Leadership Dishonesty:
When Is It Right for Leaders to Lie?

Leadership-DishonestyIn my last post, I wrote about leadership dishonesty and asked the question, “When, if ever, and under what circumstances, is it okay for leaders to lie?” I’m interested to know what your experience has been. And I’m curious about author Jeffrey Pfeffer’s contention that the ability to misrepresent reality is a crucial leadership skill.

In Leadership BS, Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time,  (HarperBusiness, September 2015) he writes:

“Simply put, there are occasions when you have to do bad things to achieve good results.”

“Sometimes survival demands that you do what prevails in the ecosystem in which you are competing.”

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Leadership Dishonesty: The New Norm?

Leadership-DishonestyEveryone agrees that leadership dishonesty is wrong and that candor, honesty and transparency are essential to leaders of all organizations. When leaders lie, no one trusts them—not their subordinates, their own bosses, their colleagues, or their customers. You can’t have effective leadership without trust.

Worse, when leaders lie, others do the same. Almost no one can be sure to have accurate information about what is really going on and decisions are faulty. It is impossible to learn from experience and make better choices when there isn’t full disclosure and transparency.

Research shows that people view dishonesty as one of the gravest moral failings. But here’s something worthy of paying attention to:

“Lying is incredibly common in everyday life and rampant among leaders of all sorts of organizations, including some of the most venerated leaders and companies.” ~ Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS, Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time,  HarperBusiness, September 2015

The quote above is from a truly eye-opening book on all the lies and leadership dishonesty that are common in leadership behaviors—including those perpetuated by the leadership development industry. Here are some pertinent excerpts about dishonesty in leadership behaviors:

  • Because lying produces few to no severe sanctions, lying increases in frequency
  • Because lying is then common, it becomes normative.
  • Because lying becomes common, it isn’t sanctioned, because it makes no sense to try to punish widespread, almost taken-for-granted behavior.

Pfeffer isn’t suggesting that not telling the truth should be tolerated because it is reasonably common. He provides plenty of evidence that leaders face few to no consequences for dishonesty. Which helps us understand why it is so prevalent, and suggests we explore why and how lying might actually be useful and helpful.

Lying As a Leadership Skill

We can’t ignore that it is common because it often works. Nor can we afford to not know how and when lying crosses into the danger zone. What is also dangerous is to deny it goes on. When we believe in leaders as paragons of virtue, always striving to be authentic and trustworthy, we fail in our responsibilities.

People lie to smooth over difficult situations, to make relationships work. We judge other people’s deceptions more harshly than our own. They exaggerate, minimize and omit, tell half-truths and self-edit as a requirement of successful social necessities. It is easy to find reasons for any lie. We lie to achieve promotions and to negotiate contracts.

Leaders also lie to achieve positive results. Lies, told often enough and convincingly enough, can become the truth—a self-fulfilling prophecy. What people say, truthful or not, helps construct a social reality that then becomes real.

To quote Pfeffer on this point:

“This is why I often say that the ability to misrepresent reality is a crucial—maybe the most crucial—leadership skill.” Pfeffer in Leadership BS

I read an awful lot of books on leadership and how leaders can become truly effective. Many of these books are written by academics from top business schools (such as Pfeffer from Stanford) who have conducted research and consulted with companies in the field. Some are written by CEOs with experience in the trenches. I do this to better understand the challenges in the workplaces of today, and to search out answers to some of the problems I deal with as an executive coach.

I ask you, my readers, for your opinion on this. When, if ever, and under what circumstances, is it okay for leaders to lie? I’d love to hear from you. Give me a call, 704-827-4474. Or, you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

 

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When Teams Lack Focus on Results

focus-on-resultsWhen team members trust one another, engage in healthy conflict around issues, commit to the decisions they make, and hold one another accountable, there’s a pretty good chance they will succeed. And yet… sometimes they don’t.

When teams manage the first four dysfunctions of teams that commonly cause project failures, they still might fail. Why does this happen? Human nature.

We have a strong tendency to look out for ourselves before others, even when others are part of our families and teams. And because teams are made up of fallible human beings, they often stumble. They lose sight of the ultimate measure of a great team: Achieving the results they were designed to achieve. Read More »

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When Teams Lack Accountability

AccountabilityAccountability is a term that gets overused in the workplace and thus loses some of its power. Here’s a good definition from Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

“When it comes to teamwork, I define accountability as the willingness of team members to remind one another when they are not living up to the performance standards of the group.” ~ Patrick Lencioni

Here’s why this is so important:

“Peer pressure and the distaste for letting down a colleague will motivate a team player more than any fear of authoritative punishment or rebuke.”

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Dysfunctional Teams Lack Commitment

Dysfunctional-teamsDysfunctional teams cannot be blamed for all business failures, but they play a major role in unsuccessful projects and missed goals. In his acclaimed bestseller, organizational consultant Patrick Lencioni identifies The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. No accountability
  5. Lack of attention to results

No team functions well without trust in their leaders. Equally important is trust among team members. Without trust, people don’t openly debate the issues and explore new ideas. Read More »

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When Team Conflicts Are Ignored

Team-conflictsWhen teams avoid conflict at all costs, it impedes their effectiveness. A survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe teams are the key to success. But the evidence doesn’t always support this assertion. Many teamwork-related problems remain hidden from view, including fear of conflict, the second dysfunction of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

Fear of Conflict in Teams

Lack of trust within a team inevitably leads to fear of conflict, confrontation, criticism and/or reprisal. When teammates and leaders are seen as potential threats, people adopt avoidance tactics. This sets up an artificial harmony that has no productive value. There is no true consensus, just a risk-preventing sentiment of “yes” feedback. True critique is avoided. Genuine solutions are not explored, and the team functions poorly.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work when I’m consulting in businesses. Everything looks good on the surface, but feelings and resentments build because people don’t feel free to express disagreement. Read More »

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Can We Really Fix Dysfunctional Teams?

dysfunctional-teams

Organizations waste vast amounts of time, effort and money each year by failing to recognize or correct dysfunctional teams. In spite of dismal success rates, many leaders fail to fix dysfunctional teams.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers study of 200 global companies across various sectors―involving more than 10,000 projects―found less than 3% successfully completed their plans. Similar research reveals 60%–70% project failure rates. In the United States alone, IT project failures cause estimated losses of up to $150 billion per year. Read More »

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Fear of Failure: Name It, Claim It, Reframe It

Fear-of-failureWho hasn’t dealt with fear of failure in one’s career, at one time or another? Several process-oriented changes can lessen the effects of failure or reduce its likelihood. In general, conquering fear of failure is a process of naming it, claiming it and reframing it.

Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), suggest some practical steps for dealing with fear of failure. Read More »

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Fear of Failure: Perspective Is Everything

Fear-of-failureLiving with frequent fear of failure is a significant personal struggle. While fear may not be completely eliminated, it can be overcome. A major shift in perspective is required—something with which an experienced leadership coach can assist you.

Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), offers good suggestions.

Begin by recognizing that no one is immune to failure. It happens to everyone. Coming to grips with fear, understanding that it’s real and knowing if it’s affecting your leadership (and life) are steps in the right direction. Fear is not always bad. Healthy fears allow us to respect and remain aware of potential hazards. Read More »

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What Causes Fear of Failure?

Fear-of-failureI’ve been discussing leaders’ challenges and a big one is fear of failure, even though many refuse to admit to anyone they might feel it.

Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), offers some background on causes. I think he offers some valuable insights on what’s behind this debilitating emotion. Read More »

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