It’s a head-scratcher: in some jobs, being less trustworthy means that other people will trust you to be better at that job.

It’s a head-scratcher: in some jobs, being less trustworthy means that other people will trust you to be better at that job.

I have a confession: I lie. A lot. I lie to stop or start conversations, to spare others’ feelings, or my own, and to simplify social or professional life in a million little ways. To some extent we know that the people we work with are lying to us. They can’t always be having a good day, be excited about work or be completely happy for a colleague who’s been promoted instead of them. But what about when deception isn’t just about mood, but is baked into the content of a job? New research suggests that one reason lying persists in certain professions is the belief that people with flexible attitudes towards the truth are actually better at these jobs.

Attitudes toward workplace liars

In general, deception in the workplace is viewed negatively – if someone has to resort to lying, they’re probably not very good at their job. And deceit can be toxic to a culture of trust and teamwork. But according to recent research by US academics Brian C Gunia and Emma E Levine, there’s an exception for jobs that are perceived as being high in selling orientation rather than customer orientation.

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One survey found that people believe those who lie more would be better at sales jobs (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

In the study of marketing, customer orientation is all about satisfying a customer’s needs, while selling orientation relates to meeting a seller’s own objectives. Certain professions, like sales and investment banking, are stereotyped as being selling orientation-heavy (though in practice, of course, salespeople can be deeply caring and care workers can be self-interested).

Lying is natural, to some extent

Researchers Gunia and Levine asked their study participants – who included over 500 business students and survey takers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing site in the US – to rank certain jobs in terms of their perceived selling orientation, and rate hypothetical individuals in terms of their perceived competence. The participants were given scenarios like the following: when filing expenses, “Julie” claims that a cab ride cost more than it actually did; “James” pretends to enjoy sailing to go along with a sailing-enthusiast boss.

Ultimately, the respondents believed that people who had displayed deception would be more successful at high-in-selling-orientation jobs and prioritised hiring them. For instance, 84% of the participants chose to hire deceivers for a task high in selling orientation, while 75% chose to hire honest people for a task low in selling orientation.

People believe that individuals who can regulate their emotions are more competent than those who cannot - Levine

The results are interesting but not definitive. (For one thing, the research participants were paid very little; survey markets like Mechanical Turk are controversial for paying low rates and allegations of exploitation.)

It’s also not certain how the beliefs of survey respondents translate to the actions of hiring managers. There’s mixed evidence about whether customer orientation or selling orientation is more effective in practice, although customer orientation seems to have the edge in terms of closing sales.

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Think about it: would you really want a flight attendant to tell you that you should be worrying about turbulence? (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

In the recent study of the link between perceived deception and perceived competence, “we intentionally recruited business students so that we could be sure that the stereotypes we examine are actually held by future practitioners”, explains Levine, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Students aiming for managerial jobs “may actually believe that deception signals competence in these occupations and thus import these beliefs into future hiring practices”.

Is there an upside to lying at work?

Lying is natural, to some extent. “Nature is awash with deceit”, philosopher David Livingstone Smith writes early in his book Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. Viruses trick the immune systems of their hosts, while chameleons use camouflage to deceive predators. And humans are no exception, including in the workplace. Hiring managers acknowledge that nearly all job applicants exaggerate their qualifications, for instance.

Deception is absolutely necessary in certain jobs (undercover detectives can attest to this). And diplomacy is synonymous with lying, to some people. Deception can even be strategic across a company, such as when a call centre instructs employees to pretend that they’re located in a different country due to customer biases.

More generally, the definition of workplace deceit can be fuzzy. Customer service roles, and especially the kinds of emotional labour frequently carried out by women, typically call for workers to mask their feelings. Do you really want a flight attendant, bartender or psychiatrist to say that you should be worried by the turbulence, that they despise you or that they’re feeling apathetic about treating you?

Certain jobs require a performance of affability or care that is inherently partly artificial (and stressful). As Levine says, “people believe that individuals who can regulate their emotions are more competent than those who cannot”. Emotional misrepresentation is rational behaviour.

This may be especially true for social media influencers who blur the lines between authenticity and salesmanship. Instagram stars who stage lavish “surprise” engagements, for instance, though this can backfire when the illusion is shattered.

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Some professions are expected to use deception - undercover private investigators, for instance (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Sweet little lies

Sometimes benevolent lying is even seen as the more ethical option. “Across my research, I find that many people welcome and appreciate lies that are told to benefit them”, Levine comments. For instance, “employees believe that their colleagues should shield them from feedback that they cannot implement and will only serve to hurt their feelings, and oncology patients appreciate false hope more than their oncologists realise”.

What’s key to pro-social lying, or the kind of dishonesty intended to help others, is that it’s not about gaining an unfair advantage or otherwise being self-serving. It’s about delivering little white lies out of care.

Many people welcome and appreciate lies that are told to benefit them - Levine

There can be a cultural influence to this kind of attitude, as some research suggests people from collectivist cultures are more likely to lie to save face and protect group harmony. One study co-authored by Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, placed over 1,500 students from eight countries in a business negotiation scenario where lying would be helpful. Those from the more collectivist countries (such as South Korea and Greece) used deception more than those from the more individualist countries (such as Australia and Germany), although lying was high overall.

On the other hand, “thinking outside of the box sometimes can relate to bending the rules”, Gelfand comments. Some research points to a link between creativity and dishonesty, as people working in creative fields find it easier to rationalise their cheating.

Tolerance (or even encouragement) of workplace deception can be hard to sniff out. Long Wang, a management professor at the City University of Hong Kong, points out that “any organisational or industry norms in favour of deception are often kept as a kind of secret, at least to the public”. But he doubts whether such organisational or industry norms would be sustainable, saying: “They may be flushed out in the long run.”

Mild deceit isn’t always toxic. But in general, of course, workplaces will be more effective if people feel empowered to rely on the truth. Certain prominent politicians are good examples of the massively damaging and divisive outcomes that can come from lying on the job.

So do all the little lies I tell make me better at my job? Probably not. But I don’t need to stress too much about them either. As Levine says: “We care very much about whether others have good intentions towards us, but we do not always care about whether others speak to the truth.”