Understanding Why White Lies Turn To Gray
By Liz Bentley
Recently in my executive seminars and one-on-one work, the topic of lying has been coming up. Specifically, people are voicing their frustrations about other people’s inability to be honest. What I have uncovered is that lying is a very personal and subjective topic. For example, lying to one person can be merely exaggeration to another. While most people understand the difference between a white lie versus something more serious, the area of gray is much larger than one would think. And the significance people assign to those lies varies as well – from a harmless social lubricant to evidence of a major character flaw.
We all tend to lie for convenience. Conservative estimates from research psychologists have most of us lying on average once or twice a day. We might lie to avoid fights, unnecessary confrontations, embarrassment or punishment (e.g. “I’m late because I got stuck in traffic.”) And sometimes lying can even be seen as the right decision…the choice to not hurt someone’s feelings.
There arguably can be good times to evade the cold hard truth. But many times we tell ourselves that our lies aren’t really lies. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of the population would consider themselves honest people. We don’t recognize how our white lies sometimes turn to gray and in doing so we lose trust with our colleagues, peers and clients.
Why & How We Lie
I’ve found that in order for people to grow and achieve their next level of leadership, it’s critical for them to understand the causes and manifestations of distorting the truth – and to be able to recognize it in themselves.
People are motivated to lie for many different reasons. It may be self-centered (for psychological reasons or for protection/gain) or altruistic (lies in the service of others). Here are the most common styles that I have found.
These are the people who exaggerate facts to make them work for themselves. On a more innocent level, it may come out in exaggerating the size of a fish they caught, the time it takes to drive a distance, or how much they liked a movie. On a more serious level, it can lead to being inaccurate and not checking facts that derail people, teams and projects.
What’s Their Struggle: Their desire to influence others outweighs their perspective on accuracy. Sometimes it may be on a lighthearted level to have fun or for humor, or on a more serious level toward their motivations and desired outcomes.
Why They Lose Our Trust: We lose trust when we feel like they manipulate us to get what they want. We see their inaccuracy as lies and we view information we receive from them through this lens.
These are the people who do not like to deliver bad news or anything uncomfortable for that matter. They have two ways of lying, one through words and the other through silence. On a more innocent level, they may tell you they liked their dinner when they didn’t or they don’t comment when asked for feedback. In more serious situations, when they are afraid to speak up and speak the truth, problems tend to simmer and become larger and/or they may lead people down the wrong or unrealistic path.
What’s Their Struggle: They dislike confrontation to the point that they miss the big picture and larger problems may be caused by their inability to address the conflict. They protect themselves by not speaking or painting a rosy picture to alleviate the immediate situation.
Why They Lose Our Trust: We lose trust when we feel they do not give real feedback, always paint a positive picture and derail our understanding of what is really happening. We also lose respect for them because we feel they don’t have the confidence to tell the truth.
The Over-Confident (with No Competence)
These people speak about things they know nothing about with complete confidence. They may say, “Broadway is north of here” when it’s actually south, “the Mets will win tonight” when it’s unlikely, or “you can get that project done in no time” when it will take days. Their lies become more serious when it comes out as “hire this person, he’s great” when he’s not, or “buy that new system, we need it” when it’s costly and the wrong system. These people aren’t doing their homework. They make knee-jerk responses without giving more consideration to what they are saying.
What’s Their Struggle: They like to move fast and trust their gut instinct to the point of not doing their research. They also tend to overestimate their knowledge or performance and speak with unfounded confidence.
Why They Lose Our Trust: We lose trust about their judgment – especially when it leads us astray, and we resent their confidence on things they know nothing about.
The Winner/Fact Changer
These people manipulate the facts to work in their favor. While the exaggerator can also do that, these people do it more to win their battles. On a more innocent level, during a meeting they might tout beating a deadline while neglecting to mention the deployment of resources required to achieve it. On a more serious level, they may change what people said in an argument to make the story go in their favor.
What’s Their Struggle: They are so stuck on the end goal that they are willing to change the facts to work in their favor.
Why They Lose Our Trust: We lose trust when we believe their emotions skew the facts too much to their advantage.
The Fact Hoarder
These are the people who have all the facts and information on something (e.g., a project or a problem) but don’t want to give it all out. They like to hoard their facts and reveal them as they consider needed. On an innocent level, they may stay silent in an email exchange to hear all viewpoints until they weigh in. When it gets more serious, they don’t admit they know the solutions they are aware of and withhold facts that could solve problems and change situations.
What’s Their Struggle: They feel like their facts are theirs to own and give out as they see fit. They decide they can’t trust others with their information and it’s their right to withhold it.
Why They Lose Our Trust: We lose trust with them because they make us do extra work, make problem solving go on for too long, and we never believe they are being fully honest with us.
How To Uncover Your Own Truth
It is human nature to think that others’ lies are lies and ours are not. Very few people are trying to be deceitful in their work and life. The goal is to recognize where our seemingly innocent white lies turn to gray and uncover some blind spots we have about ourselves. The baseline is understanding what’s motivating it and the next is recognizing our own struggles to be completely honest. While you may not have the problem of lying to win, you may have the problem of lying to please.
Creating an environment of trust – in our workplace and our lives – is the big prize we are going after. Research from Duane C. Tway, Jr. and other noted psychologists shows that trust is the necessary precursor for:
- Feeling able to rely upon a person,
- Cooperating with and experiencing teamwork with a group,
- Taking thoughtful risks, and
- Experiencing believable communication.
Since you can only change yourself, you should concentrate on yourself and the insights you can make. Here are strategies to keep yourself from going gray:
- Take a good hard look at yourself and recognize where you may be losing trust and where you may be unconsciously lying. You may have a blind spot about the type of lies you utilize to cope with everyday demands and stressors.
- Recognize how your lies may be coming across to others. Think about how your shading of reality may impact your audience and your relationships. Consider how they may look at your way of communicating.
- Recognize how your lies may be impacting you. According to research by University of California psychologist Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., most liars remain at least somewhat conflicted about their behavior. Studies indicate that people feel the conversations in which they lie are less intimate and pleasant, suggesting they are not entirely at ease with them. If the lies are little more serious, there’s the added stress of being discovered or even tracking what you said to whom.
- Get specific about what you are going to do about it. If your problem rests with the need to please, try to be more realistic about what you can accomplish and when. Or if you find it uncomfortable to deliver harsh feedback, ask yourself, wouldn’t you want to know the truth? Can you find a way to bundle harsh feedback with some positive information?
- Avoid taking a “holier than thou” approach in chastising other people’s lies with condemnation. We may think that their lying is a fatal flaw and a reflection of all of their values. We also may think if they lie at this level, there is no way they can be trusted at any level whatsoever. When it comes to lying, people lose their empathy.
We all can shade the truth here and there for a myriad of reasons – to make life easier, more comfortable, more manageable or more fun. Try to uncover if you have any blind spots or rationalizations about your own storylines. At the same time, remember to lead with empathy. If you do, you will become more patient and understanding of other people’s struggles and aspirations, which will open the door to more trust and authenticity in your relationships.