In the previous essay, I opened an honest discussion of the ethics and practice of lying in business. I argued that it is better to tell one large-enough lie than a hundred small lies, and that the best lies are those to establish social equality in spite of an existing trust-sparse environment. That is, you lie to flip one’s bozo bit to the “off” position, but not to go any further and certainly not in an attempt to establish superiority over the other party. I also argued that one should aim to lie harmlessly. People who spread malicious gossip ruin themselves as much as their targets. They become, figuratively and literally, bad news. Now I’ll cover a third principle of lying in business: own the lie.
3. Owning the lie.
Lies, even ethical ones, can be corrosive to relationships. People have a visceral aversion to being lied to. When you lie to someone, you’re making the statement that you don’t believe the person can be trusted with the truth. In reality, most people can’t be trusted with the truth. The truth is too complex, they’ll only understand it partially, and often conclude against you based not only the truth but on their own superficial, limiting prejudices. However, it’s not socially acceptable to tell people that you can’t trust them with the truth. You can’t just say, “I’ve inflated my job titles because we barely know each other, and I’m afraid that you’ll write me off if you know that I was only Director, not a VP”. This means that you never want to be caught lying to someone. It’s less damaging if you tell the lie to a group that they happen to be a part of.
Lying to someone is corrosive because people take it personally. This means that, when you decide to lie, you have to be comfortable telling the lie to everyone. Moreover, you have to act, going forward, as if the lie were true. There’s a saying in creative writing, most often applied to poets, that the bad ones borrow and the good ones steal. Incompetent people lack the originality to deviate from a found gem, so they replicate it in a way that is overly literal and clumsy. The adept creators, on the other hand, know that very little in the world is entirely original, so they willingly take ideas from disparate sources and merge them in a way that is uniquely theirs. A similar rule applies to lying in business: steal, don’t borrow. If you’re going to lie about something, you must be prepared to continue lying about it until the end of time. People are unable to detect truth in others, so they fixate on consistency (which is hypocritical, because human beings are deeply inconsistent) instead. The result of this is that, for any lie you intend to tell, you must make sure it is consistent with existing written facts, and live in a way that continues to be consistent with it.
Things that are inconsistent put people ill-at-ease. For example, Wall Street has a negative reputation among the public and, while some of that’s earned, much of it’s not. People hold a negative view of markets in general, and a large part of that is that they appear inconsistent. The “fair value” of a corporation can rise or drop by a billion dollars in a day for no apparent reason. (More accurately, there is a trade-off between availability, efficiency, consistency at a given time, and consistency across time. Markets favor the first three and abandon the fourth.) To people who want everything to be “fairly” priced, it seems like something shady is going on. How can it be that the “fair value” of something changes so erratically? In reality, nothing shady is (at most times) going on; it’s just that the platonic “fair value” doesn’t exist. To the general public, however, this feels like inconsistency, and hence there are complaints about “price gouging” when market forces drive the price of gas to $4 per gallon.
Of course, there are bad things that happen on markets. There are manipulators, dishonest schemes, and moral hazards pertaining to risk (especially when derivatives are used) all over the place. Markets also do a great job of local optimization (what is the best price for butter?) but fail at achieving equally important global targets, such as avoidance of poverty and social breakdown, enforcement of human rights, protection of the environment, and universal healthcare. Much that happens on Wall Street deserves to be despised, and I don’t intend to claim otherwise, and much of the American corporate system is far from a free market anyway. I simply purport that the visceral dislike humans have (and have had, for centuries) for market mechanics has little to do with the actual abuses, and is more a result of an overreaction to their obvious (but not morally objectionable, since supply and demand do change, sometimes rapidly) inconsistency. Something that is constantly changing (such as a claimed “fair price”) is distrusted. That applies to human beings as well. An intelligent person changes his views when they discover new information, or just because they think about a problem in a different way, but a politician whose ideology evolves is called a “flip-flopper”.
So what does it mean to own a lie? Many people, when they tell a lie for the first time, get petty enjoyment out of it. “I got away with it!” Don’t fall for that petty “rush”. It’s actually really easy to get away with most lies. That’s why the consequences for being caught are often so disproportionate to the offense. Many companies, at least by their outward claims, hold a zero-tolerance policy toward lies on resumes because, in fact, 95 percent of those lies are never caught, requiring the penalty for those who are caught to be at least 20 times the possible gain. (Moreover, in that other 5 percent, those are usually people who are going to be fired anyway, and put under re-investigation because the company wishes to renege on a contractual executive severance, or to somehow extort the caught liar.) Getting away with a lie is actually the typical, default, outcome. It shouldn’t be celebrated. One definitely shouldn’t take in the petty thrill of “getting one over” on someone. Some people get addicted to that thrill and become the purveyors of small or harmful lies: the blowhards and gossips. That’s useless, because it’s so easy to get away with lies.
