Maybe George Washington couldn't tell a lie, but that probably doesn’t hold true for your employees. The average person tells approximately four fibs a day, and not all of them along the order of “yes, those pants look quite flattering on you.”
When employees lie, it's a serious matter. But sometimes a little dishonesty can be helpful to your business.
Charalambos Vlachoutsicos, an adjunct professor at Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece and a former businessman, writes about his experience lying to a superior in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review.
“One company I worked in while studying for an MBA at Harvard was an electric appliance wholesaler managed by its founder autocratically and whimsically,” says Vlachoutsicos. The bottom-line driven business owner purportedly ruled with an iron fist, demanding “sales now, no matter how” from his employees, who worked on commission.
Vlachoutsicos admits the competitive--and frequently dishonest--atmosphere that this policy created did not sit well with him. “Fairness has always been the cornerstone of my value system. So although I was selling aggressively, I was always emphasizing ‘honest’ sales… sales not obtained under false pretenses.”
So after attempting to curtail dishonest practices like claiming the company’s vacuums were the fastest on the market (when they weren’t) to no avail, Vlachoutsicos decided to tell a lie.
He called a meeting with his boss, and explained that one of the company’s biggest customers had called to protest after being “lied to” about the features of one of their products. This wasn’t true. No one had complained. But Vlachoutsicos felt that the company’s false advertising policy would backfire--and that they would lose business because of it.
By framing the issue in this way, and by being genuinely invested in the company’s interests, Vlachoutsicos was able to reconcile his values with that of his employer. He learned a valuable lesson in the process: “The truth is that effective management invariably involves a certain amount of manipulation," he writes. "You do not always get your way by being direct. Instead, you have to find a way to bridge the gaps between your values and the culture you work in."
Whether his boss realized it or not, this sort of revelation was exactly what made Vlachoutsicos a good manager and team leader--and what makes good liars (let’s call them “negotiators”) the kind of people you want on your team. They are the people willing to make creative compromises in pursuit of mutual goals--something that both you and your customers can appreciate.
The less noble lies that your employees tell--like “Yes, I’m right on schedule with that end-of-the-year report” or “I’m late for this meeting because my dog got sick right as I was leaving the house”--can reveal valuable insight into your company’s culture, as well.
“If a manager is unable to hear about negative things, confusion, or setbacks, then that manager is going to get lied to often," Achor says in an interview with CareerBuilder. "Good managers want an accurate assessment of the present, even if it is not good. Bad bosses want the semblance of progress in the present, at the cost of future successes.”
The next time you're ready to throttle an excuse-giving employee, pause a moment to examine the bigger picture. Are unrealistic deadlines the reason that he is behind on a report? Are her assurances that she understands the task (followed by an inablity to complete it) rooted in a fear of admitting ignorance before her superior? If so, you may want to take some time to emphasize the importance of honesty and communication along the chain of command.