Most of the time, lying in business is a fast path to job loss, poor reputation, deals falling through, mistrust and other awfulness. There's especially no excuse for it in the modern office, given that customers and employees alike are incredibly clear about wanting professionals to be real and show who they really are. Yet there are still leaders out there who wear dishonesty like an essential perfume, and instead of seeing these moohoos as snakes, we might be mislabeling them as Honest Abes and giving them an undeserved following.

In an article for Scientific American, Matthew Hutson explores why we might perceive dishonest leaders as being authentic. In an online study published in the American Sociological Review, 424 participants read about a hypothetical race for a college student body president. Participants who were told they shared the outsider candidate's personality, and that the legitimacy of the incumbent was in question, rated the lying outsider as more authentic. Tying this idea to real politics, the researchers told participants that one of President Trump's tweets about global warming being a hoax had been debunked. A survey of the participants found that Trump supporters were more likely than Clinton supporters to see the tweet as a challenge to the elite and to rate Trump as highly authentic.

Entertaining that there's no right or wrong to who you want in office at the moment, the research translates well into business leadership. It explains how people with not-so-great ethics still can rise to the top. We love the idea that we can disrupt the usual hierarchy, that we can break existing barriers, fix what's wrong, put the greedy goblins in their place and finally get ahead ourselves. We want the underdog to win. So when we see someone challenging the system and those in charge, we might be willing to dismiss their dishonesty and smooth out their rough edges for the sake of preserving our own belief. They must be authentic, we think to ourselves, if they're breaking down what we hate. Thinking this is easier than admitting that someone who's crooked could be in our "good" camp.  

There are two big problems here. The first is that this sequence is based on presumptions about the elite. We assume they're not working in our best interests or that methods aren't working, but we might be completely incorrect about the system we're in. If we don't have access to the right people or information, or if we are fed disinformation purposely or in diffuse ways through culture, we might not recognize everything that goes into decisions and policies. We might go through unnecessary, costly and disruptive work to restructure and develop a "better" way of operating.

Secondly, lying is a habit. Science says that, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Once the dishonest person is at the top in power, they're likely to keep on spewing falsehoods. People eventually might start to wonder why the lies continue if there's no elite to challenge anymore. Trust dissolves. And suddenly, no one--not customers, not employees, not funders--takes the company seriously. The "authentic" champion becomes a liability.  

Now, sometimes, we get fortunate. Someone who is genuinely authentic and honest comes along and boots out the liar. But sometimes all we get is another liar worse than the first, and we get disappointed. The idea that those at the top are no good becomes only more deeply entrenched. And the more entrenched it is, the more receptive we might be to the next person who promises to challenge the problem. We live a cyclic, self-fulfilling prophesy.    

Based on the research, as a business leader, you have a responsibility to stop and pause when you're hiring, finding a partner or otherwise establishing leadership. It's important to balance your gut instincts about someone against fact checking, and to get opinions from others about the people coming into your company. You need to find people you really can lean on, rather than people who just give the impression you can lean on them. It's always better to take a little more time and be sure of the people around you than it is to rush and be sorry later.

Published on: Dec 21, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.