribute to success. Now, repeat after us, “No, Pinocchio, your nose looks perfectly normal.”
Words: Marianne Power Picture credits: Rex Features