27 September 2023

Big little lies: What to do if you get caught in a lie at work

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Juli Fraga* says a small lie can be just as damaging as a big one when it comes to your reputation and the trust of your colleagues.

Photo: SIphotography

Maybe this rings a bell: It’s Sunday night, and you’re fully in the throes of dread over the coming Monday morning.

Picturing your mess of an inbox makes your skin crawl.

The prospect of spending another eight hours next to Kevin, your colleague who reads all his emails out loud under his breath, makes you want to hide your head under a pillow and never come out.

It would be so easy to email your boss with a believable-sounding illness and bliss out in your own three-day weekend.

We’ve all felt a similar temptation at some point.

But acting on that impulse is a gamble, and not a good one.

Though you may not know it by looking at certain world leaders, being caught in a professional lie can be devastating.

It tarnishes relationships.

It erodes trust.

It can get you fired.

Of course, most of us don’t think of ourselves as liars.

And yet most of us lie anyway, often without realising it.

One 2002 study found that 60 per cent of people pepper their daily conversations with small fibs, especially when they want to come across as competent or kind.

Maybe you claim to have read a book you’ve never heard of or pay a colleague a false compliment on an idea you actually thought was okay at best.

And while those can feel like pretty harmless stretches of the truth, other research suggests that small lies, when discovered, can be just as harmful as more malicious ones.

To the person who’s been lied to, betrayal is a binary thing: It happens or it doesn’t.

And when it does, it stings, regardless of how big or small the lie.

At work, that sting can have especially far-reaching consequences, says Christian L. Hart, a psychology professor at Texas Woman’s University who studies lying behaviour.

Realising a friend has lied may be painful, but personal relationships aren’t as easily destroyed by dishonesty; our emotional intimacy may motivate us to understand why the other person behaved badly.

Work relationships, however, tend to be more transactional.

Because of this, Hart explains, “colleagues are more apt to reject a liar than to spend time trying to revive the fraught relationship.”

In other words, lying at work is often a once-and-done scenario: The first time you do it, you’re written off as a liar.

But if you take significant steps, you might just be able to redeem yourself.

Here’s how to rebuild your colleagues’ trust.

Do some reflecting

Before you do anything else, you should try to understand exactly what drove you to lie in the first place, says the psychologist Dennis Reina, who co-authored the book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace.

Identifying the reason behind your lie allows you to take full responsibility for your mistake.

Without that insight, Reina says, you can’t confidently say that it won’t happen again.

Lying often signifies an underlying problem, and unless you address it, chances are you’ll find yourself in a similar situation in the future.

People who lie to protect someone’s feelings, for example, may need to address their people-pleasing tendencies, explains Daniela Tempesta, a psychotherapist.

Then there are the liars who weave tiny tales to undermine a colleague, perhaps because they feel threatened by their success.

If that’s the case, learning how to cope with envy may be one way to stop dishonesty in its tracks.

That longer-term work comes later, though.

For now, just focus on figuring out the “why”.

Consider what you were trying to achieve with the lie, who was in the room, and anything else that may have factored in.

Only once you understand your inner liar can you start to craft a fully-fledged apology.

Explain, but don’t excuse

“The best way to apologise for a lie is to own up to it,” says Tempesta.

That’s not just a do-the-right-thing platitude; it’s also in your self-interest to be able to explain what happened.

“Coming clean may feel terrifying, but ultimately it gives you some control over how the message is delivered,” she says.

Research on apologies suggests that the most effective ones have three components: taking responsibility for your wrongdoing, showing remorse, and outlining how you plan to set things straight.

Reina’s advice: acknowledge responsibility by starting off with an “I” statement, like, “I made a huge mistake” or “I was dishonest”, and then share why you lied to begin with.

If it was an attempt to avoid conflict, for example, be direct in your explanation: “It’s hard for me to deal with conflict, and I could tell we were getting into touchy territory.”

Then show remorse: “I’m so sorry I made things more complicated for you” or “I feel terrible that I misled you, and I apologise.”

A major caveat: Don’t start your explanation with “I’m sorry, but…”.

It’s a cop-out.

According to Tempesta, the word “but” signals that you’re making an excuse, which can make it harder to re-establish trust in the long run.

Outline your actions

Lying at work doesn’t just fracture trust, it also affects how capable you seem: One study found that people who lie in the workplace are seen as less competent than their honest peers.

To make things right, come up with a concrete, specific plan and share it with anyone who was hurt by your lie.

Say something like, “Here’s how I plan to take responsibility for my actions,” and then explain exactly what you have in mind.

Your co-workers might have other ideas, too, so be open to feedback on how you can make things right.

Don’t expect praise for your extra efforts.

“When making reparation, it’s best to do so quietly,” Reina says.

And this should go without saying, but it’s important enough to say anyway: Follow through completely on whatever you’ve pledged to do.

The best way to re-earn a reputation as a truthful person is to be one.

* Juli Fraga is a psychologist specialising in women’s health and wellness.

This article first appeared at forge.medium.com

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