Sir Walter Scott said, "What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

Our current media ambience of "fake news" and "alternative truth" must be quite disturbing to any business person who says she wants to live a clean and truthful life. I know I am certainly disheartened by this omnipresent meme. Yet, are we not all liars to one extent or another? Are the most successful of us committed prevaricators and amoralists, really caught up in a universe that often plays out as an episode of House of Cards writ large. The winners being the Frank Underwoods (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) of the world?

Back in 2007, David Livingston Smith, a professor of moral philosophy at University of New England, wrote a book titled Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. Professor Smith posits the theory that learning to lie is a key evolutionary step in the rise of modern man. Lying gives us a "selective advantage." Indeed, Smith feels falsehoods, deceptions, and lies are essential to our current darwinian ascendency as a genus. In other words, we, as liars, are better survivors. We have successfully passed on our lying genes over millenniums. Smith states, "Nature is awash in deceit."

I was caught last week by an essay from my friend Carol Kinsey Goman titled "The Truth About Lies In The Workplace." (Carol is one of the world's authorities on the subject of body language. She frequently keynotes on the subject.) She states,

"Some of us are better than others at lying. If you are creative, you are one of them. Not because creativity makes you more likely to be dishonest but because you're probably good at convincing yourself to believe your own lies. If you have a charismatic or dominant personality (as many business leaders do), you probably also have a special capacity to deceive--which, again, doesn't mean you lie more than others, it just suggests that when you do, you're more skilled at it....You may even be in a profession that produces "polished" liars. If you are an actor, poker player, evangelist, salesperson, politician, marketer, negotiator, coach, company spokesperson, lawyer, or (my profession) a professional speaker, you probably have learned to "bluff" convincingly."

(As actor Johnny Depp put it last week on YouTube, "I lie for a living.")

Look at Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle. He is notorious for informing investors and clients that a new product is soon to be available even though it is barely a gleam in the eye of one of his engineers, if that. Or how 'bout ur-entrepreneur Steve Jobs, who was mesmerizing as he wove his hypothetical dreams and visions into his listeners as a compelling reality? Admittedly both these men made good on their existential exaggerations. So are they liars or visionaries?

There are useful and kind "white lies." Goman quotes Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University describing white lies as "pro-social" lies--those innocent lies of omission or commission that just make life smoother and more civilized. Who does not remember that excellent sepia-tinged commercial where Abraham Lincoln's wife asks him if her dress makes her look fat and "Honest Abe" squirms in agony trying to find the perfect non-answer. I was an actor earlier in my life and not infrequently found myself going backstage to see friends whose work was not very good. I strategically drew from a stockpile of euphemisms which drew me away form telling them that truth. (Loved the costumes!)

Nevertheless, while clearly acknowledging our useful darwinian sneakiness as a species, Goman notes several consequences of this tendency need leavening for our personal and corporate health.

  1. Lies are bad for your health. Psychologists at University of Notre Dame who conducted an "honesty experiment" in which 110 individuals participated over a 10-week period. The study found that as people increased the number of lies they told, their health declined. Conversely, when lies went down, the subjects' health improved.
  2. Deceiving others increases self-deception. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that those who cheat on tests are more likely than non-cheaters to rationalize their superior performance into a genuine sign of intelligence. When asked to predict their own future performances, the cheaters erroneously presumed they would preform as well as they had previously--and of course did not.
  3. Lies destroy reputation. Goman notes that in the era of personal branding two things are most important to success: Your professional network and your reputation. She says, "Nothing can weaken a network or destroy a population faster than being exposed as a liar."

Goman notes that a good palliative to the downsides of our duplicitous nature is a truth-telling corporate culture which creates "an emotionally nourishing environment where we feel safe, trusted, and valued--where we feel less compelled to fabricate in order to protect or defend ourselves." Well, amen, Sister Carol.

Rudyard Kipling said, "We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding."