Building a Business and the Truth about Lying

By: Phillip Bogdanovich

200. It’s not the cheap knockoff version of the movie 300 (a masterpiece), or my favorite Olympic event. Mind-bogglingly, it’s the number of times the average person is lied to in a day. In fact, for every ten minutes of conversation, the average person lies three times. Lying is normal, but its impact has to do with context, content, and intent. As a founder or executive running a start-up, how do you reconcile the wild degrees of variability between acceptable/normal lying and stigmatized/vilified lying? After all, no one likes to be called a liar.
Message Delivery: A Three-Part Consideration

We lie to our friends; we lie to our parents; we lie to our spouses; we lie to our kids. The gravity of those lies depends on context, content, and intent.

When determining whether they’re being lied to, people first evaluate context. They compare what the other person is saying to the realities of the current situation. Context sets the stage for the delivery of your message and creates people’s first impression of it. If I tell you my favorite color is blue, you might believe me because you have no reason to suspect I’m telling you something untrue. But if I deliver the exact same message after you watched me get out of a green car in a green suit and a green hat, you might be inclined to suspect I’m being untruthful. Even if you’re telling the truth, you have to consider how it might be received given the context: what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and under what circumstances.

Content is the next determining factor in whether your message is received with suspicion. The more general the statement you make, the easier it is for a listener to consider you untruthful or generally incorrect. If you’re telling the truth but you find yourself on the defensive because you’re being challenged, your message will fall on deaf ears or be perceived as deceitful. Combative people are often perceived as dishonest.

Contrary to popular belief, truth is largely subjective. What is true for you is not true for everyone. Consider what you’re saying and how it may be received. Plan the content of your message before you communicate it. Let’s say I am an automotive industry executive who believes blue is the best color and needs to convince my staff of this belief. Instead of attempting to convince them with my subjective opinion, I use objective evidence of blue’s superiority—we sell more blue cars than any other color, for example. Following that statement with, “That’s a strong indication blue is the best color—wouldn’t you agree?” effectively communicates my position by tying it to something real and measurable. Now when employees think about the color blue, they will have a positive association with greater sales. They will agree that blue is the best color. If I took the “Blue is the best color because I say so” approach, I would only alienate my employees.

The only person who understands the true intent of a message is the person delivering it. This doesn’t mean listeners are incapable of determining when someone has selfish or devious intentions. In fact, studies indicate that people’s ability to detect intent is about 40%. That’s not a stellar success rate, but it’s a long way away from 0.

Although your listeners will not know definitively whether your intent is devious or self-serving, they can make a pretty damn good guess. If employees know blue cars are outselling other colors thanks to a deep discount, and they know you receive a bonus for blue cars sold, they can guess your intent—why you’re telling them blue is the best color.

Everyone lies and everyone is being lied to. Accepting this reality will make it easier to handle someone questioning your integrity or truthfulness.

Consider context, content, and intention prior to delivering a message. Be prepared to tell the right story, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reasons (in business, the right reason is that a course of action is best for the company). Your staff wants to believe you, and in fact they must believe you. They must believe in your vision, which has yet to be proven—and in that sense is not yet the truth. So sell the best possible lie. Odds are, it’s only one of 199 other lies they’ll hear today.

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