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Lying Creates a Toxic Work Culture
What to do about it
Yesterday I realised for the first time that my boss had lied to me. Coincidentally, I had just finished listening to Sam Harris’ short book on the subject, Lying, & armed with my new approach to the subject, I decided that the lie did not sit well with me. It also had far-reaching implications.
The lie was not a clear statement that could be disproven. It was an idea calculated to deceive; an idea designed to intentionally deceive me & others where honesty was expected.
We were sold ‘the mission’, which was that we would revolutionise an industry & reduce the ecological footprint of millions through our work. This is just not the case. The case is that ‘the mission’ is to pursue lucrative funding contracts. The purpose of our work is, in essence, to unlock each stage of funding.
This deception has consequences that do not permit it to be considered in isolation. The knowledge that I have been lied to makes me also think it highly likely that I have been lied to more than once.
It suddenly brought into question everything. Every decision & interaction. If somebody can lie to you once, then what else is a lie?
Why honesty is important
Without honesty, trust breaks down. When trust breaks down co-operation breaks down. Without co-operation, human relationships break down. Without strong human relationships & trust, society breaks down.
It seems pretty obvious, yet we rarely adhere to honesty, despite it being in our collective interest.
When was the last time you lied? Almost definitely within the last few hours. It was probably so small & imperceptible that you didn’t even notice it.
“Sorry, I’m busy this evening.”
“Sorry, I don’t have any change for you.”
“I think I’ve got a sore throat coming, so I’m going to have to cancel.”
In a company, the habit of lying is toxic. It starts small, but insidiously works it’s way into every aspect of our human relationships.
If you know — or even just suspect — that somebody has lied to you, then by extension everyone is capable of lying to you.
If lying is known within your company culture, then every activity becomes suspicious; that doctor’s appointment, that day off you took when you were ill, that afternoon you worked from home.
Mistrust does not tend to manifest itself overtly. It is, however, very much implicit in many practices you may find in your workplace. Some examples from my current company:
Refusal to allow employees to work remotely Adherence to set working hours (you may have ‘flexible working hours’, as we do, but culturally this is essentially false & it is implicitly signalled by management that the expectation is to work from 9.30am-7pm)
A scepticism towards new initiatives from employees
A need to always be online on our communication channel, Slack
In your personal relationships, it is also toxic.
If you lie to somebody successfully, Sam Harris suggests show you will then trust them less. If a friend hears you lying to somebody else, they will expect the same.
By lying you are not only bringing into question the trust of those closest to you, but in many cases you are preventing yourself & those you lie to from confronting a difficult truth.
If, for example, I say that I am busy to avoid hanging out with someone, the only moral option is to tell them why I am avoiding them. This is a difficult conversation to have. However, it may lead both of you to address whatever issue you might have had with them, rather than leaving them left in the dark & confused by your excuses.
But what about…
The knock-on effect of lying can be drastic, as Sam Harris convincingly argues. Therefore each small lie must be considered within a broader context. It must be understood that lying ‘just that once’ can have drastic consequences for your own personal relationships & for society as a whole.
I now see it as inexcusable in the vast majority of cases & struggle when attempting to justify such behaviour.
I don’t like this behaviour in myself & think that my excuses are almost always borne from a desire to avoid confronting a difficult conversation or a difficult reality.
I do not expect my lying to stop completely & to live a life of saintly virtue, however.
I’m just trying to be more aware of it & to justify it more consciously. Lying for most is such an ingrained habit that it is not something you can change overnight.
My biggest lie
Ironically, despite my changed beliefs on lying, I have consistently lied for over 2 months & still see it as justifiable in this case, on the grounds that I would likely lose my job for being honest (which says something in itself about our work culture).
I decided to quit my job 2 months ago & will be resigning in a month’s time. I think many people at the company must suspect something is up.
I am clearly not happy, I am clearly apathetic towards whatever task I am given & am trying to avoid any extra work so I don’t need to stay late.
My boss, who I would also consider a friend, pulled me over last week & asked if everything was OK.
“Oh yeah, everything is fine. I was just a bit ill last week, so not feeling myself.”
This was very slightly true (I had been ill for a few days), but was a poorly veiled attempt to justify 3–4 weeks of unusual behaviour. In essence, it was a lie.
Theoretically, I could have said the following:
“No, everything is not fine. I hate my job. I am depressed most of the week. I am waking up at 6am to spend 3 hours working on a new business plan so I can get out of this place. I will resign as soon as it’s financially viable.”
This would make sense if I thought there was something I could change at the company, but it’s too far gone. It has just become a case of making sure I am not fired before I have saved up enough & prepared my new business enough to be ready to leave.
I justify lying on the pretext that I am protecting my job &, more importantly, that I will be 100% truthful once I’ve handed in my resignation. My short-term lies, which do not sit well with me, will be absolved by my future honesty.
So next time you lie, stop yourself & think: What are the implications of this lie now? In the future? For my future relationships? For the person I am lying to? For my company culture? For myself?
I hope that, as I have found, you find it pretty hard to justify.