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Lying is essential to doing business

Lucy Kellaway

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

BOB MOON: We've all heard the legendary tale about the president who could not tell a lie. You know, sort of like the current crop of White House hopefuls. Anyway, "never tell a lie" is a good rule to live by. When you can.

But do you ever feel like sometimes you just have to, well, bend the truth a little? We're not talking the Oval Office here -- we're talking the corner office. And maybe your own cubicle.

Here's commentator Lucy Kellaway.


LUCY KELLAWAY:

I am a liar. This statement doesn't sound pretty, but it's the truth. So far today, I've congratulated someone on their new job, even though I think it a complete mystery how they ever got promoted. I e-mailed various readers thanking them for their interesting points, which I actually thought were tedious.

If you work in an organization, I'd bet my shirt that you are a liar, too. We're all liars, but lies are necessary. The corporate world demands them. Indeed, it cannot function without them.

There are loads of reasons for this. Workplaces are hierarchies. That means we kiss up and kick down. Offices are competitive, which means putting your best foot forward and selling yourself. Which usually means stretching the truth.

The rules of office life also invite workers to cover up any infringements. So we lie about taking days off, being late for work, or slacking. >Unrealistic targets and budgets also make lying essential. In fact, lying about the work itself is necessary to keep us doing it. Thus, we claim to be "passionate" about what we do, when in fact we barely tolerate it.

Lies are so deeply woven in the fabric of office life that if you took them away, the whole thing would unravel. I know an ad man who's an alcoholic. Recently, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and took a promise always to be truthful. When he returned to work, he took it upon himself to tell a client they were being overcharged. He instantly became far more dangerous as a truth-teller than he had ever been as a drunk.

It's a dangerous balance. The lies that we tell have to be believable, but somehow must stop somewhere short of actually believing them ourselves. And the most dangerous people in business are the ones who believe their own lies.

MOON: Lucy Kellaway is a management columnist for the Financial Times.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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