When you decide to lie, to improve your career or reputation, you’re not “getting one over” on anyone. You’re taking a non-truth and making it true. You will forever act as if it were true. The people you’ve lied to haven’t been defeated or bested. You’ve had no win against them. You changed the truth independent of them. You, then, told that truth to them. You related to them as equals, not as if they were gullible inferiors.
If the above sounds vaguely psychotic, it’s not my intent. Yes, if you’re going to use a lie, you must own it. For example, if your lie is that a previous employer placed you in its high-potential program, you have to stop complaining about that company and how unfair the place was. It’s best to convince yourself that the lie was true, because it has become the new truth. Now, if one began owning delusions, one might tend toward (if not psychosis) pathological narcissism. That’s clearly not good. Instead, I would argue that one should only tell ownable lies. That restricts the scope of what one can lie about, which is generally a good thing. Lying is somewhat of a surgical art. You have to change one aspect of “the working truth” without creating inconsistencies or having too many side effects on unrelated “working truths”. It’s far from easy to do it right.
I initially said to “lie big”, and I stand by that. By “big” I mean effectively and tactically. The social costs of lying (even if not caught) are severe enough that one should not lie without an agenda. A hundred small lies become impossible to keep up. That one should usually lie harmlessly, and restrict oneself to ownable lies, push downward on the scope of reasonable lies and keep a person from lying too big. Some people lie about the college they attended. That’s a terrible idea. Faking a four-year experience, to one who has actually had it, is pretty much impossible. If the lie can’t be owned, then don’t tell it.
What is the truth? How can it be “modified”?
The concept of truth is much more complicated than people like to admit. “It is 39 degrees in New York City.” Is that a true statement? As of 8:16 am on April 6, 2014, it is objectively true (at least, according to The Weather Channel). At other times, it will be false. There is nothing about New York that makes it inherently 39 degrees. That’s a property of it at a given time, and the world on April 7 will be nearly indistinguishable (apart from trusted written record) from one in which New York’s temperature was a different number. “In Inception, Cobb dreamt the entire thing.” Is that true? People debate it, and while I’d rather not spoil the movie, I think the evidence points a certain way on that. But is it a fact? No, it’s a conclusion one draws from presented fiction. There’s a book (I won’t name it, because that would spoil it) where the titular character discovers that she’s a character in a book, written for a woman (call her Helen) who’s “real”. Of course, Helen’s also a character in a book, so “Helen is real” is not a truthful statement about reality about intent. The author intends her to be real within a universe that is fictional. Ah! But can anyone other than the author speak to intent? And couldn’t that author truthfully (or, at least, consistently) represent his intent in myriad ways?
You should never lie in a way that contradicts an objective fact. This should be obvious. Don’t cook the books; you will probably get caught. The good news, for those who need to lie, is that most human behavior and judgment (especially in business) is based on pseudofacts, which are much more manipulable. “Erica is good at her job.” “Stanley was formally recognized as a high-potential hire.” “Andrea does not get along well with the team.” “Jason was only promoted because he’s the boss’s favorite; Jason must have something on him.” All of those sound like factual statements, but are completely subjective.
Great minds discuss ideas, middling minds discuss events, and base minds discuss people. (Most minds are base, and great minds are base some of the time.) Ideas stand alone on their own merit and can be debated from first principles. The extreme of this is mathematics, where things are objectively true (within a specific formal system) or not. Even “controversies” within mathematics (e.g. the Axiom of Choice) pertain not to whether the axiom is valid mathematics (there is a valid mathematics with Choice, and a valid one without it) but to the subjective question of which of these equally valid mathematical frameworks is more useful and deserves more study. As for events, those stand in for facts in a more parochial but also more applicable way. “2 plus 2 is 4” is a factual theorem that is always true, everyhwere. “The temperature in New York at 8:16 am was 39 degrees” is an event, or a piece of data, relevant to one place and point in time. We can reason about why the seasons exist, in the realm of ideas, and such explorations have informed humanity’s understanding of the solar system and, eventually, the cosmos; but if we want to know what to wear for a trip, we’re better off with empirical data (events) pertaining to the weather we can actually expect. Further down the line, we have the business world, still driven by emotion far more than by data. There, judgment of people (the ultimate bike shed) outweighs anything else, and one should do whatever is necessary (lie, intimidate, cajole, bribe) to make sure the relevant parties come down on the right side.
