Why would you lie?

by Katie May, editor, Communication Briefings


As the old saying goes, “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” Unfortunately, many leaders in business and politics refuse to put down the shovel when they are caught in obvious lies and misbehavior.

Lying happens on scales small and large. In tiny West Linn, Ore., Mayor Patti Galle was forced to resign her office after a state investigation showed that the information Galle provided for a voter’s pamphlet contained a lie. Galle had claimed to be “degreed in English,” even though she had never completed her college degree. Because the requirements for holding the mayor’s office did not include a college degree, Galle’s lie was not only self-destructive but also pointless. Worst of all, Galle attempted a cover-up, purchasing a degree online and backdating it to support her claims. Driven from office and facing heavy fines, Galle narrowly avoided prison time on a felony charge.

The latest example from the national arena: Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose campaign for the U.S. Senate took a wrong turn after newspaper reports showed that on more than one occasion Blumenthal publicly claimed, falsely, to have served in Vietnam. Confronted with the evidence, Blumenthal had a chance to come clean, apologize and begin to rehabilitate both his image and his flagging campaign. Instead, he chose to hide behind a classic non-defense defense, saying in effect, “I misspoke.” Although the party loyal are gathering to support Blumenthal, his chances for winning election in November are still unknown.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid being caught in a lie is to avoid telling lies in the first place. However, what should you do if you slip up—either innocently or less so—and make a statement that turns out to be false?

People tell lies for two reasons: to obscure the truth for self-serving reasons or to avoid or manipulate others’ reactions. Obfuscation and manipulation, however, are barriers to communication that have no place in the workplace—or in your personal and public life, either. Telling the truth, even when doing so is hard, will earn you respect and admiration. Remember these truth-telling rules:

  • Examine your motives. Lying is an avoidance technique. Unfortunately, you can avoid the truth for only so long. And try as you might to obscure it, the truth has a habit of coming out, especially these days when so much information and so many opinions are readily available online. If you find yourself tempted to lie, ask yourself “Why?” What negative consequence do you feel telling the truth will bring? Identify and address the real issue.
  • ‘Fess up. When a lie is exposed, working to cover it up will only make the situation worse. Most people can forgive the occasional fib; in fact, admitting to a lie can actually make you seem more human and approachable, so long as lying is a one-time lapse and not a habit.
  • Explain yourself. Do not leave people to guess at why you lied. Share a brief explanation of your motivation to lie, acknowledging that telling the truth would have been a better move. Example: “I know I should have been honest with you, but I was afraid that you would be angry that I am being sent to the conference without you.” That lets the other person see that you lied only in a misguided attempt to protect your relationship.
  • Apologize. Offer a simple and sincere statement like “I’m sorry,” and then offer to make amends. If your lie put others into awkward positions, offer to contact people to set the record straight. Explain, too, that you have learned your lesson, that you regret what you said and that you will never make the same mistake again.

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