Why We Lie

And how better management can encourage truthfulness

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

Here’s the truth -- anyone who tells you that he or she never lies is lying. We all are liars. We lie to be likable, to appear more competent, and to spare people’s feelings. To lie is human.
We lie often. According to a 2002 University of Massachusetts study, 60% of adults can’t have a ten-minute conversation without lying at least once. Moreover, people in the study who did lie told an average of 3 lies during their brief chat.

We lie to everyone. Our parents get the worst of it, according to James Patterson, author of the “The Day America Told the Truth,” with 86% of us lying to them regularly, followed by friends (75%), siblings (73%), and spouses (69%). Admittedly, most of these lies are the harmless type that slightly twist the truth in order to be polite or supportive. For example, perhaps the first time you were introduced to your boss’ new baby (who just happened to be a dead-ringer for Albert Einstein on a bad hair day), you joined the chorus of your fellow co-workers by exclaiming, “she is the cutest baby I’ve ever seen!”

On the other hand, sometimes we lie about things that matter and dishonesty can create serious problems at work. Pamela Meyer, an author and certified fraud examiner, maintains that “the workplace in particular, creates the perfect setting for dishonesty to fester because of the heavy competition and high stakes.” For example, a 2017 Statistic Research Bureau survey revealed that 31% of people admit to lying on their resumes. In addition, men tell an average of 6 lies per day to their partner, boss or work colleagues compared to women who tell an average of 3 lies a day to the same cohort.

Deception can have a drastic financial impact. Remarkably, it costs businesses $3.7 trillion per year—roughly 5% of annual revenue, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could detect when someone is lying to us? Of course it would, but this is not an easy task. The average human can detect a lie only 54% of the time. Figuring out people is hard and human motivation is complex. Which is why, as commonplace as dishonesty is, deception detection is an inexact science.

Lying After Lunch

Researchers, however, have ascertained that there are times during the day when lying occurs more frequently. For example, researchers Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac H. Smith found that people tend to be more untruthful in the afternoon than in the morning. Specifically, people were 20% to 50% more likely to be dishonest in the afternoon — between 3 to 6 PM — because they had fallen into a state of “ego depletion.” That is, these individuals were worn down as a result of fatigue, physical discomfort, and/or exhaustion. As a result, they were more likely to make unethical decisions and subsequently, engage in unethical conduct.

“Our self-regulatory resources are limited,” Kouchaki noted. “When you use those resources, they are depleted, and you have to replenish them to be able to use them again.” Thus, if workers’ cognitive resources are drained as the workday progressed, it will become more difficult for them to act ethically.

Another factor that may contribute to unethical behavior is “decision fatigue” and on-the-job stress can be a major contributor. Employees use their mental energy to make decisions at work much like they use their muscles to lift a heavy weight in a workout. The more decisions they make, the less mental energy they bring to handle a new decision. As a result, over the course of a long and stressful day, it becomes harder and harder to make good decisions.

Work-life balance

No doubt about it. The current business climate is very stressful. A typical workday for many individuals is filled with a crammed slate of meetings, endless phone calls, unanticipated problems at work, and encounters with difficult people.

Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently reported that 40% of American workers say their job is very or extremely stressful and three-fourths believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in the Workplace Survey revealed that 36 % of workers said they typically feel tense or stressed out during their workday.

If they are not stressed-out, they are likely tired. The staffing firm Accountemps recently reported that feeling worn out at work is a common occurrence among U.S. employees and 74% of professionals reported they operate while tired at least somewhat often. As a result, tired and burned- out employees may pose a danger of making serious unethical choices, including committing fraud, and breaking promises and commitments.

One of the most effective ways to limit ego depletion and decision fatigue is to ensure that employees do not become exhausted and dog-tired in the first place. While technology has increasingly made it possible for employees to be on-call 24/7, managers can establish clear boundaries for their employees, so they can maintain a healthy work-life balance and live without fear of retaliation for not answering work communications after work hour. Rested employees are typically honest and ethical employees.

Inspired Employees

Another solution is to improve employee motivation in the workplace. Motivation is the force that guides our behaviors, including choosing to be honest or dishonest.

Dan Pink’s book “Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” draws on science, case studies and facts to argue that people need three things to get and stay motivated:

  1. Autonomy: The ability to be self-directed in making decisions.
  2. Mastery: An urge and opportunity to get better and better.
  3. Purpose: Finding higher meaning in daily tasks besides simply the need to make money.

According to Pink, high-performing employees’ motivation is enhanced when they have the autonomy or control over how to accomplish their work within four areas: time, technique, team and task. For example, some companies allow employees to have time at the workplace to do whatever they want which leads to workers creating innovative ideas and solutions. A good example is Google, which has benefited from numerous product ideas as a result of allowing developers to pursue individual projects during work time. Autonomy can also be afforded by allowing employees to choose who they work with and what effective techniques they will use to complete a new assignment or task.

Seemingly attentive and eager employees’ initial embrace of autonomy, however, may wane over time. Moreover, a lack of opportunity at work for self-improvement or personal and professional development is liable to make some employees bored and demotivated. In order to sustain autonomy and drive employees’ mastery, managers can create opportunities for workers to enjoy a sense of progress at work. This can be accomplished by setting tasks for employees that are neither too easy or excessively challenging. Pink calls such tasks "Goldilocks tasks” – i.e. tasks that are not "too hot or too cold." Goldilocks tasks push employees out of their comfort zones and allow them to stretch themselves and develop their skills.

Finally, because most workers spend half of their waking hours at work, Pink argues that people intrinsically want a sense of purpose on the job. In a 2016 global survey of 26,000 LinkedIn members, 74% of job candidates want a job where they feel their work matters. Employees who feel like their work creates a positive impact are more likely to feel fulfilled, stay on the job longer and make positive ethical decisions.