Your employees are definitely lying to you

That we all lie is an uncomfortable truth and one that goes unacknowledged by most of the working world. It also poses big challenges to the development of healthy organisations.

Why we’re a bunch of liars

The work of notable psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, amongst others, proves 85% of our decision-making is non-conscious. In essence, this means we don’t understand how our brains work. For every human being, thoughts seem to bubble to the surface of our awareness, through the delivery mechanism of emotions.

The fact that we are reliant on our non-conscious mind should feel intuitively true. How could we hope to navigate through the world without some mental shortcuts in place? Consider a mundane task like going to the supermarket. Imagine having to decode a fruit and veg stand from scratch every time you do your weekly shop. Or having to work out whether you like carrots each time you see them. Or, for that matter, re-comprehending what a supermarket actually is and how it functions. If all thought was conscious, how would you get anything done?

The neural processes that constitute our non-conscious minds are shaped by historic experience, present context, genetics, biochemistry and a heap of other factors. Each of us is unique. This lack of uniformity and the relative opacity of our neural processes means much of how the mind works remains a mystery.

This is good news. It is what makes human beings interesting and beautiful and capable of creative thought, unlike robots. So everybody lies, but for the most part, it’s not deliberate.

Why employees “lie” during change programmes

Consider almost any change project and chances are that it will start with some form of fact-finding, usually involving asking employees for their thoughts. Recently, an entertainment industry client asked for our help in solving a conundrum: they had spent many years and millions of dollars building a technology platform due to employee ‘demand’ for greater levels of self-service. But adoption was non-existent. The problem? When asked, people stated that the platform was a great idea. But when we investigated the psychological drivers of their behavior, they worried that it would make them more expendable. Those feelings led to mass rejection.

This alludes to a second problem. Lying is also a normal response to being ‘investigated’. This is especially the case when we know we are being questioned to solve a problem–because the problem could be us. Why? Human beings are tribal creatures. Each employee is part of the work tribe. In fact-finding, the tribe asks people what they think about other members of the tribe. As a result of evolution, the primitive part of our brains has a deep fear of being cast out for appearing stupid or not making a useful contribution.

What would anyone do in that situation? Right: make something up. But our conscious minds don’t pull these assertions from nowhere. They invent things to say based on a careful calibration of how the rest of the tribe is behaving and what appears socially acceptable to them. Most organisational development processes don’t account for this.

Real-life lies

This issue bubbled up when we worked with a media client. When asked, only 24% of the team stated that their place of work was creative, innovative, resilient and unique. But 70% of them actually felt that it was! We were able to prove this using a technique called implicit association testing, which considers non-conscious thoughts and feelings. This result speaks to a culture where people prefer to lay low, and pretend to feel more negatively than they do. This is not exactly good for morale or productivity.

Then there’s a third problem: liars also come in different shapes and sizes. There is a big difference between the liar who is doing his or her best to engage with a process and the liar who is doing everything he can to undermine it. A deliberate failure to uncover key information is a classic pitfall in change work.

So, how do you overcome the lies?

Start by being sceptical–but not cynical. Too often in business, people present data about employee sentiment as fact. It may be accurate but only at the level of what people are willing to say. So ask questions about the data’s provenance, and remain open to the fact that there may well be more to uncover.

When you’re ready to do that, organisational psychology can help. Start by reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Kahneman to get your head around how the mind works. Academia offers a lot of opportunities for innovative partnerships to be formed that can help you take advantage of this. When what people say and what they really think and feel pulls furthest apart, that’s where the work needs to be done.