Deceive in Doses, Not in Deluges

Deception is not only inevitable in business, but sometimes necessary or strategic. If you track “deception” or “lying” on my custom Google search, you’ll find a number of blogs dealing with the issue. See, for example, my blog, Powerful people are better liars.

Clearly, I seriously question the notions of authenticity and truthfulness for all situations. Those behaviors assume an inherently fair and just world — a naïve perspective, capable of career destruction. But though there are several good reasons why lying can be absolutely necessary, before you engage in the behavior, think seriously about its implications.

On the one hand humans don’t naturally seek the truth, but tend to avoid it. Sure people instinctively accept information they’re exposed to, and sure, they have to work hard to resist falsehoods. And yeah, they cherry-pick data to support their own perspectives, and certainly, and as the Nobelist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, they’ll steer clear of facts that might force them to think and work harder. So you can usually get away with some deception in business.

Negative personal impact
But unless you’re very careful about deception, you’ll negatively impact your personal reputation. Liar or deceiveris not a tag that you’d want to be labeled with. There’s extensive research demonstrating that most people respond best to people whom they both like and respect. Respect, built on expertise and trust, goes a long way in careers. It makes managing and leading simpler. It can provide you with better opportunities, better salaries and faster promotions. And it also can make it easy to access information and resources from others, needed commodities in today’s business world. So you want to keep a positive reputation relatively intact.

And surprisingly, a positive reputation also makes deception more palatable when the truth comes out. The same people you’ve deceived will often rise to your defense or even explain why deception was really necessary at the time. The Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos types can only get away with their shit for so long. Most employees and managers are on a far, far shorter leash.

How do you limit your deception? That’s a tough question. I’d like to give you a scale or a percentage, but that’s not possible. You’ll have to figure out when it’s wise and when not — and only deceive when you must deceive. That might be for the greater good, for the sake of a few individuals, for the sake of strategy or even for the sake of the company. But limit your deception. You might think of admitting to deception and explaining your rationale at a later time to a few select employees. That will help in some situations, but it’s also fraught with problems. Sometimes, saying nothing about what you said or did is the better part of valor and keeping your reputation intact.

Negative corporate impact
A second reason for limiting deception is for the sake of the company. Trust in the institution, the company for which you work, is of high value. Support for the company infrastructure, personnel, strategy and potential for change can only take place and continue where deception is limited. Tarring the company with a poor reputation for honesty can be jarring — and even bring down firms. And, of course, with that tarring goes away the livelihood and future of many people. That’s why whistle-blowing is such a questionable tactic and a real minefield of decision making.

Systematic deception has made loss of institutional trust in today’s world rampant. That’s especially true of government, which has been systematically undermined since Reagan. Distrusting government has become the basic rationale for doing nothing and letting infrastructure, schools, healthcare and the vulnerable go to hell in a hand-basket. That’s true even though government has clearly demonstrated the ability to perform better than private industry in numerous contexts.

In sum, when you connect all the dots, you’ll recognize the need for limiting deception to a reasoned, strategic decision. And then, go ahead. Be deceptive. It’s just a necessary behavior in business and in life.


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