The slippery slope with white lies

06 January, 2020

White lies present a moral grey zone. Is it okay to tell small untruths, or is 100% honesty the best policy?

You are running late for an early morning meeting. You call in saying that traffic is really bad, while in reality you forgot about the meeting. Or you feign ignorance when someone follows up with you on a message they had sent, claiming that you never received it!

I am sure you encounter examples of such white lies every day. In a study, researchers found that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.

Many of us tend lie to deal with uncomfortable situations or to make ourselves look good. Often, these are motivated by compassion: we want to protect other people’s feelings or prevent them from worrying. You have probably heard the saying, “A little white lie never hurt anyone”. However, even well-meaning fibs can have negative consequences.

So, this week, my message focuses on the complex issue of telling white lies. Can small untruths have big repercussions? Can they damage your standing as a leader? Or is it actually beneficial to lie in certain situations?

At the workplace, people might tell white lies to make themselves or their work look better. This can take the form of:

  • Manipulating numbers
  • Spinning information
  • Leaving out facts
  • Exaggerating stories
  • Covering up mistakes

Even if you think a lie is small or unimportant, it can still damage your professional reputation.

When the falsehood is revealed, people begin to have doubts about you: “Can I trust this person? Did they tell me the truth last time? What else are they hiding? Can I work with someone like this?”

On a personal front, you might sometimes lie out of a desire to look good or protect your self-esteem. Sadly, this can backfire. In the Harvard Business Review article, How and Why We Lie at Work, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains:

For a trivial example, when asked whether you know someone important or have read a popular book, you may instinctively answer “yes” in order to avoid rejection. But this in turn actually increases your insecurity – what if you’re found out? – which will increase your probability of continuing to lie in the future.

Telling selfish white lies makes it easier to lie more frequently, which can send you down a dangerous path. Once you become comfortable taking small detours from honesty, larger untruths aren’t that far off anymore. Recent research supports this view. The brain adapts to dishonesty, a study published in Nature Neuroscience, showed that “the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition”. As the researchers note:

Using functional MRI, we show that signal reduction in the amygdala is sensitive to the history of dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation… The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.

As a leader, white lies might help you avert a difficult conversation, such as giving tough feedback during a performance review. Here, the motivation is usually mixed: you want to spare the other person’s feelings as well as avoid being in an uncomfortable position. Unfortunately, fibbing does no good here: it prevents your team member from improving their performance and achieving their full potential, which in turn undermines your leadership.

Lying is especially risky for leaders – when you lose credibility and trust, you lose effectiveness. In The Remarkable Power of the Truth Teller, Lolly Daskal highlights how truthful leadership can foster an honest, transparent culture:

Communicate, communicate, communicate. That’s the role of a leader. If you hold back, people will know something’s going on, and they’ll fill the gap with gossip, paranoia, and suspicion—wreaking havoc on the culture of your organization.

Daskal goes on to explain that when leaders resist the temptation to cover up their own mistakes with white lies, they create an environment of openness and safety. Your team members feel empowered to own their errors (instead of sweeping them under the rug) and look for solutions.

Despite the often-negative consequences, fibbing isn’t a black and white issue. There are times when it may actually be moral to tell a white lie, according to a study at Wharton University. In When Lying Is Good, Elizabeth Segran highlights the key findings:

The results were unanimous: Lying to help another person was consistently perceived to be good, while lying that had no effect on the other person or that actually harmed them was perceived to be wrong. In the paper, Levine and Scheweitzer write: “Individuals with altruistic intentions are perceived to be more moral, more benevolent, and more honest, even when they lie.”

Some ethics experts say it’s okay, even beneficial, to lie at certain times. For example:

  • When the person has no power to change the situation
  • If the truth might cause psychological damage
  • When the person clearly wants to be comforted

At the end of the day, the best option is to think critically and exercise judgment before you tell a lie, even if it seems trivial. Don’t turn to white lies indiscriminately, in any and all situations. Here are five pointers to keep in mind next time you’re torn between a white lie and the truth:

1. Will the truth help the person?

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author, tackles the issue of dishonesty in his book, Lying, suggesting that lies – even well-intentioned ones – take away the potential for improvement. By hiding the harsh truth, you make it impossible for the other person to do better. Harris recommends the following golden rule:

If you were asking the question, would you be grateful to know the truth, however awkward it was to articulate?

2. Does the person want honesty?

Does the person genuinely want your input? If all they want is some reassurance, a white lie might be the wiser response. But if they want actionable feedback, then get past your discomfort and tell the truth.

3. Is there room to manoeuvre?

Creative responses can be better than lies when it comes to protecting someone’s feelings. Consider a situation where someone gifts you an item you dislike. Instead of fibbing (“This is great – I love it so much!”), why not try “It’s so sweet of you to give me this” or “Thanks for thinking of me”? Both of these are probably true, right?

4. Will the truth come out anyway?

Let’s say your colleague pitches a new idea at a meeting and asks for your input. The proposal is half-baked and needs a lot of work, but you don’t want to hurt her feelings. Now, you could tell a white lie – but won’t the other people in the room offer honest feedback? Your colleague will have to face the facts anyway, and you’ll end up looking untruthful. So, your best bet here is to offer constructive criticism instead of dishonest praise.

5. How can I put it?

Telling the truth is no excuse for being cruel or crushing someone’s confidence. Tough feedback should be given in a straightforward manner, along with an assurance of providing the necessary support. Being tactful is good – but make sure the message doesn’t get lost in beating around the bush.

Finally, if your untruths are discovered, how can you mend your damaged reputation? In his Harvard Business Review piece, What to Do When You’re Caught in a Lie (Even an Unintentional One), Ron Carucci first outlines what not to do:

As you recognize signs of weakening credibility, you may be triggered to lie even more to regain it. Resist your natural instinct to diminish the extent of the damage. Doing so will only perpetuate a cycle of deceit. Instead, evaluate the gap between the reputation you want and the reputation you have…. Understanding this will help you identify different choices you can make in the future — choices that reflect the person you want to be at work and reduce your compulsion to “fake it.”

Carucci advises looking for ways to demonstrate self-honesty. If you can take responsibility for your past lies, do so. If that isn’t feasible, find future opportunities to practice truth-telling. Rebuilding legitimacy takes time, but it can certainly be done.


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