If you sense that spinning information, denying a mistake, embellishing data, or exaggerating a contribution has backfired, your reputation may now be in question. Here is how you can earn back some of your credibility. First, reflect on why you lied. Underneath our lies are unmet needs that we believe lying might satisfy. Identifying these needs is the first step to finding healthier ways to fulfill them. Next, evaluate the gap between the reputation you want and the reputation you have. Once you are clear on this, you can more accurately evaluate the degree of doubt you may have raised. Finally, now that you have identified the conclusions people have drawn about you, practice demonstrating honesty in ways that refute them.
People lie, on average, one to two times per day. While the percentage of lies told by a person, the conditions under which we lie, and the degree to which the truth gets stretched all vary, research agrees — we all do it sometimes. Given the prevalence of lying, it seems inevitable that, at some point, we are going to get caught.
Many people, however, don’t see it that way. Most of us believe that our lies actually work — mainly because it takes a rare person to confront us. But frequently there are cues, if we’re willing to see them, that indicate skeptical doubt, even outright disbelief, on the faces of those we lie to.
I recently encountered this during a client’s business review meeting. An executive, let’s call him Greg, was giving a presentation about the financial state of his company. As Greg explained the reasons behind the previous period’s shortfalls and his forecast for the next, people in the room seemed to grow uneasy and even troubled. Their knowing glances around the table and the awkward innuendo underneath their questions implied that they weren’t buying his explanations. Later, I pulled Greg aside and shared that some of his colleagues seemed skeptical. There were, however, a few ways he could begin to repair the damage.
If you sense that spinning information, denying a mistake, embellishing data, or exaggerating a contribution has backfired, don’t assume things will be OK after the painful silence or furrowed eyebrows subside. Your reputation is now in question. Here is how you can earn back some of your credibility.
First, reflect on why you lied. When I asked Greg why he embellished his data, he told me that he felt as if he had no other choice. “I was the newest salesperson at the time,” he said. “Everyone expected me to fail, and I felt like an outsider.” His desperate need to belong drove him to try to purchase acceptance.
Dishonesty is never random. Underneath our lies are unmet needs that we believe lying might satisfy. Identifying these needs is the first step to finding healthier ways to fulfill them.
Think about the last time you lied at work. Did you feel overlooked or unfairly judged by your boss? Did you fear your mistake would be more harshly criticized than warranted? Do you think your company’s “we learn from mistakes” slogan applied only to “the favorites,” and not to you? Or were you reacting to a larger organizational issue? My research on dishonesty, a 15-year longitudinal study on conditions that predict why people lie in organizations, reveals that some companies may be unwittingly creating circumstances that actually encourage us to lie. For example, when we feel our work is being unfairly evaluated, we are almost four times more likely to be dishonest.
Whatever your motivation, remember that identifying why you lied in no way excuses it. You may be tempted to quell any lingering feelings of shame with self-justification for lying in the first place. “It’s not fair…,” “I deserve this…,” and “Why should I have to…” are all defenses we use to rationalize deception. If you catch yourself defending your lies, that’s a clear signal that you are avoiding something deeper. Instead, ask yourself, “What underlying fears am I trying to protect?” Remember, dishonesty often provides no more than a momentary surge of false regard in the eyes of others.
Assess the credibility damage. While not easy, it’s important to gauge the degree to which others may have withdrawn their trust. Pay attention to how people now respond to you. Is your opinion being solicited less? Are things you say being engaged differently than before? In cases where your credibility has eroded over time, you may notice that there are meetings you are no longer invited to, or projects for which you haven’t been asked to contribute — even though your expertise is a natural fit.
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. Do you want to be known as someone with great ideas who delivers on commitments? Or as the go-to leader who can solve the toughest problems? Once you are clear on this, you can more accurately evaluate the degree of doubt you may have raised by attempting to dishonestly engineer that reputation.
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.”
Look for ways to demonstrate self-honesty. It’s doubtful that your colleagues are asking themselves why you lied or looking for ways to give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s more likely that what they now wonder about is your capacity for honesty.
In some cases, they may also be questioning other aspects of your character. For example, if you exaggerated your contribution to a project or covered up a mistake, they may be doubting your capacity for humility as well as honesty. You may not have the opportunity to outright confess that you lied. Political conditions inside many companies often make such admissions too risky. (Although if you feel it’s safe to do so, by all means, take responsibility for your actions.) However, once you identify the conclusions people have drawn about you, you can practice demonstrating honesty in ways that refute them.
Sticking with the above example, if your humility is being questioned, genuine expressions of self-doubt about your ideas, self-deprecating acknowledgements of things you aren’t good at, and affirmations of others’ greater abilities can remind people that you aren’t all bad and that aspects of your integrity are still intact.
In cases where you feel relieved for not getting caught in your lies, don’t conclude that people were fooled into believing things about you or your work that aren’t true. You now have the dubious task of sustaining their perception, which may require more lies. Free yourself from this self-destructive cycle. Take stock of the conditions under which you are tempted to lie. Be honest about what legitimate needs you are trying to meet, and what legitimate reputation you are trying to form. Doing so will help you find more legitimate ways to do both.
Author: Ron Carucci