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Thursday, 27 February 2014 17:27

The Upside of Deception

Human emotions are present in the nucleus of most every lie. Learning to understand them (Emotional Intelligence) and recognize them (Emotional Competency) are the lever and fulcrum of revealing lies and more importantly, uncovering the truth. It's not enough to know that a deception has occurred; in order to move forward, we must know the truth.

Not every lie is told with malice. Not every reason to hold back is rooted in wickedness or a compelling need to remain in the dark with one's deeds.

Indeed, some lies are necessary to save lives. A commander would not admit to having a plan in place to infiltrate a terror organization or attack enemy combatants. That type of knowledge in the wrong hands could lead to a preemptive strike by the terrorists against the interests of that nation and possibly cost the lives of civilians. So in this scenario the truth is kept purposely hidden and some might argue there is a moral imperative to do so.

Some lies are told to save the life of the liar. A young man escaping Nazi Germany would not be faulted for denying his faith, if only to survive long enough to get to a better position from which to defend it, or simply to save his family.

Lies are told to keep someone hopeful who may be distraught over a gravely ill family member. Lies are told to retain friendships, avoid conflict or shield someone from unnecessary stresses. Many a grandparent has been kept in the dark about a grandchild's arrest or accident until the situation is resolved and normalcy restored. It's the 'no harm - no foul' rule. The list of situations in which it may be argued that it is permissible to lie is as complicated as the human needs for acceptance, trust, peace of mind or a little more time.

Given that there are so many circumstances dictated by environmental pressures about which information must be misrepresented and sometimes omitted, and so many ethical arguments about whether or not telling lies of any kind is appropriate, we will focus on those instances when we must engage in difficult conversations. They may be work-related or personal but they somehow affect the future of the place where you stand and the people with whom you share that place.

Human interaction is often challenging and confusing. You would think we'd be better at it by now. We've been at it for thousands of years. We've developed intricate languages, symbols and facial expressions to communicate our thoughts. But instead of feeling gratified, interacting with our own species leaves us unsatisfied, frustrated, even exasperated. We feel shortchanged, unconnected or distant. When the truth is repressed, barriers to effective engagement are even more difficult to overcome.

The truth is usually known to one party and suspected by another. It does, after all, exist. The challenge is for both parties to feel comfortable with arriving at a common perception of the truth regardless of its consequences. It's about the desire to be open and the willingness to accept it. It's about mutual trust and the utility of honest communication. The point is not to judge the merits of the true thing, but merely to acknowledge it. It's a better place to start.

What keeps someone from expressing the truth is a feeling or presumption that the revelation will somehow degrade the relationship, perhaps irreparably so. They often want to be honest but feel they cannot or should not. For one reason, real or perceived, the one holding on to the truth is tangled in the vines of deceit. The real truth is inexorably tied to one emotion or another: anger, fear, joy, sadness and many more. It is precisely those emotions which we must look toward as the guideposts to truthfulness.

The listener must learn to observe the underlying emotions pressing themselves against the glass like a beggar at an upscale restaurant, silently pleading to be let in, or let out. The listener must look past what is obvious and ordinary, so they can see the waif in the window and recognize it for what it is, to let it in, accept it, feed it, respect it and move forward.

Published in Articles
Thursday, 09 January 2014 17:29

The Peaceful Deceit

Were you to ask a random sampling of people in your work-a-day world to rate lying as either good or bad, most would say it is a bad thing. It's a simplistically posed question requiring an easy answer.

Asked to elaborate those same people may repeat aphorisms such as:

  • One lie leads to another.
  • A liar must have a great memory.
  • For every lie you tell, you must tell ten more to cover it up.
  • "Oh what a tangled web we weave..."

Ask someone if they are a liar and they will bristle. The mere implication of mistrust can damage relationships. "How dare you?"

But what is a lie beyond this simple definition? A lie is the expression of a statement known by the teller to be in some way inconsistent with or in opposition to what one knows to be true. There is no moral judgment in that statement - it only presents a definition. The moral or ethical aspects only come into play when one considers the objective of the deceiver and the intention to harm. The con man, the cheat, the unctuous politician and other scoundrels have all contributed to the association of being a liar with being a reprobate.

There are times however when saying something we know to be untrue seems to be the best option in the moment. Lies are told to conform to social situations - "Yes, the food was delicious." They are told to make someone feel good - "No, that outfit doesn't make you look fat at all."

We often mask our true feelings because we are unwilling to confront what the truth will unveil. So we tell ourselves that we did the right thing by not being forthright, despite the fact, strictly speaking, we told a lie. The French writer Vauvenargues said, “The art of pleasing is the art of deception."

This notion of pleasing brings us to what the title alludes, what social psychologist Irving Janis called "concurrence seeking" in 'groupthink' situations. It is the tendency to seek concurrence (conformance) with a group to finalize what may be a bad decision. No one wants to be seen as the enemy of the group.

A project manager in charge of a team must guard against groupthink. The manager must learn to recognize that an opinion being offered is not necessarily honest, but given to succumb to environmental pressures to keep the project moving forward or to please the boss. But it's groupthink that keeps everyone paddling in the direction of the waterfall.

