Management In Real Life

New Management Theory—Leader Lies
by: Kevin Herring

Want to get employees working harder? Lie to them.

It’s a fact. Lying works. In a recent study researchers told cyclists a computer-generated competitor was traveling the same speed as the cyclists’ previous time trials when the computer cyclist was really moving 2% faster. As a result, in head-to-head competition, the cyclists thought they were performing the same as before when, in fact, they were improving their speed by 2%.

So, lying is a good thing, right? How bad could it be if it produces good results?

One pundit took this to heart and, based on this research, suggested supervisors and managers should act as though their employees are performing better than they really are. As a result, employees will step up and perform at that level.

A Bad idea

As cockamamie as this sounds, let’s face it, we do the same thing far more than we care to admit. Have you or someone you know ever given an employee a raise he or she didn’t earn hoping it would encourage the employee to do better? Have you ever given an employee a deadline sooner than necessary hoping it would get finished on time? Have you ever heard a leader paint a rosy picture for employees to keep them motivated when the business wasn’t doing so well? Have you ever told people the impossible task in front of them was really very doable? And, have you ever told a poor performer you didn’t give him or her a pay raise not because of performance but because of budget limits, policy restrictions, or simply, HR?

Enough said.

A better one

Here’s one reason why it’s a bad idea to lie—or “fudge” the truth—to employees. According to a massive analysis of 91 studies on high performing organizations, a common characteristic of high performers is “a culture of transparency, openness, and trust.” So, maybe that little white lie here and there isn’t so helpful after all. The report goes on to say that in high performing organizations leaders lead by example and build loyalty by being honest, credible, and doing what it takes to build trust in the workplace.

What’s the payoff? It’s not just a brief blip on the productivity curve. They have sustained growth and financial results better than peers for at least 5 years. They are amazingly adaptable, always innovating and improving, leveraging employee capabilities as a primary asset for the business. They get great results because employees understand the business, collaborate with co-workers, and make their own decisions for improving work processes and serving customers. Employees trust that they aren’t the only ones putting the needs of the organization as a whole first. They know leaders are working toward the same goals giving employees the support they need to make a positive difference. It’s an environment employees love to work in.

That’s not the environment you get, and those are not the results you can expect, by following the advice of authors telling you to lie to employees. Those weasel words may get you a little improvement in the short term, but they can’t produce the sustained results of a high performing organization. For that, you have to tell the truth.

Make a list detailing conversations you’ve had with employees when you weren’t completely honest and forthright with them. Write out your reasons for not telling the whole truth explaining why doing otherwise was difficult. Consider the long-term ramifications of your decision. Ask yourself what you would have to say and/or do differently to tell the employees the truth. Write down ways telling the truth could influence the response and the relationship. Ask yourself how increasing transparency, openness and trust could help improve your team’s performance as described in the research on high performing companies.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

Kevin Herring

Kevin Herring is co-author of 'Practical Guide for Internal Consultants', and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.
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