There’s nothing more baffling to me than having to deal with someone who lies. In particular, I’m concerned with someone who lies about another person in order to look superior, or, more accurately, in order to make that other person look inferior.
The whole concept of making yourself look good by making someone else look bad is alien to me. Sure, you made that other person look bad, but can’t someone else just do the same to you? What have you proven?
If we throw objective measures of virtue and success out the window, isn’t life just a free-for-all? And then there is no virtue, and no success, just an endless parade of people trying to boost their image.
You make yourself look good by, well, making yourself look good. By doing something of value.
Recently, and for a few years now, I’ve been the target of repeated and insistent lies about my character and performance. The person behind the campaign is trying to self-aggrandize. This person wants to be allowed to do the things I do, without me in the way. Trouble is, this person is not competent to do those things.
It troubles me, beyond the inconvenience to myself. It troubles me that a person could be that… broken. What is misfiring in a brain that consistently lies? Why are people dishonest?
I guess we all lie. We embroider a situation where we know we’ve done wrong, to make ourselves look better. We rationalize. We say the light was still yellow when we ran it. We sat we meant to call, but something came up, when, in fact, we didn’t want to call.
But there’s a difference between face-saving lies and lies which could damage another person. At least I think there is. Face-saving lies can save our own image, or they can save the feelings of another, which may simply be our selfish way of not damaging that other person’s opinion of us. Face-saving lies may also spare us ridicule, persecution, or even legal penalties. When I was little, I didn’t readily admit to being a science fiction or comics fan. Doing so could have gotten me ridiculed. That was a lie of omission. Some friends my age and older similarly didn’t admit to being gay or bisexual. Doing so could have gotten them ridiculed, beat up, possibly killed. The stakes there are a lot higher. There are good reasons, some times, not to tell the truth.
But what causes someone to lie in a way that hurts others? Could cost them money? Could cost them friends? Could cost them their job?
I did a little poking around. Here are some links I came across.
Dawson McAllister of the Hope Line offers some thoughts. My favorite part of his article is a quote from fantasy author Tad Williams: “We tell lies when we are afraid… afraid of what we don’t know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger.”
Dr. Phil, of course, weighs in.
Here, Dr. Phil talks to Dr. Robert Feldman, author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships. Feldman tells him:
“People lie because they can get away with it, because it works for them. It’s a way to get along with other people. It’s a way to control your world, and it’s a way that you can use to make other people do what you want them to do… Men usually lie to make themselves look better. They build themselves up… Women tend to lie more to make other people feel good, to make them feel good about themselves.”
Okay, here I disagree. The most egregious, damaging liars I’ve known have been women. Perhaps growing equality in the workplace has knocked down that gender divide.
The two Doctors agree that “There are no innocent lies… Because every lie has a cost, even if we are telling what seems to be a totally harmless lie. We know we’re telling that lie, and it causes a kind of smudge on the relationship.”
But then, all relationships also have smudges, and you have to live with them. Perhaps, having told the lie, you hold the person who believes it in some level of contempt, or view them with pity. You still have a relationship with them, but you’re not allowing them to be your equal. There are just some people who aren’t going to be your equals.
And I think that’s key–if someone lies to you or about you, they’re claiming superior position. And perhaps we know that, and perhaps that’s the most galling part. For the people who have lied about me and to me are most assuredly not my superiors in any way.
Dr. Lisa Firestone suggests that we all lie, and that we should all, “stop listening to [our] ‘critical inner voice.’ Shading the truth often comes from listening to an inner coach that’s not on your side, that instructs you to self-protect by telling you things like you can only be accepted if you say the right thing or don’t really reveal yourself.”
Lies may grow from self-condemnation, from a sense of worthlessness. That makes sense. But I think it’s important to remember that your sense of worthlessness stops being a cause for sympathy when it starts making you do dishonest things that hurt other people.
A lot of the links I found, not surprisingly, deal with dishonest or back-stabbing co-workers.
Here, Lisa Marshall advocates three strategies:
- Assess the damage
- Confront with care
- Take action and move on
I’m not sure about this advice. Assessing damage and picking your battles, yes. If the lie is minor, don’t waste your time. Confronting with care, not using terms like “liar…” Well, maybe on a first offense. But if you’re confronted with someone who is systematically trying to damage you with a campaign of lies, acting the role of the gentle diplomat may be fatal. Patterns of behavior are important. You can’t always just “forget it and move on.”
Ms. Marshall concludes with:
“My most important tip is to stay professional when dealing with these difficult coworkers. Don’t attack them or criticize them in public. Don’t address their behavior in an email that could be forwarded to a manager or other employees.”
I agree. Mostly. Stay professional, do not attack in public, and be careful what you say in an email. But remember that email can also be part of the written documentation of the behavior. If one of the lies is told in email to a large group, it may need to be corrected in the same venue. The correction may make you appear overly defensive. Where is the line? I don’t know. I just know that, misinformation which is allowed to fester is a valuable weapon in the arsenal of the liar. The campaign of lies relies on no one having the time or the patience to correct a series of little “mistakes.”
Joan Lloyd of Jobdig makes the point I just made about email – you can’t change another person’s behavior, but you can document it in a factual manner and do your best despite that person.
Not surprisingly, Monster.com throws some facts at us about lying and defamation:
“In a 2008 national survey by The Creative Group, half of advertising and marketing executives responded that a current or former colleague had tried to make them look bad on the job. In addition, professionals of all types say they had suffered from sabotage on the job. In an online poll asking, ‘Are you aware of a coworker trying to make you look bad or sabotage your work in the last year?” nearly three-quarters said yes.’
Quoted here, Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute identifies the types of lying saboteurs you might meet in the workplace, including Belittlers, Credit Thieves, Finger Pointers, Rumor Mongers, and Slackers. She additionally mentions Scorched-Earth Managers, leaders “who will undermine or even fire a smart, capable worker when they feel threatened by brains and talent.
I’ve encountered, in my time, all of those qualities in a single person. It’s not pretty.
I don’t have too many conclusions to draw myself, hence the many links to the advice of others. The problem of dishonesty weighs on me, though, and what weighs on me, I like to write about it. Partially as a way to force myself to seek the advice of others through research, partially just to get my thoughts in order. I guess I’ve done that.
I still wish the damaging lies could just stop.