In the realm of ideas, a lie is an objective falsehood like “2 plus 2 is 5”. One should assume that those will always blow up, making the liar appear foolish. However, in the realm of events, lies can be inserted relatively easily. “At 8:16 am on April 6, 2014; the temperature in New York was 60 degrees.” That’s false, but it could conceivably be true. New York, in April, has cold days and warm days. Nothing contradicts it (although there are other, more reliable, readings that would call it into doubt, since New York isn’t known for microclimates). Even with that written record, it’s theoretically possible (if unlikely) that one observation point recorded a valid 60-degree reading while the rest were around 39. All that said, the realm of events has got to remain mostly truthful. Let’s say that the world of mathematics is 100% truthful. Events that are recorded as true in various databases (climate, physics experiments, business) are probably true 99.9999% of the time. Occasionally, there’ll be a ridiculous reading. When it comes to people, especially in business, it’s mostly non-truth that we call “reputation”: social-status-biased judgments that, while full of exaggeration and rumor, are used because they’re the best proxy we have. Not quite lies, not quite truth. Bullshit would be a good technical term. Most of the information we use to judge other people in the business world is bullshit: non-verifiable, non-truthful non-lies. “Sam left because he couldn’t hack it.” “Teresa wasn’t a team player.” “Bill was the obvious leader of the group.” “Mark only wanted to work on the fun stuff.” These statements are utterly subjective, but it’s their subjectivity (and their bullshittiness) that makes them so powerful. People are viscerally drawn to those of high status. Merit is something we invent because we want to believe we’re more than animals, and that our decisions are made from more of a high-minded place than they actually (for most people) are. Status is what humans judge each other by, and it’s almost all bullshit. Sam (above) left because his lack of pedigree had his superiors dropping low-end grunt work on him. Teresa’s high intelligence intimidated those around her and she was saddled with the “not a team player” epithet. Bill claims he was the leader of the group, and the rest were too meek to oppose him. Mark was an objective high performer but disliked for his political views, and “only wanted to work on the fun stuff” was the only charge that could stick, in the effort to damage his reputation. All of that stuff, above, is judgment of people (complex organisms, simplified with labels like “not a team player” or “high performer”) given false objectivity. One lies because one needs to fight it, and to “correct” unfavorable judgments of oneself.
False events and the new truth
To lie effectively, one has to operate in the realm of events, which is the world of middling (and practical) minds. In the realm of ideas, it is hard to lie, because bad ideas usually end in some sort of contradiction or failure. The judgment of people can’t be addressed directly, because it’s not socially acceptable to discuss, directly, what people are actually trying to figure out. Let’s say that you’re under attack. I’ll use, again, the case of a negative reference when seeking a job. Your ex-boss is saying that you were a poor performer and that he wouldn’t hire you again. What is the best counterattack?
- A. “Well, he’s a jackass.”
- B. “That’s because he’s a child molester.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
- C. “You know, that’s funny, because three months after I left, he called me begging to re-join his team. He even offered me a 20% raise.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
- D. “He never liked me, because I’m a Red Sox fan and he’s a Yankees fan.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
The answer is, of course, C. But why is it C? Let’s eliminate the other three. Answer D violates “lie big”. It’s a small lie and it’s just not believable. There might be a few people who are so vested in sports fandom that they’d ruin someone’s life over it, but they’re rare and typically don’t acquire organizational credibility such as a management position. It’s a small lie. When you use a small lie as “the explanation” for something negative in your past, you lose credibility, because even if you may not have deserved the hit against you, you’re showing a lack of insight into what happened. So strike D, that’s a no-go. Answer B violates “lie harmlessly”. It’s understandable that one would be angry when facing a negative reference, and wish to ruin that person’s reputation and life. That might be a worthy project in its own right. However, the practical need at the moment is to recover from the accusation of poor work performance, not to damage the one making the claim. “He’s a child molester” doesn’t answer the question. It raises more questions. (How do you know? Why haven’t you reported him? It’s too big of a lie, way too harmful, and doesn’t help you. His being a pervert doesn’t invalidate his accusation against you.
