Increasing Workplace Honesty Begins With 5 Questions

Excerpt from “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and How to Deal with Them” by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Deception in the workplace becomes pervasive—and damaging to trust, collaboration, and productivity—when leaders create an environment that encourages or tolerates it. The strategy for reducing lies and increasing honesty is actually quite simple. It begins with a leader’s answers to these five questions:

1. What do you expect of the people who report to you?

“Pygmalion in the Classroom,” one of the most controversial publications in the history of educational research, shows how a teacher’s expectations can motivate student achievement. This classic study gave prospective teachers a list of students who had been identified as “high achievers.” The teachers were told to expect remarkable results from these students, and at the end of the year, the students did, indeed, make sharp increases on their test scores.

In reality, these children were not high achievers, but had been chosen at random from the entire pool of pupils. It was the teachers’ belief in their potential that was responsible for their exceptional results; a belief that was communicated not directly (the students were never told they were high achievers), but subliminally through positive behaviors such as facial expressions, gestures, touch, and spatial relationships.

In much the same way, a leader’s expectations of employees’ potential also can play a key role in determining how well they perform at work.

So, again, the first question to ask yourself is: What do you expect of your team, staff, workforce? If you expect people to communicate with honesty, integrity, and truthfulness, you’ve automatically increased the odds that they will do just that.

2. Have you covered the basics?

Charles A. Lynch has been chairman or chief executive officer of a number of major companies, including Saga Corporation and DHL. Talking with Charlie (which I always enjoy) is like taking a course in “Leadership 101”: I’ve worked with a broad cross-section of companiesand I know that you are only as good as the people around you. At heart, I’m a fundamentalist. I believe you need to have everyone focused on and in agreement with an overall mission and a three-year strategic plan. Then you have to make sure that each individual clearly understands his/her quantifiable 1-year objectives that those 6 to 8 key objectives are clearly articulated, written down, and agreed toand that there is no overlap in responsibility. After that, everyone can write their own performance review, because it is obvious when people did or did not reach the goals. And if they didn’twe can discuss why not, and what needs to change. It all becomes transparent and upfront.

When you have a foundation like this in place, you lessen the chance of misunderstanding and miscommunication that cause people to cover-up, make excuses, and lie.

3. Are your words in alignment with your actions and body language?

Whenever your actions are in direct opposition to your statements, you confuse and demoralize your staff and look like a liar—as this e-mail I received illustrates: My boss drives us crazy with her mixed messages. She says things like, “You are always welcome in my office” and “You are all a valued part of the team.” At the same time, she is constantly showing how unimportant we are to her. She never makes eye contact, will shuffle papers when others talk, writes e-mails while we answer her questions, and generally does not give her full attention. In fact, we don’t even get her half attention. Then she wonders why we’ve stopped believing anything she tells us.

If you want people to believe that you want and value their honest opinions, give them your full attention. Don’t multi-task while they talk. Avoid the temptation to check your text messages, check your watch, or check out your golf swing. (This actually happened. Whenever the boss lost interest in a conversation, he would stand, address an imaginary golf ball, and practice his swing.) Instead, focus on those who are speaking by turning your head and torso to face them directly and by making eye contact.

4. Do you optimize the power of “nice”?

Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval are chairman and CEO of PublicisKaplan Thaler, one of the fastest-growing ad agencies in the United States. Small acts of niceness are reflective of their agency’s philosophy that “little things and niceness do make a difference.” A few of their tips create an atmosphere of trust in which people are more likely to tell the truth:

  • Let people know it’s okay to have a “stupid” idea or to ask a “dumb” question. In fact, it’s desirable.
  • Let people know it’s okay to bring their whole selves (personal idiosyncrasies and issues) to work.
  • Praise people for being open and honest, and minimize criticism for small missteps.
  • Credit the entire team for a successful result.
  • If you, as the leader, make an error, own up to it in front of the group.
  • If it’s true (as it is with Publicis Kaplan Thaler), let people know that failure isn’t fatal—that they won’t lose their jobs if they make a well-intentioned mistake.

5. Do people know you trust them?

Trust is the foundation of honest communication. Getting people to place their trust in you is a matter of always doing what you say you’ll do. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that leaders can talk until they’re blue in the face, but they will never create trust unless their sustained behavior parallels what they say. This is why building trust takes so long. There has to be consistency over time.

But trust is a two-way street. It’s not enough that people trust you. You also have to trust them. And I’m not just talking about trusting those you like and agree with; I mean making trust a hallmark of how you deal with every member of your team. Here’s what one department head told me: I have a deeply and fundamentally positive attitude about the worthiness of people to bring their very best to whatever challenge is at hand. It’s not that I assume everybody’s right all the time, but I always begin with the rock-solid belief that everybody has a point of view that’s worth hearing. Trust has to do with assuming the other person has value to contribute, even before they’ve proven it. That's the corethe belief that people have value and that they are going to come up with good answers. Unless I think I can run my 1,000-person organization all by myself, I have to trust. I see trust as being highly practical.

See? I told you it was simple: Expect people to be trustworthy, learn from failure without placing blame, make all communication transparent and upfront, be nice, and show people that you trust them. Simple!

I never said it was easy, though.

Excerpt from “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and How to Deal with Them” by Carol Kinsey Goman (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).  For more information, visit

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is president of Kinsey Consulting Services. Goman’s clients include more than 130 organizations in 24 countries, such as Consolidated Edison, Royal Bank of Canada, PepsiCo, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexis-Nexis. Her work has been featured on CNN, Bloomberg TV, and NBC News.

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