An interesting take on this comes from the sports world, where Coach Riches of Functional Basketball Coaching wrote, "Groupthink is one of the poorest situations that can happen to a group in their development into a team. Groupthink limits the opportunity for trust, honesty and solidarity to develop and ultimately, for a team to reach their true potential." The coach goes on to discuss how a strong leader can sway the group in one direction, thus compelling the group to conform rather than buck the leader because they wish to be seen as a team player.

This kind of collective dishonesty inhibits sincere debate. It creates an atmosphere where people don't feel engaged in the discussion but corrupted by it. Collectively, the group fails the project because the individuals fail the group. That said, in a competitive work dynamic where connections and cooperation matter, no one wants to be cast as an outsider. A leader with a fragile ego may accuse one who speaks openly of not being a team player, but what the leader really means is, "it's a bad move to disagree with me."

The leader's job is to repress the ego and seek differing opinions. As Janis points out, there is a danger in replacing esprit de corps with groupthink. There is no longer a place for independent thinking. Honest debate can lead to the truth. The flexible leader recognizes groupthink as ultimately undermining to the long-range mission of the company. Coach Riches believes a leader should "crave openness" because it leads to solidarity. When everyone is truthful there is greater understanding, so that even if someone dissents, it is done honestly. The leader can move the project forward knowing the team is truly accepting and supportive of the final decision.

A good leader must learn to recognize when someone isn't being honest, not to uncover malice but to avoid the destructive nature of groupthink. A leader creates an environment that encourages people to say what they honestly feel. For as Benjamin Disraeli said, "Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do, you apologize for the truth." 

Published in Articles
Monday, 16 December 2013 17:35

Why You Can't Spot Lies

"I knew he was lying all along; I should have trusted my gut."

Who hasn't said something like this after looking back at a situation, whether professional or personal? Once the whole truth has been revealed we like to reconstruct the events and look for the 'aha' moment that confirmed our suspicions. Once we know the lie we like to think we knew it in the moment. But did we really? Hindsight isn't always 20/20.

According to the scientific data, most of us aren't much better at detecting lies than flipping a coin, roughly 54% (Bond and DePaulo 2006). So what makes us so sure after the fact?

Let's back up. Although there are many complicated reasons why we may miss the truth, such as circumstances, limited process time, and our expectations about the outcome, there are cognitive biases that influence our tendency to accept what we've been told as the truth. Here are just a few:

·        Visual Bias - the tendency to place more emphasis on visual clues than linguistic or inflection, tone and other auditory influences.

·        Truth Bias - the tendency to overestimate other's truthfulness.

·        Demeanor Bias - the tendency to judge another's communication style as being honest.

Our innate biases make it particularly difficult to detect lies in those we are closest to, which may seem counter-intuitive until you consider just two factors:

·        The stakes are often higher in personal relationships (cheating spouse, teen drug user) so, given the possible consequences, we want to believe the other person.

·        If we love the person we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

To detect dishonesty you must understand that emotions are the drivers of certain behaviors. Sometimes people are open and honest about their emotions and sometimes they attempt to conceal them. Yet, regardless of motivation, desire or reason - emotions rule!

Have you ever watched professional bull-riding? Those massive animals are constrained by a small pen, ropes, leather and a team of cowboys. They are bristling, coiled to break free and assert their alpha influence. Emotions are like bulls in the chute; they just need to get out and show themselves and they do so despite a person's best efforts to control them. They are conveyed through demeanor, voice, movement and especially through micro-facial expressions.

Emotions are most observable through the face. We can all picture or imitate a sad, angry, fearful or happy face, but we may not always want to show these emotions in a given situation. But in real interpersonal exchanges they can't be held back. So they leak out; they reveal themselves. They tell us the truth behind the facade. The problem is these expressions of emotion typically flash on and off the face so quickly (under 1/2 a second) we cannot see them with our conscience brain unless we know what to look for.

The good news is our brains are startlingly perceptive. The science of rapid cognition (Gladwell 2007) reveals that our brain sees these micro-expressions on a sub-conscious level and reacts to them. These reactions manifest themselves to us through our own emotions. So for example, the envious co-worker who wanted your promotion may congratulate you, but the disdain, disgust or anger they feel toward you is leaked out through a micro-facial expression. Your gut reacts. You feel awkward, uncomfortable, perhaps even angry and you aren't sure why. It's just something you feel.

So you thought he was lying all along? You were probably right. You just didn't know why you knew. Until the whole truth was revealed you relied on visceral feelings and sensations.

The better news is we can learn to recognize deception and deceptive behavior. We can tip the scales in our favor, uncover dishonesty and yes, we have science in our corner.

To become proficient in detecting deception you must be trained through a continuum. Your training must help you attain a higher level of emotional competency. It should teach you to manage your own emotions. With this base of understanding you can learn how to prepare your conscious brain to recognize what your subconscious brain is already seeing.  The clarity you gain will be like putting on a new pair of glasses.

The science of micro-facial expressions is about opening up your mind to the human condition; its strengths, frailties, biases and universal codes of meaning.

Image courtesy of ddpavumba at

Published in Articles

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