One of the worst things we can do in a crisis situation is to lie. Falsehoods in such circumstances confuse the issues and delay our taking appropriate actions. If our prevarications are discovered, we further damage our credibility with stakeholders and the public in general — not to mention getting into trouble with regulatory and legal authorities! And, of course, we all know that lying is simply wrong.
So if we all understand the huge potential downside to this course of action, why do we continue to see otherwise savvy professionals make statements that are often blatantly, sometimes stupidly, false when the pressure is on? I’m not a psychologist; but based on my personal experience, here are some of the common reasons I’ve seen over the years.
I Don’t Know (the Truth)
Crisis situations are often chaotic – especially for organizations without a robust crisis management plan in place. In today’s social media-driven world, organizations can feel pressured to make at least an initial statement about an event while investigations are still ongoing. In this case, the truth (or at least the full truth) isn’t known yet.
So why don’t people admit this? Motivations can vary. Often, people believe that admitting “I don’t know” is a sign of weakness or incompetence. They may also fear that admitting incomplete knowledge will be misinterpreted as evasion. The lies told in this situation take many forms, but one of the most common involves putting a theory about what happened out as the truth. After all, the story can always be “walked back” later on, right?
The better course of action is to stick to a general admission that the event has (or may have) occurred. Don’t commit to facts not yet known. Instead, pivot to the organization’s commitment to thoroughly investigate and describe the actions begin taken and the expertise of those working to resolve the issue. Wrap things up with a sincere promise to share additional information as it becomes available. Of course, you’ll need to fulfill that promise.
I Don’t Know (What You Want to Hear)
This scenario is a little different from the one above. Here, the truth is known; but is seen as a problem. In this case, as deception expert Tim Levine puts it, “We lie if honesty won’t work.” To avoid conflict – and often blame, whether deserved or undeserved – the truth is withheld. Worse, people sometimes share a more palatable lie instead.
This type of lying reveals a fundamental lack of trust. Employees may distrust that leaders will respond in a proportional way. Organizations may doubt that their customers will remain loyal.
Yes, there can be consequences for admitting mistakes and failures. But better be accountable for our mistakes and work to correct or overcome them than to try to survive the one-two punch of being a “screw-up” and a liar. Sure, in the heat of a crisis, responses aren’t always well-reasoned or proportional. But by resisting the temptation to deceive, we open a door to establishing better relationships in the future. After all, trust can’t be built on lies.
It’s Not (Exactly) Lying
The spin doctor will see you now. This common strategy involves presenting only those facts that reflect favorably on an organization or support its position in a dispute. The goal is to gain a strategic advantage. Many times, those benefitting from the spin excuse it by saying that withholding some of the truth isn’t the same as lying. In fact, one particularly sneaky technique involves telling the truth but framing it in such a way that it won’t be believed.
Obviously, no one is going to running around confessing their every slight misdeed or mistake. Organizations, like all of us, want to present themselves to the world in a flattering light. But spin gradually undermines the effectiveness of communication. When the spin is obvious, the intended audience becomes jaded. If it goes undetected, people find themselves trapped in an echo chamber, passing around the same inaccurate information and biased opinions. That stifles diversity of thought and the innovation it engenders. The better course of action is to present both sides of the argument and allow listeners to make their own decisions about which argument is stronger.
One of the things that prompted me to write this article was a passage in James S. A. Corey’s novel, Tiamat’s Wrath.
So she’d lied. That was interesting. She’d told him what he wanted to hear, and it wasn’t even because she wanted to protect him or keep him safe. It was just easier. She understood why adults lied to children. It wasn’t love. It was exhaustion.
Crises, especially those that go on for any length of time, are stressful. Such stress can be mentally, emotionally, and even physically exhausting. It’s perhaps not surprising then, that people in a crisis sometimes lie as a matter of expediency. They don’t lie out of a desire to protect others or even ourselves. It’s not about gaining a strategic advantage. As Corey’s character says, it’s just … easier. People say whatever it takes to shut the other person down so they can get back to dealing with the problems at hand – or just so they can have a moment’s peace before jumping back into action.
The problem, of course, is that a choice made in the moment can have long term consequences. Like an I-don’t-know-what-you-want-to-hear lie, expedient lies damage relationships. When the truth inevitably comes to light, that person knows they’ve been dismissed as “less important.” Even if what they want is less urgent than the crisis at hand, they deserve to be acknowledged and honestly reassured that their concerns will be addressed at a future time.
It Could Be True
Finally, people sometimes lie in a crisis because they really, really want what they say to be true. This sort of wishful thinking lie is the most dangerous and damaging because it’s a lie we tell ourselves. The 2015 Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos scandal is one highly publicized example of this kind of deception. While many believe that Holmes and her COO, Ramesh Balwani, planned from the beginning to defraud investors and deceive patients and primary caregivers about the results of medical tests, others take the position that Holmes lied repeatedly in order to buy time for the scientific breakthrough that would make all her vision a reality.
Like all the other types of lies we’ve discussed, the wishful thinking lie prevents people from taking the actions needed to address a very real crisis. Decision-making relies on feelings and desires, rather than facts. A the-ends-justify-the-means mentality prompts all manner of irrational actions, including telling other types of lies. Finally, as more and more of the liar’s ego becomes wrapped up in the need to will a particular truth into existence, wishful thinking can become delusional.
While the examples we’ve discussed involve lies told during a business-wide crisis, it’s important for managers and team leaders to remember that people often tell the same sort of lies in more personal situations. Employees, friends, and even family members may resort to falsehoods when they feel overwhelmed by circumstances in life.
The employee who sincerely believes they can meet an unrealistic deadline, who hides mistakes or blames others for them, who only tells the boss only the good news or “juices” their credentials for an interview, are motivated by the same need for self-protection.
Therefore as leaders, our job is to create a culture based on trust, not fear, and then to hold ourselves and everyone we work with accountable for the accuracy of what we communicate. Then, let the chips fall where they may.