You probably don't think of yourself as a liar. I know I don't.
Overwhelmingly, we consider ourselves honest, forthright, and well-meaning. Unfortunately, research begs to differ. Highly dishonest, ill-intentioned, sociopathic people may make up as much as four percent of the population, a 1-in-25 statistic that should give pause to us all. Perhaps more alarmingly, Harvard Business Review suggests that the average American lies twice a day! The only good news here - if you want to call it that - is HBR's conclusion that the Pareto principle applies: The majority of the lies comprising the frighteningly high average are proffered by only about 20 percent of the population.
In order to avoid depressing ourselves completely, let's assume that the sociopathic four percent are included in the high-frequency lying 20 percent. If that's true, then we exist in a world in which lies surround us, but also one in which the vast majority of those lies arise out of something other than sheer malice.
It's not hard to imagine that many of them - at least, many of the lies that happen at work - stem from some combination of survival pressure and social pressure. After all, both types of pressure pervade almost every workplace. Even the most benign question by someone above you in the hierarchy can be interpreted to have potential implications to your job stability - that's survival pressure. And, we should all know by now that the behavioral patterns of those around us exert a much stronger pull than we realize - that's social pressure.
Survival and social pressures may be strong, but they're not infinitely powerful. The best defense against both - as I've said in the past - is a conscious intention to define your own behavior overtly. With that in mind, I respectfully offer two phrases you can practice in your bathroom mirror, and then employ at work whenever you're tempted to lie, omit, obfuscate, or otherwise befuddle someone with your answer to a direct question.
The first and most important is "I don't know." In my experience across a wide variety of workplaces, many people find this tremendously difficult because it feels like an admission of guilt. When someone a pay grade (or three) above you asks a direct question, survival pressure and social pressure kick in big-time. This person holds your meager existence in the palm of her hand, and is expecting you to have answers. You'd better have them, right?
Maybe not. Most every leader I've met would prefer "I don't know but I'll get back to you" in place of a fabricated response. True, if that's your answer too often, you're going to find yourself in bad shape. But, by taking a guess or making something up, you may get yourself in trouble even faster. At best, you'll be forced to run back to your office and create the reality you invented, and at worst you'll have to figure out what to do when your lie is discovered. Even if saying "I don't know" does questions about your level of competence, concerns over ability are much easier to allay than concerns over honesty. Get comfortable saying "I don't know," in the most uncomfortable of situations. It's a skill you'll need to keep your reputation intact over your whole career.
Of course, sometimes "I don't know" is a lie too. Maybe you do know something, but you aren't going to say so. Maybe you manage a group of people about to undergo layoffs, but it's too soon to disclose who is staying and who is leaving. Or maybe you know some technical information about one customer that you're not permitted to share with another. Whatever the specifics, here's one more situation in which the temptation to lie can be strong.
As the truth, "I don't know" is great. As a lie, it's no better than any other falsehood. Yes, you have the list of which staff members will be reassigned. No, you don't want to share it just yet. But if this week you tell them you don't know, and next week it becomes apparent that you did, what happens to your reputation with the employees who remain? A professional life as the manager who can't be trusted - or, in our other example, as the vendor who doesn't understand what customers are doing - probably isn't going to benefit your career.
That's why, once you've gotten comfortable with "I don't know," it's time to switch up your bathroom-mirror practice and rehearse the second phrase: "I can't say." As you do, prepare yourself physically and mentally to lay the uncomfortable claim to knowledge you aren't going to share.
Whether you use "I don't know" or "I can't say," be ready: what happens next is... awkwardness. At a minimum, you've just broken the unspoken social norm that conversational questions are to be answered, not avoided. Moreover, you've done so directly and with impunity. The person on the other end of your well-rehearsed statement is at least going to be a bit taken aback, and may possibly become downright annoyed with you, especially if he or she really wanted the information.
There's only so much you can do about this, but what little is possible must be done immediately. Take control of the conversation, and take it somewhere more useful than a debate over whether or not you should know the answer or share it. Follow your "I don't know" or "I can't say," quickly and definitively, with something that's conversationally useful and actionable:
"I don't know which of the production supervisors had the quality issue, but I will find out. What's in our control at the moment is that we've installed a workaround on the suspect equipment to prevent recurrence."
"I can't say whether anyone will be impacted by the layoffs, but what I can share is that no more than 15 percent of the workforce will be impacted, and that the announcement will be made in two weeks."
Phrases like these - "what I do know is," "what I can share is," "what's more important is," "what's in our control at the moment is," "what's in your control at the moment is," and "what I would do if I were you is" - fit nicely behind "I don't know" or "I can't say." Use them, immediately, to redirect the conversation in a more useful direction.
Will this be easy? Probably not. Will it go smoothly every time? I seriously doubt it. But, like it or not, this may be the best among undesirable options. So give it a try the next time you're tempted to stretch, conceal, or otherwise modify the truth at work.
Of course, you still have to decide for yourself which response to use, how to use it, and whether you should even listen to me at all. After all, statistically speaking, I'm probably making all of this up.