How to Tell When Colleagues (and Your Boss) are Lying

by Vault Careers | August 31, 2010

  • My Vault
A recent study identified some sure-fire methods for detecting when your boss—and presumably anyone else—is lying. David Larcker and Anastasia Zakolyukina of Stanford's School of Business examined conference call transcripts of CEOs and financial officers and compared the language used when said execs were discussing accurate results and those that later had to be "materially restated."

As reported by The Economist, the study found several key "tells" in language choice:

  • References to general knowledge or received wisdom. Examples: execs who say things like "as you know" or "you're all aware that…"
  • Extreme positivity. You won't catch a liar telling you something's "fine". In their attempt to sell you their particular bill of goods, they'll invoke "extreme positive emotion words" like "incredible," "fantastic," and "superb." *
  • The "we" factor. According to The Economist "When they are lying, bosses avoid the word "I", opting instead for the third person."
  • Smooth talkers. You know those people who seem to stutter, hum and haw their way through every presentation? They're probably telling the truth. A degree of polish—while usually a good thing for the listener—can show that someone has practiced their lines or been coached in what to say. That's an essential element in lying effectively.

People who lie never try to give themselves away: it's their unconscious that does it for them. While that's clear from the word choices employed by execs in the examples above, the study they're drawn from is limited by the fact that they're based on transcripts. While The Economist piece wryly notes that we can "[e]xpect 'fantastic' results to become a thing of the past" because of executive coaching, there are other facets that are harder to control: things like body language, tone of voice, and how someone responds in a situation compared to their baseline.

I've taken the opportunity to list a few more below. Whether you choose to use them to root out lying in others or simply to more effectively mask your own is entirely your own business!

  • Defensiveness. People with nothing to hide tend to be the most open. People who are uncooperative and/or defensive may well be hiding something.
  • Body language. It's no secret that lying makes most people uncomfortable. Physical signs include sweating, lack of eye contact and fidgeting.
  • Physical barriers. Liars will sometimes unconsciously place objects between themselves and the person/people they're lying to.
  • The higher the stakes, the higher the pitch. Does someone's voice sound higher or a little more strained than usual? They may just be unfolding a fib before your eyes.

Got a story about catching a liar in the act at work? Know of any tells we've missed? Let us know in the comments field below.

--Phil Stott, Vault.com

* The one caveat to the study is that the authors assumed that all execs were lying in cases where the results they were reporting required material restatement. While that may well have been the case in a majority of instances, it's hardly surprising that an exec would have used a superlative to describe unexpectedly positive results that they were unaware were incorrect.

Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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