Good leaders understand the power of honesty. They work to share information and provide feedback to their direct reports, colleagues and superiors. This type of transparency promotes collaboration and a sense of team cohesion. It also provides a mechanism to hardwire desirable behaviors and an opportunity to correct “missteps.” In fact, without honesty teams and work groups would not be able to develop the level of trust necessary to sustain satisfactory productivity.
But, what should you do when an employee lies to you?
First, try not to overreact, as white lies are a natural part of societal and business interactions. Next, spend some time gathering evidence and paying close attention to the employee’s behavior. Being purposeful and thorough is important because wrongfully accusing someone can seriously damage the morale of the individual and entire team.
The second step is schedule a time to meet face to face. Here you want to stay focused on the business facts and common goals, while giving the employee an opportunity to save face. Pamela Meyer, author of Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, recommends we say something like “I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood – can you tell me again what happened on Thursday?” –-and other open-ended questions that give the employee an opportunity to update or clarify his account of the situation.
Finally, you must take action. While “calling out” is never productive, if the employee violated company policy or the law you must act accordingly. If it was a minor incident, then use the situation as a teachable moment to outline or clarify specific expectations and work together to create a plan of action that will remedy the symptom (lying/dishonesty/overreaction) as well as any source issues (fear of failure, looking incompetent, etc.) A simple dialogue might look like this:
MGR: Michael, thank you for being prompt to our meeting. Before we get started, I want to congratulate you on exceeding your sales goals last quarter –that is quite a feat in such a difficult market. Now, the reason I’ve asked you here today is because I’m a bit confused about what happened at yesterday’s meeting. Perhaps, I misunderstood some of the intel I received and/or your voice mail. Can you talk me through the details again?
EMP: Well, to be candid, I was caught off guard when asked about the new compliance platform and why my division has been lagging behind. So, I made the first excuse that I could think of.
MGR: I see, so you reacted under pressure and “passed the buck” to someone else, so to speak, is that correct?
EMP: Yes, that is correct.
MGR: As you know there has been some fallout from your comments. What do you think is the best course of action to remedy the situation?
EMP: MMM, I guess I need to “fess-up” and own my reaction – or overreaction. I will apologize to Sue and the other team members individually.
MGR: That’s a good idea. When will you apologize?
EMP: By the end of today.
MGR: Good. How can you make sure this type of reaction doesn’t happen in the future?
EMP: I would like a heads-up when we are going to be discussing sensitive issues as a team – maybe we could set and distribute the agenda in advance? Plus, I need to remember that it’s okay to say “I don’t know or let me check on that and I will get back with you” rather than getting my ego involved.
MGR: I think an advance agenda is a terrific idea. Will you bring this up at the next meeting?
MGR: Ok. Let’s follow up in two weeks to see how you’re doing with honesty or putting in a speed bump when you feel vulnerable.
Remember, regular and honest communication with our employees is the best way to ensure that they will accept and respond to feedback quickly. It also means there will be no surprises when it comes time for annual performance reviews or quarterly “check-ins.” Begin modeling honesty and transparency today by giving both positive and needs improvement feedback to every one of your direct reports. I think you will be surprised at the results you see from this simple, consistent action.