Leadership and Lies

Leadership and Lies

The art of strategic deception has been perfected by most top management.

The Q3 results of companies are out and the performance of most look below par.

Yet you find CEOs assuring investors that they are on the right path. You can’t expect them to say anything else, can you?

Did you follow the recent American presidential debate?

The most interesting part of both debates was the fact-checking session by channels that immediately followed. There was glaring misrepresentation on data, be it Covid cases, or claims and counter claims on how many people would benefit from the old and new health care plans.

Back in India, even before a vaccine is developed, we saw politicians promising free inoculation.

How do you interpret the claims made by leaders? Should we call it strategic deception or motivated reasoning? Motivated reasoning is described in social psychology as using emotionally-biased reasoning to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that accurately reflect the evidence while still reducing cognitive dissonance. Too complicated? Simply put, leaders lie knowingly because they want us to believe in what they are telling us rather than the glaring facts?

Blurred lines

Due to Covid, many organisations announced a freeze on a pay raise for the year. However, when top talent got offers from competitors, to retain them, increments were given. When the word got out, people who did not negotiate for hikes felt cheated. The leaders who publicly announced the pay freeze did not clarify later that a few were selectively given a raise. Was it too complicated to manage the new situation in public glare?

In a job induction meeting, I have seen a leader parade a couple of new managers, praising them as fast-trackers, to showcase growth opportunities to newcomers. In any company, the number of people who don’t get a promotion is significantly higher than those who get promoted. Despite such statistics, we still tell everyone that they can get promoted and create an atmosphere of competition than collaboration.

Maybe it’s a blurred line for leaders, where they are told to focus on the positive side of things, and hence some of the convenient statistics get exaggerated. Ask any leader who has high attrition in their team. They will start talking about involuntary separation and average tenure to paint a different picture and rarely admit that attrition is a problem. It’s always belief first, reason second!

Deferred truth

Sometimes leaders are confronted with the reality of not knowing enough in advance, but still are supposed to show a high-level of optimism and take a position. It does land them in a position of embarrassment later or look like they lied knowingly. Luckily in the corporate world, unlike politics, the questions are asked only around water coolers, and most likely, never reach the top!

Once, in one of the first town halls I addressed in a new company, I was asked if I would hire any of my former colleagues or any layoff was coming. I said something like, “there is so much talent in the room, and I am sure we don’t have to go out for talent, and also let’s focus on growing the business and not think negative.” Within a year, I hired two of my former colleagues in leadership roles and cut the workforce by 10 percent.

In my defence, it was my first month; I did not know enough about the business’s dynamics and reality, which I realised much later. However, I could have been diplomatic and said, “I need more time to study, and I will do what is best for the business?” But, that would not have gone well with the confidence mask a leader needs to wear all the time.

Leadership template

In 2016, an HBR study asked 195 leaders in 15 countries to list the top important leadership qualities. The top five listed by them were 1) ethics & safety 2) empowering others 3) openness to ideas and organisational learning 4) Nurturing growth and 5) encouraging connection and belonging.

However, most of us get drawn to leaders who have executive presence, meaning how they look, speak, and behave. For most of us, the confidence depicted by leaders is an important element.

This expectation pushes leaders to show that they are in charge, and they make bold statements hiding key facts. Most often, we all know that our leaders are exaggerating, and we like the fact that they are motivating us as we are all suckers for positivity.

To quote the British statesman Henry Taylor, a “falsehood ceases to be a falsehood when it is understood on all hands that the truth is not expected to be spoken”.

First published by The Hindu Business Line on November 5, 2020

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