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The 3 Reasons Business People Lie

I have been blessed to work with hundreds of senior executives over the last 10 years. Each one, in their own way, has surprised and challenged me. Yet there are some things that I have found to be universal. For example, not once has an executive ever confessed to me that they are really, inherently dishonest. In fact, without exception, they have all spoken of a desire to be high integrity, high character leaders. Men of their word. Truth tellers.

And most of them have lied. About something. Something important. Myself included.

Which makes me wonder, why would these otherwise capable and competent people lie. Not about little things, but about important commitments, failures, mistakes. Stuff that counts.

Fortunately I work in a full time laboratory of leadership and have plenty of candidates for research. Those efforts have yielded the following conclusions regarding business lies.

Reason #1 - Unrealistic Optimism

Earlier this year I ran across an interesting statistic regarding depression. The study noted that people suffering from clinical depression consistently rated their own abilities with a high level of accuracy. Fair enough. What follows that thinking is of greater interest to me. The secondary consequence of this statistic is that emotionally healthy people consistently over-rate their own abilities. This includes over-rating expected outcomes from business efforts as well.

With that as a starting premise it's no surprise that business commitments are quite often made with lofty expectations. Expectations that are rarely fully realized. And it is these expectations that set up the second part of the problem.

Reason #2 - Linear Thinking

Most people think in a linear way. Statistics vary, but in general over 90% of business leaders process information in a linear fashion. This is a practical, realistic, and systematic way of thinking. But, it has it's traps. As an example, linear thinking most often means that current conclusions are drawn directly from preceding events. That being true, it's very difficult for linear thinkers to naturally reset their assessment of decisions and causality to a larger and more holistic set of elements.

This only becomes an issue when you marry that information processing approach with the previously referenced over-optimism. Imagine a critical business commitment made based on unrealistic optimism. When that optimism fails to bear itself out in real results it is almost endemic that leaders re-think (and rationalize) their prior decisions. In practice, this looks like waffling or outright dishonesty to an outside observer.

Reason #3 - Short Memories

The last part of the problem is actually the simplest but the most insidious. Leaders suffer from information overload. And it's not getting any better. With so many facts, demands, and stresses on business people it is impractical to expect anyone to fully remember every commitment and decision. Bundle that problem with the prior two reasons and you have a perfect storm of missed expectations, revisionist history, and forgotten promises.

No, these aren't the outright lies we ascribe to the stereotypical "sleazy" Enron type of business personality. These are a worse kind of lie. They are the rationalized, justified, failed commitments that happen everyday.

So, how do you keep yourself honest?

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