Work Matters

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How To Tell If The Boss Is Lying

Cool New Study on Deception

The most recent Economist summarizes a fascinating study by two researchers over at the Stanford Business School -- Professor David Larker and PhD Student Anastasia Zakolyukina -- based on transcripts of American CEOs and CFOs statements during 30,000 quarterly earnings conference calls  between 2003 and 2007.  Yes, 30,000!  They linked the language that bosses used in these conference calls to whether or not the firms later "materially restated their earnings." Their paper is called "Detecting Deceptive Conversations in Conference Calls"  (here is the pdf) and they found some interesting patterns -- based on research on detecting lies -- that predicted apparent deception by the CEOs and CFOs:

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1. They used more general words and fewer specific words.

2. Referred less to shareholder value (perhaps to minimize lawsuits).

3.  Used more extreme superlatives, for example, saying "fantastic" instead of "good" (apparently in an attempt to bullshit more effectively).

4. They used "I" less and the third person more -- to distance themselves from the deception, it appears.

5. They say "um" and "ah" more -- because, the authors hypothesize, they have rehearsed their lies. 

6.  They swear more -- in fact, the Economist article starts with the famous case where Enron's Jeff Skilling called an investor an "asshole" after he challenged Skilling's positive assessment of Enron's financial conditions.

The Economist doesn't say why the liars swore more -- I would guess that it is because people who are lying are more tense and emotionally and cognitively overloaded and that inner leaks or, in Skilling's case, floods out.  In the article, the authors suggest that swearing is part of a pattern of anger that goes with lying, and that makes sense and is related to the inner turmoil and fear provoked by deception -- especially when it is a crime, like lying about your company's earnings.

I have written and talked about the strategic use of swearing in the workplace.  But after the publication of this delightful study, I suspect that swearing during earnings calls will be seen as a distinctly non-strategic behavior!

I would also add that this research and related work on lying provides useful hints about when your boss is lying in everyday situations. Is he or she avoiding the first person and using words like "fantastic?"  Swearing because he or she seems tense?  Do the words sound too well-rehearsed?   If so, and what the boss is talking about is important, you might want to look into it a bit deeper -- or perhaps you should run for the exits before the shit hits the fan.

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See my book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best... and learn from the worst.

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Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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