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.”

As an example of this, Apple founder Steve Jobs was reportedly known for his “reality distortion field,” a phrase used to describe his ability to twist the truth in order to achieve his goals. Once a leader declares something to be true, people work hard to make it a reality, much in the way a self-fulfilling prophecy works. Say something often enough, people begin to believe it and work to either make it true or shape their perceptions to fit the model.

Leaders are in positions of power, and research consistently demonstrates that powerful people lie more often and with more ease. This is because the experience of power brings the illusion of control. That makes it easier for someone to express a convincing narrative, even when it is less than truthful.

Research also shows that people in power are less sensitive to societal norms that condemn the use of deception. They lie more successfully than others.

But it’s not just leaders who lie. A survey of sales and marketing executives reported that:

  • 45 percent have heard their reps lying about delivery times
  • 20 percent have overheard false information about service
  • 78 percent have caught a competitor lying about their products or services

A SHRM HR magazine survey showed 44 percent of job applicants lied about their work histories, 41 percent lied about their education, and 23 percent falsified credentials or licenses.

Lying is common among business leaders (even more so among political leaders). Author Jeffrey Pfeffer tells us in his book on Leadership BS that the ability to manipulate others is a foundation of social power and lying successfully has been linked to personal and professional success. Leaders deceive more often and the ability to deceive effectively creates more social power.

The big question of course is whether leaders use their power for positive benefits and to whom their interests are aligned. When applied to the success of the organization, it could very well be that executives, employees, and customers benefit. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s shareholder value that has priority. Sometimes power is used for personal gain.

What’s your opinion about matters of truth and lying by leaders where you work? 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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