Improving project execution with the fine art of lying
Should project managers lead the way in establishing a culture of transparency, consistency, and plain dealing? Only if they don’t mind being branded “so 2016.”
If we are, in fact, at the dawn of a post-fact era, it’s time for project managers to adapt. We turn to one of America’s foremost philosophical minds, Mark Twain, and selected quotations from his essay “On the Decay of the Art of Lying” for inspiration and guidance. See how easy it is to improve project execution with the right kinds of lies.
“What chance has the ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert?”
Do unto others before they do unto you may be an uncomfortable thought, but any project manager who believes they can count on every contributor to absolutely, positively never tell a lie is already lying—to themselves. You are already working with people who will deflect, twist, concoct and deceive as necessary in order to protect their status on the team. Your game should be just as good.
“Judicious lying is what the world needs”
Clearly, a successful project manager cannot lie all the time. Credibility is still an important currency, and the habitual indiscriminate liar has none. Although Twain’s piece spells out in detail the breadth and depth of the lies we tell every day, to ourselves and to others, with our words, thoughts, and deeds, he did not brazenly advocate for an all-lies, all-the-time strategy.
One can be credible without being unfailingly honest, especially when a judicious lie actually advances the project along. Consider an otherwise talented, capable, and dedicated contributor with a mental block about deadlines. No matter what deadline they are assigned, they will invariably file a day late.
The unfailingly honest project manager will continue to assign a black-and-white deadline, and deal with the inconvenience and hassle of yellow and red status reports, requests for a deadline extension, and so forth. All of which were entirely predictable—and entirely avoidable, with a simple lie. “I’m not a fan of lying, but lying can be important to get things done in the workplace, especially if it’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge lie that we are both in on,” says organizational change and leadership consultant Rick Maurer.
The project manager who can lie judiciously knows to simply set the deadline 24 hours earlier than it should be. “If I know that’s what you respond to, and you know that I know it, and between us it works, that kind of lying can be okay.”
“An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.”
Don’t rush into your lies. If a team lead tells you they need a 3% cost overrun and you blurt out a ridiculous lie about elephants trampling the client’s bank, you’re toast. “If your future credibility goes in the toilet, people will start second-guessing everything you say, trying to interpret what your body language meant, and taking more steps to protect themselves,” Maurer says.
Here are some tips to de-escalate the awkwardness:
- Slow down your decision-making. Few situations actually call for an immediate lie. Let silence be your ally. In fact, after an uncomfortable pause, the person you need to lie to may simply slink away and save you the trouble of lying.
- Lie with constructive purpose. Know what you want your lie to accomplish—not just to end a conversation, but how you want the hearer to be changed by listening.
- Lie with confidence. If you sweat or your voice quavers when you lie, practice in the mirror.
“The wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously”
Don’t believe Twain? Try academic research, which has found that a good lie can be more profitable than a bad truth. “By disclosing information selectively, managers can engage in opportunistic behaviour,” write William W. Keep and Gary P. Schneider in Deception and Defection From Ethical Norms in Market Relationships: a General Analytic Framework. “In effect, they actively maintain and manage the information asymmetry inherent in their relationships with other managers.”
(That’s academic speak for lying is power.)
When Keep and Schneider surveyed working adults about their workplace deceptions, the most commonly reported lies to employees or managers were carried out to “ensure product or service quality.” Lying to project collaborators isn’t just human nature, it’s science!*
* – May not be real science. Not intended as legal advice. Consult your ethical and spiritual advisors as well as your employee handbook and HR policies before embracing any lying-oriented project management strategy.