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More than a few times over my career, I would have loved to have channeled the emotion and intensity which Jack Nicholson’s character, Colonel Jessup, put into his famous line from “A Few Good Men”. While his rationale for yelling this was that he felt Lt. Kaffee didn’t have sufficient field experience to understand that sometimes the (wrong) means can justify the ends, my motivation would have been slightly different.

In a recent HBR article , Liz Kislik provided a number of reasons why people will lie at work. Such lies could include those of commission or omission. We might be tempted to assume bad intent or incompetence, and in some cases, that might be the reason.

But more often than not, when a team member lies to their direct reporting manager or some other higher up , the root cause is fear. It might be the fear of direct reprisal, the fear of appearing inadequate or incompetent, or the fear of making someone else feel bad.

Some examples of this are:

  • When managers have previously demonstrated the tendency to shoot the messenger or the prevailing leadership culture is that of “bring me solutions, not problems”, project issues are often get green-shifted right up till the point when it is obvious to all that something is horribly wrong.
  • When someone is asked to complete an activity which is too much of a stretch for their capacity or capability, rather than let the person who requested the work down, the team member takes it on.
  • When someone would really benefit from receiving some constructive feedback, but another team member is afraid of hurting their feelings, even when being directly asked to provide such feedback, they provide pleasant platitudes instead.
  • When a decision is supported by members of a group even when they know that it is the wrong thing to do or are aware of some information which might change the decision.

Think of the productive capacity which could be freed up if team members didn’t have to lie to protect themselves. Think of the rework and bad decisions which could be avoided.

Lying and its resulting impacts are waste.

In the popular TV series, Dr. House’s credo was “Everybody lies“.

While that might seem apropos given his curmudgeon-like personality, what he actually felt is that most people will usually only lie for a good reason. Before judging (and sentencing) someone on your team who is caught in a lie, find out whether it was a perceived lack of psychological safety which made them behave in that manner.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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