There is nothing worse than a liar. Right?! Because I've never lied, and you've never lied, so we can hand on heart say that there is nothing worse than a liar... B*ll Sh*t! We've all lied. Some of these lies with self serving interests, and some of them to help others. Some have had positive outcomes, and some have blew up in our face. As much as I like to rationalize all the times I lied, there is one fact that I still cannot rationalize: the lie projects untrue statements. If these statements are perceived as true and are acted upon, they in turn will most likely cause undesired effects.
I find, as a leader, one of the most common lies told are the ones to save face. Due to the pressure of expectations from both one's boss and followers alike, it seems that there is nothing worse than coming off as uninformed or wrong. The problem with this is the perception of being untrustworthy. Being untrustworthy not only degrades your personal relationship with those around you, it also degrades your credibility. The consequence of lying for self serving interests is grave. I want to talk about some of the common lies leaders are may feel pressured into, and what we can do instead to actually save face.
1) It's not my fault the project failed, my team messed up. This one is probably the worst. Not taking responsibility for your actions. Your actions include those that are under your charge, as they act based on your direction and guidance. Using this type of lie to save face will not only degrade the trust your boss will have in you, but also degrade the trust your team will have in you. Nothing kills credibility more than throwing people under the bus, especially people you are responsible for. A better way to approach the inner fear you have when you realized your collective team didn't achieve it's aim is to admit the fact that the mission failed. But that isn't all. Just admittance demonstrates truthfulness but it could also demonstrate a lack of initiative and ingenuity. A better approach would be to admit that the mission failed under your watch, but also make sure to mention where it went wrong, in a no blame way, and what would need to be done to fix it. Usually mistakes made honestly, and not due to negligence are acceptable, even more so when a solution can be immediately implemented. Take the next step and come up with a control measure to prevent future mistakes, if it makes sense. You don't want to just add more bureaucracy either over an uncommon mistake that could be easily mitigated by other means.
2) Baffle Them With Bull Sh*t. This is the all too common practice of masking the fact that you don't know something with big words, inconclusive statements and general confusion. This is usually deployed against your boss, due to the fear of not knowing something. It's much worse when you try this with your team. They will usually be able to cut through the BS immediately. And if they don't on the first instance, they will definitely smell it on the second. A better approach is to just be prepared. Know what you need to know. Obviously, that is not always realistic. One option is using exploratory questions of your own, see if you do know the information they are asking, but maybe they are just using unfamiliar terms. This questioning approach could also help you get to the root of what they were hoping for. If at this point you do know the answer, tell them, if you do not, don't lie. Either it will blow up in your face immediately or, even worse, at a later date. This doesn't mean don't take a educated guess, educated guesses aren't lying, just make sure an educated guess isn't taken as gospel. With regards to your team members and followers, do not BS them either. If you don't know, tell them that, but make sure you follow up with finding the information or a resource to the information. Even though you do not know the answer, you still maintain credibility by getting the right answer.
3) Lying to yourself. This may not always have the worst external consequences, but can definitely have major long term ones. Lying to yourself is a very common practice among leaders. The lie to yourself usually revolves around either minimizing weakness and overestimating strengths. The danger in this is two fold: too much added pressure on yourself and not allowing yourself to ask for help when needed. Having strong self awareness and moral courage will help you in this endeavor. Over estimating yourself to feed your ego definitely increases your chance of failure. It doesn't have to be something sinister either, it could be something as simple as over estimating your capacity to multi task, resulting in you taking on too much and not doing any one thing well. I constantly lie to myself in this regard, it is something I am trying to work on at the moment. There are definitely other lies I tell my self that need addressing as well.
Lying to save face may sometimes seem like the only option when under the gun. It isn't. Saving face is usually brought on by self serving motives and generally results in a loss for someone else. The moral courage and accountability attributes of a good leader are what need to be leveraged when you face this fork in the road. I can't guarantee the external outcome of not lying to save face, you may have to pay the piper for the mistake that occurred, or bruise your ego, but, owning up to your mistakes is the only way to stand tall. Fixing them demonstrates that you are reliable and mission focused.
Biren Bandara, BSc, CD
Leader School Inc