We’ve been talking about the deceptive nature of alternative facts (i.e. lies) and their effects on the workplace; however, there are many practices beyond lies that can have equally destructive results. One of the most common is paltering.
While a lie entails either the active use of false statements (lying by commission) or holding back relevant information (lying by omission), paltering involves the use of truthful statements to influence someone’s beliefs by giving a false or distorted impression. For example, let’s say you are asked about a prior lawsuit where your company was charged with housing discrimination. You can lie, you can change the topic, or you can palter like Trump in the September 26th presidential debate:
We, along with many, many, many other companies, throughout the country—it was a federal lawsuit—were sued. We settled the suit with zero—no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do. But they sued many people.
Trump’s response is technically a truthful statement in that he did settle the suit and he did not admit guilt; however, it presents a misleading sense of innocence. In reality, Trump signed a consent decree, which included “pages of stipulations intended to ensure the desegregation of Trump properties.” And while many companies have been sued for housing discrimination, this lawsuit was 1) “squarely aimed” at Trump and 2) his company was the only one sued at that particular time.
Trump has shown that stating the aggregate truth is not one of his more predominant traits, though let’s not get too sanctimonious about our own ability to be honest. Research finds that on average, people tell one to two lies a day, most often to family members, friends, and work colleagues. These tend to be harmless white lies, but they are lies. Leaders are no different.
I’ll go into my inbox and look at an email I was supposed to reply to weeks ago. And I’ll look out the window and think about it for a few seconds, and then write, ‘I’ve been thinking about your email.’ I’m clearly creating the impression that I’ve been thinking this over for the last three weeks, when in truth I’ve been thinking about it for the last second and a half. I’m creating a false impression by telling truthful things—but yet it doesn’t feel as unethical as lying.—Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School
Leaders report paltering as often as they lie by omission and more often than they lie by commission. In the study, 52% stated they palter in some or most of their negotiations, whereas 21% said they lie by commission. When asked why, participants felt that paltering is more ethically acceptable than lying (by commission and by omission).
A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology went even further to say that most people who palter see nothing wrong with it. According to co-author Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, “People seem to be using this strategy because in their minds, they’re telling the truth, so they think they’re being honest.” In some cases, the leader even shifts responsibility to the audience for believing what the leader said; judging the audience for not paying closer attention to what exactly was articulated.
While these leaders may erroneously take the moral high ground, that does not change the damage paltering is doing to their reputation and relationships. In the aforementioned study, they often benefit in the short term, but when the deception is exposed the recipients of paltering feel misled, code the individual as a liar, and are less likely to work with them again.
Avoid the repercussions of truth-based deceit. You may take satisfaction in your plausible deniability, but the world is a small place. People talk and you do not need a negative stigma that may likely stick far longer than you’d prefer. If you do not want to be re-branded as a con artist, in Part 4 of this series we’ll discuss what you as a leader can do to cultivate and enforce a culture that emphasizes truthful facts, truth tellers, and truth seekers.