We’ve stricken the two obvious bad answers. What about Answer A, which is arguably the only truthful answer (non-jackasses don’t ruin their ex-subordinates’ careers, so I can call A “truthful” from first principles) among the four? Aside from the general prohibition against “bad-mouthing” ex-employers– that’s a prohibition that might not apply here (negative references put you squarely into atypical territory, and when you have to choose between your reputation and an ex-employers you always favor yours)– why does “he’s a jackass” fail you? You’re addressing judgment of people directly– too directly, in fact. That’s not socially acceptable, because gossip is so low-minded. You have to make it look like you’re discussing objective events. If you don’t have any, make some up.
Most of the judgment-of-people bullshit (to use the technical meaning of bullshit, which is a non-truthful non-lie, neither true nor false because the claim is of such low value that its truthfulness is undefined) can be subverted with the insertion of non-truthful events. Bad reference from an ex-boss? Repeat again: “three months later, he begged me to rejoin his team.” Bad performance review interfering with internal mobility? “I accidentally upstaged him in a meeting with his manager by having an idea that his boss really liked. He tried to take credit and, being loyal, I actually let him, but his boss still attributed it to me.” Fired from a previous job? “I left on amicable terms, and my manager has repeatedly said that the door’s still open.” Ex-boss said you’re “not a team player”? “Man, he told me not to work so hard because it was making the rest of the team insecure. I thought we were past that, but I guess not.” You can almost always recover from a smear, even when cloaked in false objectivity, by inserting non-truthful events (verbal conversations, with no record, are the best) into the stream. When you do so, you’re not “telling a lie”. You’re changing the truth. Those conversations, even if they never happened physically, now did happen. You make it a fact that your ex-boss begged you to rejoin his team, and your choice to remain with your new job (your professionalism) is actually why he’s smearing you. This makes the explanation for his smear against your performance much simpler than the complex array of things (typically, a months-long story that caused bad things to happen to a good person) that actually happened. It’s a mind-fuck, I won’t deny it. That’s why one shouldn’t lie often.
Ethics, past and future
I’ve put forward that there are good and bad liars. A “bad liar” could be the ineffective kind or the unethical kind. The ineffective ones are the blowhards. They may or may not get caught in specific lies, but they fail to achieve their desired effects. Seeking to elevate their social status through non-truth, they undermine their own credibility and become laughingstocks. Those who strive to achieve social superiority through lies usually end up that way. It’s much better to lie just enough to establish equality and basic credibility– that is, to overcome the prejudices that emerge in a trust-sparse system. Doing this requires that one’s lies simplify. The problem with blowhards is that they’re so in love with their own (exaggerated or outright made-up) stories that they litter the “claimed event stream” with complexity and lose credibility.
Let’s step away from the blowhards (really, they aren’t that interesting) and ask a higher-minded question. What differentiates the ethical liars from the unethical ones? This is a subjective matter (I’m sure not everyone will agree with my definition of ethical) but I think the crux of it is that ethical liars focus on fixing the past: making it simpler and cleaner so it goes down easier. They’re manicuring their own reputations and removing some hard-to-explain bad luck, but not trying to mislead anyone. On the other hand, fraudsters intend to deceive about the future. Con artists want their targets to believe in high-impact future events (specifically, financial returns) that simply aren’t going to happen. Ethical liars are making it easier for counterparties to make the right decision for both parties, and using non-truth to overcome the pernicious, lose-lose, inefficiency of a trust-sparse world. Often, simplifying non-truths about the past are necessary to overcome embarrassments that, trivial as they are, might disrupt the trust needed to build a future that is properly coherent and (paradoxically) more truthful than what would emerge if those non-truths weren’t there. Unethical liars, on the other hand, want their targets to make what are, for the target, wrong decisions. That is, I think, the fundamental difference. Ethical liars simplify the past to make the future truthful. Unethical ones want the future to contain even more untruth (specifically, untruth that benefits them).
It is bizarre that, in the judgment-of-people theatre of business, the best way to achieve truth is (sometimes) with a strategic lie. I don’t know how to resolve that dissonance. It’s probably connected to quite a few of the deeper philosophical questions of general human politics. That’d take at least another essay to explore.
Until then, go forth, beat the bad guys, and lie carefully.