Why White Lies are More Dangerous Than You Think

Have you ever noticed how you trust people less when you see them lie to someone else? Take heed. Even if we are honest with those we deem i
October 02, 2009

Have you ever noticed how you trust people less when you see them lie to someone else? Take heed. Even if we are honest with those we deem important, when we lie to others in their presence, it chips away at our credibility. 

But, before we take the high road, let’s review the statistics. We lie a lot – more than we’d like to believe. Most people tell a substantive lie on average 1.5 times a day, according to research by psychologist and lying expert Bella de Paulo. While we can only detect other people lying about 50% of time, or no better than chance, subjects in De Paulo’s studies reported that, on average, 1 in 7 lies they told were discovered, as far as the liars could tell. And we pay the price. People who lie more often were also found to have lower quality relationships.

You might say that not all lies are equal. White lies, for instance, are harmless. Not so. In addition to causing increased suspicion and doubt from those who uncover them, psychologist Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst “found that ‘white lies’ do have consequences and that the danger of telling them is they lead us toward being more dishonest.” Also, according to Feldman, “if you find out your boss has lied to you, it makes you feel OK to tell lies to your boss.” Particularly concerning is the negative impact these lies can have on the sense of trust that unites your organization.

Our credibility determines our potency as leaders. When we are caught lying directly or seen lying to someone else, we lose a degree of credibility and trust from those around us. Particularly when such lies are self-serving, colleagues may begin to question whether you are pushing your idea out of the best interest of the company or for your own agenda. This impacts our ability to get buy-in for our ideas and creates organizational waste – wasted energy doubting others’ motives and wasted time expending extra effort to win people over.  Simply put, trust = efficiency. When mutual trust exists in an organization, this waste is diminished, and decisions can be made more quickly.

Ultimately, white lies are shortsighted. We may avoid conflict or gain an advantage in the short-term, but when we are caught or witnessed by others, we undermine the effectiveness of our communication, the strength of our relationships, and potentially even the trusting culture of a business. And most importantly, while trust and credibility are easy to lose, they are incredibly difficult to earn back.

*** This article is based on the research and writing of Michael Schwalbe, a seasoned investment analyst and workplace psychology wonk. His work contributes to the knowledgebase of the Behance team, who run the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think thank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.