The art of lying

January 24, 2023

The art of lying

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”—Plato

We are all liars. If you believe that you are absolutely honest to yourself and to others at all times, then you are deceiving yourself. We’ve all told a lie at some point. They could be something small and insignificant. They might even be white lies told for the sake of others. But sometimes we tell lies that are meant to take advantage of others. Or, despite the best intentions, it causes harm to others.

In business, we often lie, too. We shouldn’t, but we often do. If you’ve ever worked in retail as a salesperson, you’ve probably talked up an item you don’t really believe in just to meet quota. When it comes to persuasion, a certain level of self-deception is needed to help you make a more compelling argument.

We lie to ourselves a lot, too. Sometimes, it is necessary to help boost our confidence when talking to others. Like when you walk into an interview for a job position, you get asked whether you know a specific skill or have experience with a certain area. You want to get the job, so you fake it to make it. And to sell the lie, you have to believe it yourself.

Lying doesn’t always necessarily bring harm to others. If you’ve ever told a lie for your friend’s sake, you probably agree with that sentiment. However, by nature, deception does more harm than good.

While it can come in handy for a self-confidence boost, we tend to cling to self-deception to convince ourselves that we are doing something morally good, even when we are not.

Here are some of the common ways we try to lie to ourselves and other people:

To protect your ego

Self-esteem is important. Psychologists and researchers believe that lying to yourself helps your self-esteem. According to studies, when we need to influence, persuade, or convince others of our inherent abilities and skills, we exaggerate ourselves to boost our self-esteem.

At a healthy dosage, this could help you be more confident, be more effective at influencing and persuading others (a skill that comes in handy in sales and business in general), or motivate and encourage others. 

Excessive self-assurance, arrogance, and grandiose delusions could result from it. 

We all need to boost our self-esteem in many situations in our lives, but it takes a lot of self-awareness, discipline, and wisdom to keep self-deception from holding us back at work or in our relationships.

To save face

When we make mistakes, it is almost instinctual to want to cover them up to save face. However, if we develop the habit of lying to bury our errors, we fail to learn from them and become irresponsible.

Many of our lies are motivated by the desire to avoid or relieve discomfort; the greater the threat of discomfort, the more likely we are to tell a bigger lie. Modern social contracts also make the other party feel obligated to repay the favor at some point when we do it for someone else (for example, when we lie to save someone else from embarrassment). 

In the long run, this prevents us from developing trust through accountability and transparency, and it is a missed opportunity to learn. Sometimes, a little embarrassment helps you grow and develop as a person. 

To shift blame

In a similar but slightly different vein, we also often lie to shift the blame away from us when things go wrong. Nobody enjoys hearing criticism, and it is hard to admit our fault and shoulder the responsibility. It is easier to blame other people, our circumstances or situation, etc.—anything but ourselves.

When things go right, taking responsibility is a privilege. But when something goes wrong, taking ownership and responsibility for our mistakes can be difficult. However, if we want to be trustworthy partners at work or in life, owning our mistakes is more beneficial than “never being wrong”—in fact, playing the blame game only hurts our relationships.

To be nice

Sometimes, the truth hurts. It is better to tell a little lie and say to your wife that the food tastes good, even if it is burnt, to make her feel better. As kids, our parents or other grown-ups in our sphere have probably showered us with compliments—what a great drawing; you sing really well; you are dancing amazingly well—in order to boost our confidence and encourage us to keep doing things. And if you have kids, you’ve probably told them their own sets of white lies, too.

But there are also lies we tell with the intent of being nice that do not necessarily help the other party. In some cases, your white lie to be nice ends up hurting them or holding them back.

Instead of giving empty praises to make them “feel good,” maybe what they needed was honest feedback that could help them improve. 

Being nice isn’t the same as being kind. Sometimes, kindness is letting your employee know that they didn’t do well on a project and that they need to do it over, or at least make major revisions, to make it better. Being nice will have you telling them, “You did a good job; I appreciate your efforts,” only to have them sacked the next month because of poor performance. Being kind means telling them what they did wrong and coaching them on how to improve so that they can continue to grow and work in the organization.

To avoid confrontation

Sometimes, we opt to lie, tell half-truths, or lie by omission in order to avoid conflict with others. We crave the feeling of security and comfort as a basic need, and that deception is a skewed way of self-preservation.

We think we are protecting the relationships that matter to us by avoiding confrontation, but sometimes a little friction from facing those issues head-on together is what strengthens our bonds. Running away from problems doesn’t make them go away—in fact, the longer you avoid them, the bigger they become and the more difficult it is to fix them when push comes to shove.

Instead of avoiding conflicts, it is more beneficial to look for productive and mutually beneficial ways to deal with them.

When people interact, friction is inevitable, no matter how well two or more people seem to get along. It isn’t “never fighting” that makes a relationship, professional or personal, stronger. More meaningful connections are made when conflict can be resolved by "fighting constructively."

To get your way

Studies show that when we are in situations such as having a consulting job where we are supposed to advise our clients on what their best options are, when we have to choose between what’s best for the clients and what’s best for us, we tend to deceive ourselves. We rationalize why this is in their best interest when, really, it is what’s best for us.

The surprising thing is that we actually believe the lie.

It can be very tempting in business to increase your own profits at the expense of others. We might think that we won't act in a certain way as long as we don't intend to. The unsettling reality is that we may be unknowingly prioritizing our own interests over those of our stakeholders, or at least being aware of this at a subconscious level.

We have all lied at some point to get our way, but we need to be aware that it is easy to develop a habit of self-deception to alleviate feelings of guilt and justify or rationalize that we aren’t really doing anything wrong.

Looking at ourselves objectively can be uncomfortable. It takes a lot of courage and maturity to acknowledge and accept our flaws and the fact that we are imperfect. Fear, shame, and feelings of insecurity are common emotions we try to run away from by lying to ourselves and others.

It is worth noting how self-deception gets in the way of our relationships at work, at home, with our friends and loved ones, and with ourselves. It holds us back from creating meaningful relationships, building trust, and working together (and alone) on growth and development.

Thanks for reading “A Brilliant Tribe.”