Pinocchio 1940

Can your employees tell you the truth? A few gray areas

From the first, we tend to take an employee’s words at face value.  We assume an applicant’s resumé is roughly accurate, even though most sources estimate that at least a third contain falsehoods.  In an interview, some of us blindly believe what applicants say (even though this can’t be everybody’s dream job). Others ignore the details of what they’re saying, preferring to just trust our “gut response,” even though such responses are often less accurate than we believe.  Still others prefer to look a person in the eyes and “decide” whether they are truthful, although most people are only able to pry apart truth and lies with about 54% accuracy…barely better than chance (Bond & DePaulo, 2006).

Fortunately, most of the lies we hear don’t matter very much.  Thinking someone noticed we lost 5 pounds may give us the confidence to lose the next 5.  When we ask an acquaintance how he’s doing today, we usually don’t really want him to detail the spat he had with his wife over breakfast.  And at the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether it was a traffic jam or that lover’s spat that causes an employee to be 3 minutes late, so long as it doesn’t become a habit.

However even if most liars aren’t vicious, and most lies aren’t harmful, as managers, colleagues and mentors there are certainly times when we want to know the truth.  How long will it really take to get a project done?  What skills can we help a person develop if want his performance to improve?  What can we offer an employee to make sure she remains motivated and happy?  Often the problem with these things is not intentional deception, but subtler sorts of mistruths to which we all fall prey.

There are many ways an employee might “lie” to you without meaning to, or even knowing it.  Consider the following examples, which are just a few of many such “gray” areas studied by psychologists:

  1. Unreasonably positive self-regard.  It is a decisive part of human nature to give oneself the benefit of all doubts.  93% of people report being better than average drivers (Svenson, 1981), 25% of students believe they are in the top 1% in terms of leadership abilities (College Board), and data from reveals that 76.2% of employees believe they significantly outperform their colleagues at work.
  2. Not knowing our own mind.  We may no longer believe in Freud’s devilish unconscious, but there are certainly aspects of our brain’s functions to which we have little access.  I have no introspective sense when my brain orders my gut to work harder to digest a tough steak.  Similarly, almost all of us show unconscious associations that are biased against different groups, even though when asked we are—at least consciously—good and genuine egalitarians (
  3. Not being able to predict how we’ll feel.  Decades of research shows that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them (and others) happy or unhappy in the future (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003).  If you don’t believe me, consider the various studies showing that winning the lottery does not substantially increase happiness (e.g. Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).  If people were able to predict this result, they probably wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on lottery tickets each year!

Of course, these and other gray areas in self-perception invite the question: How much can we actually benefit from simply asking a colleague or an employee questions.  For example, let’s say we wish to know what factors in a job most influence an employee’s happiness and job satisfaction.  Can we count on them to tell us?  Recently, we asked 584 employed Americans to rate how important 7 common “motivators” were to them.  We also asked the same folks to indicate how much of each they received in their jobs, and how happy they were in these jobs and in their lives.

Here are the on-the-job motivators in order of how important people BELIEVED they were to them:

  1. Security (3.76/5)
  2. Work-Life Balance (3.72/5)
  3. Intellectual Stimulation (3.54/5)
  4. Money (3.22/5)
  5. Achievement/Prestige (3.21/5)
  6. Affiliation/Friendship (2.94/5)
  7. Power/Influence (2.58/5)

I’ll end this entry with a question.  How accurate do you suppose people were in these assessments?  In other words, do these ratings accurately reflect the actual influence of these things on the same people’s happiness and job satisfaction?  Is security the most important thing for employee happiness?  Is money merely in the middle?  Do things like power and influence not really matter?

Read my next post to find out!

  1 comment

  1. Avatar Dragomir   •  

    It’s not only that people cannot be trusted for what they say, but also they cannot be trusted for what they do. If recruiters took a more meaningful approach on assessing candidates such as testing tasks (as close as possible to the work to be done), would that really be an accurate predictor?

    I am curious to see an article on that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *