Category Archives: Attitudes & Emotions

Cajoling and Betraying Trust

The Oxford American Dictionary defines cajoling as “persuad[ing] someone to do something by sustained coaxing or flattery.” It’s another way of describing how we sweet-talk others into doing our bidding.

A damaging consequence of a leader cajoling employees is losing the employees’ trust or confidence in that leader, and in his words and actions. Although they may, initially, trust the leader it often does not take long for employees to recognize that it’s simply deception designed to get them to do what that leader wanted them to do.

“Cajoling employees (i.e., using persuasive tactics) is a poor leadership approach because it’s more about getting what you want and tricking people into listening to you. It’s sleight of hand. Employees might be deceived for a while into thinking they are following you, but they’ll eventually figure it out.” -John Brandon

FYI: For Your Improvement (2nd ed.) tells us betrayal of trust is problematic when we (a) say one thing but mean or do something else, (b) are inconsistent with our words or acts, and/or (c) fail to deliver on our promises or follow through on our commitments (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1998).

Some reasons why a business professional betrays trust include (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1998):

  • Wants to avoid conflict
  • Is dishonest, underhanded, devious
  • Has trouble saying no
  • Is disorganized, has poor time management, or is forgetful

Here are two remedies to help you to not lose people’s trust:

(1) Are you conflict-averse? I knew a guy who would (and could) never say no. He was notorious for always saying yes but everyone knew that he actually meant no. Friends would invite him to come hang out with them and he would always say he’ll meet them there, but, without fail, he would never show up. After a while, his friends stopped asking because they knew his hollow promises (to meet them) were never supported by his actions (of showing up). Some people are so worried about offending others that they’ll say yes or commit to something when they actually have no intention of following through.

Here’s something those who are afraid of saying no don’t realize: People will respect you MORE if you say “NO” instead of saying yes and not mean it.

(2) Intentionally saying things to gain an advantage? Another type of betrayers of trust are folks who “know ahead of time that what [they] are saying is not really true or that [they] really don’t think that [way]” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1998, p. 455). These people “say things [they] don’t mean to gain an advantage or forward a relationship or get some resources” (p. 455).

When we talk about people who say things they don’t mean just to make a sale or to gain some type of advantage, snake oil salesmen or car salesmen quickly come to mind. But, I bet we all know or work with, or for, someone who does this (i.e., say things they don’t mean or make empty promises, etc.). As the FYI book explains, individuals who habitually overpromise (to impress others) and underdeliver on those promises will “lose in the long term because others will learn to discount promises and only measure results” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1998, pp. 454-455).

Takeaway: In daily life and in the workplace, people trust us to do what we say we’ll do. Human beings expect and demand a certain level of trust in their interactions with one another. When that trust is severed because a person uses sleight of hand to dupe others into carrying out his/her agenda, relationships are damaged, business projects derail, and drama ensues.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor

References

Brandon, J. (2014, November 19). How to Stop Making the Most Common Leadership Mistakes | Inc.com.
http://www.inc.com/john-brandon/10-common-leadership-mistakes-and-how-to-stop-making-them.html

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (1998). FYI: For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Lominger Limited, Inc.

I Will Teach My Daughter Not to Be Afraid

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

About a month ago, my wife and I became parents for the very first time. We are so blessed to have a healthy baby girl. She is truly a miracle. I joke with my coworkers that my daughter has very strong lungs.

People say that when you become a parent, your perspective changes and, in fact, so does your whole world. They say that you’ll start to see things in terms of what is best for your child (or children). They’re so right.

My wife and I have made a promise to one another that we will teach our daughter to always respect others, to embrace life with open arms, and to live life to the fullest and not be afraid of following her heart.

One thing I have seen often and continue to see is how people live in fear. I’m not talking about fear of bodily harm or other serious fears. I am talking about the self-inflicted state of fear that holds us prisoners and in a state of limbo.

“If you make the wrong decision, you make the wrong decision. That’s all there is to it. There are few guarantees in life. One of them is that you will make lots of mistakes. The worst thing you can do is wimp out and spend your life in suspended animation, refusing to make a choice because it may not be a perfect one.” ~ Nicholas Lore (author of the book “The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success”)

I know of people who talk about owning their own business or moving abroad to live and work or publish an article or write a book. I believe there are many people like this in the world — I was one of these individuals.

When I look at my life and the decisions that I’ve made I realize that life has presented and continues to present me with many choices which I either took or ignored.

I had a choice to attend Baylor University or other colleges. I chose Baylor. During my sophomore year at Baylor, I wanted to become a professor after watching the movie, “Dead Poets Society.” Instead, I chose to remain with pre-med.

I had a choice to study and do well in my pre-med classes. I chose to be lazy and naturally did poorly. When I reached the end of my pre-med classes (almost completing the pre-med program and just months away from taking the MCAT, medical school entrance exam), I had a choice to keep on the same track of medicine or getting off that train. Despite the pain and anguish it caused me, I got off that train because it was the right choice.

I had a choice to attend law school or say no. I chose law school (but I chose out of fear and attended by default because I didn’t know what else to do with my life). I had a choice to study and do well in my law classes. I chose to be lazy and did poorly.

When life showed me all the signs and signals in the world that I was unhappy in my current path in life, I chose to ignore them all and chugged aimlessly along the train tracks of life.

After years of regrets, self-sabotage, and self-doubt, I finally began to listen to my heart and started to choose (even when I was scared) instead of having things chosen for me.

My life changed in December 1996 when I made the conscious decision to go back to school to get a graduate degree in psychology. But it wasn’t until December 2003 (after getting my graduate degree), when I made the conscious decision to apply for a job over 7,000 miles away on a tropical island, that my life truly changed.

In late January 2004, after a 20+ hour flight and traveling almost halfway around the world, I landed on a tiny island in the North Pacific Ocean . . . and for the next few years experienced some amazing adventures, did some pretty exciting things, and got to see and do something very different.

In 3½ years on Saipan I played beach volleyball with professional players, saw guys husk coconuts with their teeth, flew on airplanes not much bigger than a Hummer, learned Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) from an MMA fighter, created my first website, trained over 800 teachers and professionals on Crisis Intervention and Classroom Management, was invited to offer testimony to the CNMI Legislators on Assisted Outpatient Treatment, helped research and edit the CNMI Assisted Outpatient Treatment Act, produced a “School Crisis Response Handbook,” and had my School Crisis Response Training presentation videotaped. Oh, I also met a wonderful woman who, despite my shortcomings, agreed to become my wife.

Life gives you choices. It’s up to each one of us to consciously choose (even when we are afraid). If we don’t, the choices may sometimes be chosen for us or years will go by and we’ll look back with regret because we had missed out on a great opportunity.

When I tell people that I left Texas to live on an island in the Pacific Ocean because I wanted adventure, excitement, and something different, I typically get three reactions: (1) People are amazed and praise me for taking action to follow my heart, (2) People are confused as to why I would ever want to leave where I was living (Dallas, Texas), and (3) People think that I went through some sort of mid-life crisis.

Taking that job in Saipan was, without a doubt, one of the BEST decisions in my life. For years, I talked and lamented about how I had always lived my life vicariously through others. I was a true dreamer but not a doer. I guess my heart simply got tired of my mind’s wanderlust and had a heart-mind talk. In the end, the heart won out and I could no longer ignore those yearnings.

It’s hard to describe how fulfilled I felt when I came to Saipan. Within the first week or so, I knew that I had made the right decision for my life. No one told me that I had made the right choice. No self-help or personal development book answered my deep longings. Rather, it was simply a feeling I felt in my heart. It just felt right.

While in Saipan, I met people who talked about wanting to start this or that, but for whatever reason never did. When I proposed my idea for a crisis management training course many of my colleagues dismissed it. I heard many reasons why it would not work. Good thing I love to prove people wrong. So when someone says something will not work and I think it will, I will do everything in my power to make it work (you can read more about how I did that in this article, “Less Talk, More Action—The PAR Technique.”).

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” ~ Steve Jobs

So I will teach my daughter, when she’s old enough to understand, to not be afraid. I want her to live her life and fall down and get dirty, and then get back up and try again. I want her to always try her best and give her all, no matter how scared she is or how afraid she might be of what others think or say. I want her to choose, instead of having things chosen for her. And most of all, I want my daughter to never be afraid to fall down or fail — because her daddy fell down and failed (and will fall down and fail again) and got back up.

Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses. ~George Washington Carver

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor

10 Life Lessons from Basic SEAL Training from Admiral William H. McRaven

For those unable to watch the video on my blog, you can watch it directly on YouTube (University of Texas at Austin 2014 Commencement Address – Admiral William H. McRaven), https://youtu.be/pxBQLFLei70.

This is an inspiring and powerful 20-minute commencement speech by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, at the University-wide Commencement at The University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014.

Admiral McRaven’s commencement speech is perhaps one of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard. It is on point and offers some fantastic life and business lessons.

Below are excerpts from his amazing speech.

10 Life Lessons from Basic SEAL Training

1. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
“If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

2. If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
“You can’t change the world alone—you will need some help— and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.”

3. If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
“SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.”

4. If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
“Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie.”

“For failing the uniform inspection, the student [in Basic SEAL training] had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a ‘sugar cookie.’ You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.”

“There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. . . Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.”

5. If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
“Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events — long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics — something designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a ‘circus.’ A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.”

“Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.”

6. If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.

7. If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
“There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.”

8. If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
“At the darkest moment of the mission is the time when you must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.”

9. If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
“If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala—one person can change the world by giving people hope.”

10. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
“In SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”

—–

“Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up — if you do these things, then the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”

“It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation, or your social status. Our struggles in this world are similar and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward—changing ourselves and the world around us—will apply equally to all.”

“Changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.”

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership and Talent Consultant

Link

University of Texas at Austin – Adm. McRaven Urges Graduates to Find Courage to Change the World
https://news.utexas.edu/2014/05/16/mcraven-urges-graduates-to-find-courage-to-change-the-world

Introverts Are Excellent Just As They Are

For those unable to watch the video on my blog, you can watch it directly on the TED Talk website, Susan Cain: The power of introverts.

Here is a great 19-minute TED Talk by Susan Cain, author of the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Below are excerpts from her speech.

“I got the message that somehow my quiet and introverted style of being was not necessarily the right way to go, that I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert. And I always sensed deep down that this was wrong and that introverts were pretty excellent just as they were.”

“When it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best. A third to a half of the population are introverts — a third to a half.”

“You need to understand what introversion is. It’s different from being shy. Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation.”

“Extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments. Not all the time — these things aren’t absolute — but a lot of the time. So the key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.”

“When it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsize risks — which is something we might all favor nowadays.”

“Research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extrovert can, quite unwittingly, get so excited about things that they’re putting their own stamp on things, and other people’s ideas might not as easily then bubble up to the surface.”

“Culturally we need a much better balance. We need more of a yin and yang between these two types. This is especially important when it comes to creativity and to productivity, because when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.”

Three Calls for Action:

(1) “Stop the madness for constant group work . . . I deeply believe our offices should be encouraging casual, chatty cafe-style types of interactions — you know, the kind where people come together and serendipitously have an exchange of ideas . . . But we need much more privacy and much more freedom and much more autonomy at work.”

(2) “Go to the wilderness . . . I’m not saying that we all have to now go off and build our own cabins in the woods and never talk to each other again, but I am saying that we could all stand to unplug and get inside our own heads a little more often.”

(3) “Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there.”

Extroverts: Take things out of your suitcase “every chance you get and grace us with your energy and your joy.”

Introverts: “You probably have the impulse to guard very carefully what’s inside your own suitcase. And that’s okay. But occasionally . . . I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see, because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry.”

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership and Talent Consultant

Link

TED Talk – Susan Cain: The power of introverts
http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts

Locus of Control and The Zorro Circle

zorro

Photo Credit: Flickr

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor talks about how by first limiting our focus on small, manageable goals, we can then expand our sphere of power from there. Achor used the movie “The Mask of Zorro” (starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins) as an example and describes what he calls The Zorro Circle. For those who have not seen it, there is a scene where young Alejandro (Zorro) is taught how to master the sword and other skills by first training in a small circle. Only after mastering control of that small circle was he then allowed by his master Don Diego to try other larger feats (e.g., swinging from ropes and fighting against his own master in a sword fight).

Achor suggests that the first goal to regaining our internal locus of control (when we don’t feel in control) is to to become more self-aware. When you’re in a high stress situation or feel a high level of stress, identify how you’re feeling and put those feelings into words. Try writing down your feelings in a journal or share with a close friend or trusted colleague. “[V]erbalizing the stress and helplessness you are feeling is the first step toward regaining control” (Achor, 2010, p. 137).

“Brain scans show verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of these negative emotions, improving well-being and enhancing decision-making skills” (Achor, 2010, p. 136).

After you’ve mastered the self-awareness circle, the next step is to identify which part of the situation that you do have control over and which ones you do not. The basic idea here is to see that there are things that are out of your hands that you simply have no control over; but also that there are things that you do have real control over and to focus your energy on those areas.

“By tackling one small challenge at a time—a narrow circle that slowly expands outward—we can relearn that our actions do have a direct effect on our outcomes, that we are largely the masters of our own fates. With an increasingly internal locus of control and a greater confidence in our abilities, we can then expand our efforts outward” (Achor, 2010, p. 137).

The lesson is this: If you focus on and master the small, manageable goals first (the small circle), you can then expand your sphere of power to larger goals. Tackle one small challenge at a time and clearly see and let go of things that you do not have control over and focus your energy and efforts on things over which you do have control.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership and Talent Consultant

Reference

Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Developing Your Leadership Presence – The Role of Physical Movement

Businessmen

Photo Credit: Businessmen

We hear a great deal about leadership and the qualities of being a leader. One thing I have personally noticed and practiced is something called command presence. It’s the ability to “own the room” or command the attention of others. The beauty is that it doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short, or big or small. Size is not as important as the ability to command a room — to show confidence and authority.

For training and development, in terms of having a physical leadership presence, there’s a book called Own the Room (Booth, Shames, & Desberg, 2010). Although much of it is about business presentations, it also touches on what the authors call command presence (having an air of authority and physical movement; displaying confidence and authority). They also describe something they call “physical grammar” (akin to using commas, periods, and pauses when speaking). The idea is that you attract attention as you move, and when done purposefully, it can be very effective.

Another thing regarding physical movement (particularly when presenting to an audience) is that it enlarges a speaker’s presence because it allows him/her to control the space rather than being confined by it (like being behind a podium). I have seen very capable professionals fail to “own the room” because they did not understand the importance of having a command presence.

I have personally experienced the dramatic difference between owning and not owning the room when presenting. When I’m free to move about a room or space, I not only develop my own command presence but I’m also more effective in engaging the audience due to my physical movement (the physical grammar I mentioned earlier). However, when I’m confined to a very tight space/room and my physical movements are limited or restricted, I notice that I often fail to capture the audience’s attention.

For leaders and CEOs who are small in stature, developing a leadership presence is crucial. This excerpt from a 2007 USA Today article illustrates how having a command presence helped one short CEO remain in control:

Maigread Eichten, the 5-foot-4 former CEO of beverage company New Sun Nutrition, recalled a confrontation with a 6-foot, 200-pound-plus senior executive.

“He spoke loudly and in quite colorful language. I couldn’t get a word in between his four-letter words. Imagine his surprise when this small blonde marched up, stared him down, commanded his attention, spoke clearly and loudly and ended with a smile. He was sold and charmed,” Eichten said.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

References

Booth, D., Shames, D., & Desberg, P. (2010). Own the room: Business presentations that persuade, engage, and get results. New York: McGraw-Hill.

USA Today – Does height equal power? Some CEOs say yes. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2007-07-17-ceo-dominant-behavior_N.htm

Why Leadership Is Important and Why People Want to Be Followers

lead_follow

Photo Credit: Flickr

I posted this recently in a leadership MOOC course. The question was, “Why do you think leadership is important?”

Here’s my response:

I believe leadership is important because if we examine history, no significant changes or advancement have occurred without some type of leadership. In the U.S., we can see how leaders have mobilized followers to accomplish amazing things.

George Washington → American Revolution
Martin Luther King, Jr. → Civil Rights Movement
Steve Jobs → Apple Computers (iPhone, iPad, iPod)

I like this definition of leadership as I believe it nicely explains WHY leadership is important:

“Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2013, p. 5).

To me, there can be no leader if there are no followers, and people will not follow you if you lack the ability to influence them to work toward a goal.

That said, I also like and agree with what Bass (1990) said, that there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are individuals who have tried to define this concept.

One person in the MOOC class said that he did not believe people want to be led by others (i.e., they want to be leaders, not followers). I responded with this post:

I respectfully disagree with the notion that people do not want to be followers. I contend three things (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012):

  1. Almost everyone is a follower in some capacity (supervisors report to managers, managers report to VPs, even CEOs have to report to the board of directors),
  2. The role of followers is just as important as leaders (although it is often overlooked), and
  3. Being a follower has benefits (that is, the benefits to being a follower sometimes outweigh the benefits of trying to be the leader).

Social Change: In the U.S., the Civil Rights movement serves as a good example of what can happen when followers take action to change the status quo (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012).

Military: We talk about great military leaders but the real wars and battles are fought by the best soldiers and armies (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012).

Sports: Yes, the Chicago Bulls had a great coach (leader) in Phil Jackson (who led them to 6 titles), but they also had Michael Jordan (who was both follower and leader) and Jordan had great teammates (Scottie Pippen, etc.) who followed and helped him.

Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

References

Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass & Stogdill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research & managerial applications (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Would You Work If You Won the Lottery?

happy-couple-with-money
The question is simple: If you were to win the lottery (also known as the lottery question), would you continue to work? The answer might surprise you because most people say yes. In fact, a survey of lottery winners showed that even those who won the lottery continued to work!

The General Population

Responses from 7,871 men and 7,549 women to the General Social Surveys conducted by the NORC for 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987-1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006 were analyzed by Scott Highhouse and his colleagues (2010).

Each person answered the following question: “If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or would you stop working?”

Over a 26-year period, the researchers found that, while there has been a decline in people who said they would keep working, most of the people responded said they would keep on working. 72.8% (1980 –1993) and 68.1% (1994 –2006) of people responded that they would continue working (Highhouse et al., 2010).

Highhouse and colleagues said the responses to the lottery question seems linked to economic conditions. That is, when the economy is doing well, people are more inclined to give up work. However, during tough economic times the idea of giving up work might be seen as final (i.e., permanent, irreversible).

My unscientific poll seems to confirm this. Three years ago (in 2010), I posted a poll here on WorkplacePsychology.Net which asked people, “If you had enough money so that you never had to work again, would you continue to work or would you stop working?”
wrkpsypoll

After three years and more than 4000 votes, results indicate that the majority of people who participated in my survey (56.49%) said they would, in fact, continue working even if they had money to never have to worry about working again.

These numbers are lower than the 72.8% (for the period 1980 –1993) and even the 68.1% (1994 –2006) reported in the Highhouse study. Indeed, when I posted the poll in 2010, the U.S. was just emerging from a very long recession. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (2010), the U.S. recession lasted 18 months (from December 2007 to June 2009), making it the longest of any recession since World War II.

Since the posting of that survey, the U.S. economy has seen only tepid improvements. Thus, even during tough economic times, it was surprising to see that 56% of people who took the survey said they would continue working even if they had money to never have to worry about working again.

Returning to the Highhouse et al. study, researchers are not sure why there’s a decline (although there is indication that it is leveling off) in people saying they would work if they were to win the lottery. According to Highhouse et al. there are many possible explanations: (1) it might be a decline in work ethic, (2) it might be that participants now are more candid/open about their responses compared to 30 years ago, or (3) it might be a change in the way people view the role that work plays in contributing to a productive life (e.g., result of a literate and progressive population).

“One of the reasons for the decrease in affirmative responses to the lottery question is not that the work ethic itself has declined but that the attractiveness of life after work has increased in the United States” (Highhouse et al., 2010, p. 356).

The Lottery Winners

Ok, so what about people who have won the lottery? Would they be more likely to quit their jobs, instantly retire, and spend the rest of their lives relaxing and drinking margaritas on an island somewhere? Not exactly.

Arvey, Harpz, and Liao (2004) conducted a survey of lottery winners in which they asked these lottery winners whether they had kept on working even after winning. The researchers also asked the lottery winners how important work was in their life. The researchers predicted that lottery winners would keep on working depending on their level of work centrality and on the amount of their winnings.

Arvey et al. (2004) reviewed responses from 117 people (they removed those who had retired before winning the lottery or who had missing information), average lottery win was $3.63 million (1999 U.S. dollars), 37% women and 63% men, with an average age of 43 (at the time that person won the lottery), 17% were managers, 26% were professionals, 26% were in other white-collar jobs, and 31% were in blue-collar jobs.

“After controlling for a number of variables (i.e., age, gender, education, occupation, and job satisfaction), results indicated that work centrality and the amount won were significantly related to whether individuals continued to work and, as predicted, the interaction between the two was also significantly related to work continuance.”

Results revealed that the overwhelming majority (85.5%) indicated they continued working after winning the lottery, while 14.5% chose to quit working. Arvey et al. explained that “the percentages of different options do not add to 100% because several respondents indicated more than one option. However, respondents who chose the first option (i.e., stopped working altogether) did not check any of the other options” (p. 412).

“The results of this study confirmed the main hypothesis that lottery winners would be less likely to stop working if work was important or central in their lives relative to those who viewed work as less central in their lives. Lottery winners were also more likely to quit working as a function of the amount of their winnings. The greater the award, the more likely they were to stop working. . . It is clear that winning the lottery does not automatically result in individuals’ stopping work” (Arvey et al., 2004, p. 415).

Conclusion

Why do people continue to work when they do not have to work (for instance, winning the lottery)?

When we consider the amount of time we spend at work (8+ hours a day, 5 days a week or more), or even the time spent outside of work celebrating work successes, contemplating work responsibilities/duties, or stressing over issues in our workplaces, it is easy to understand the major role of work in our lives.

With regard to lottery winners who continue working, King (2011) wrote, “The behavior of the typical lottery winner tells us that work is more than a way to earn money. It is an opportunity to use our skills and abilities and to feel successful and effective. It also provides a context in which to have meaningful relationships with other people” (p. 455).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor

References

Arvey, R. D., Harpaz, I., & Liao, H. (2004). Work centrality and post-award work behavior of lottery winners. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 138(5), 404-420. doi:10.3200/JRLP.138.5.404-420

Highhouse, S., Zickar, M. J., & Yankelevich, M. (2010). Would you work if you won the lottery? Tracking changes in the American work ethic. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 349-357. doi:10.1037/a0018359

King, L. A. (2011). The science of psychology: An appreciative view (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

National Bureau of Economic Research. (2010). Business Cycle Dating Committee. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html

Locus of Control: Stop Making Excuses and Start Taking Responsibility

Blame by Nelson Vargas

Photo Credit: Flickr

[NOTE: This post was updated August 2016]

In my former career as a mental health counselor, I encountered many clients who struggled with taking charge of their own lives. While their struggles might have differed, the idea behind helping them was almost always the same, and quite basic. We’re taught to guide clients from seeing themselves as being victims of life’s circumstances to being movers of those life events. In other words, help clients reach deep within to draw on their own inner strength and capacity to take charge.

There are two types of locus of control: internal (inside) and external (outside). Internal locus of control is the belief that you are “in charge of the events that occur in [your] life” (Northouse, 2013, p. 141), while external locus of control is the belief that “chance, fate, or outside forces determine life events” (p. 141).

Individuals with an internal locus of control believe their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and efforts and they have control over those things they can change. Having an internal locus of control is linked to self-efficacy, the belief you have about being able to do something successfully (Donatelle, 2011). People with an external locus of control see their behaviors and lives as being controlled by luck or fate. These individuals view themselves (i.e., their lives and circumstances) as victims of life and bad luck.

“People differ in whether they feel they control the consequences of their actions or are controlled by external factors. External control personality types believe that luck, fate, or powerful external forces control their destiny. Internal control personality types believe they control what happens to them” (Champoux, 2011, p. 113).

In leadership and management, this concept of locus of control is the same. Whether it’s coaching top executives, middle management, or rank and file employees, the idea is to get them to stop making excuses and/or blame other people, events, or things (i.e. external locus of control), and instead start taking responsibilities (i.e., internal locus of control) for them.

If you really listen, you’ll often hear people describe their lives or work as spinning out of control or they felt they had very little control over or were not in control of their lives. However, when things improve, you’ll hear them say that they’ve started feeling more in control or regaining control over their lives again. “When the locus of control shifts from the external to the internal frame, clients find more energy, motivation, and greater confidence to change” (Moore & Tschannen-Moran, 2010, p. 75).

In business and leadership, the benefit of having an internal locus of control is applicable to all individuals at all levels within an organization:

1. An internal locus of control is one of the key traits of an effective leader (Yukl, 2006).

“A leader with an internal locus of control is likely to be favored by group members. One reason is that an ‘internal’ person is perceived as more powerful than an ‘external’ person because he or she takes responsibility for events. The leader with an internal locus of control would emphasize that he or she can change unfavorable conditions” (Dubrin, 2010, p. 47).

2. An internal locus of control separates good from bad managers (Yukl, 2006).

“Effective managers . . . demonstrated a strong belief in self-efficacy and internal locus of control, as evidenced by behavior such as initiating action (rather than waiting for things to happen), taking steps to circumvent obstacles, seeking information from a variety of sources, and accepting responsibility for success or failure” (Yukl, 2006, pp. 185-186).

3. Employees’ locus of control affect leadership behavior in decision-making (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012).

“Internal-locus-of-control followers, who believed outcomes were a result of their own decisions, were much more satisfied with leaders who exhibited participative behaviors than they were with leaders who were directive. Conversely, external-locus-of-control followers were more satisfied with directive leader behaviors than they were with participative leader behaviors. Followers’ perceptions of their own skills and abilities to perform particular tasks can also affect the impact of certain leader behaviors. Followers who believe they are perfectly capable of performing a task are not as apt to be motivated by, or as willing to accept, a directive leader as they would a leader who exhibits participative behaviors” (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012, pp. 544-545).

“There is also evidence that internals are better able to handle complex information and problem solving, and that they are more achievement-oriented than externals (locus of control). In addition, people with a high internal locus of control are more likely than externals to try to influence others, and thus more likely to assume or seek leadership opportunities. People with a high external locus of control typically prefer to have structured, directed work situations. They are better able than internals to handle work that requires compliance and conformity, but they are generally not as effective in situations that require initiative, creativity, and independent action” (Daft, 2008, p. 103).

“Path–goal theory suggests that for subordinates with an internal locus of control participative leadership is most satisfying because it allows them to feel in charge of their work and to be an integral part of decision making. For subordinates with an external locus of control, path–goal theory suggests that directive leadership is best because it parallels subordinates’ feelings that outside forces control their circumstances” (Northouse, 2013, p. 141).

The Importance Of Locus Of Control

Meta-analyses (the synthesis of multiple studies into a single study by summarizing the practical significance of each research finding into one combined effect) of 357 research studies “showed that an internal locus of control was associated with higher levels of job satisfaction and job performance” (Colquitt, LePine, & Wesson, 2015, p. 287) and “that people with an internal locus of control enjoyed better health, including higher self-reported mental well-being, fewer self-reported physical symptoms” (Colquitt et al., 2015, p. 287).

Takeaway Message: Having an internal locus of control can go a very long way in differentiating between effective and ineffective leaders, managers, and employees.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Consultant

References

Champoux, J. E. (2011). Organizational behavior: Integrating individuals, groups, and organizations (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., & Wesson, M. J. (2015). Organizational behavior: Improving performance and commitment in the workplace (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Daft, R. L. (2008). The leadership experience (4th ed.). Mason: OH: Thomson/South-Western.

Donatelle, R. (2011). Health: The basics (Green ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

Dubrin, A. J. (2010). Leadership: Research findings, practice and skills (6th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western/Cengage Learning.

Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Moore, M. & Tschannen-Moran, B. (2010). Coaching psychology manual. Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Indecision and Fear of Failure-The Inefficiencies in a Bureaucracy

indecision

Photo Credit: Flickr

Those who work for a government agency, a school system, a city government office, a nonprofit association, or even a church can understand this title and the point of this post. I previously wrote about people creating bottlenecks in their own companies or place of employment.

Too often, I have seen a hesitancy to act because of a fear of making the wrong decision. One way this fear manifests itself is through a reliance or dependence on endless surveys to support their decisions. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with surveys per se. Using surveys as an excuse to not act because of a fear of messing up is wrong.

While, on the surface, it might seem like these individuals (the ones who support doing additional and unnecessary surveys) are doing the right thing. They are, in fact, crippling themselves and failing their organizations by wasting time.

A VP in one organization was so indecisive and so terrified she would make a mistake that she solicited feedback from everyone in the office about the smallest decisions. In one instance, she could not decide on a simple logo to use for her office so she asked the staff for their input about a logo design. Weeks went by and even after getting feedback from the staff, no decisions were made. It was decided to contract out the work and have a professional design the logo. However, even after several logos were designed, no decisions were made because of the indecisive VP.

“Indecision and delays are the parents of failure.” George Canning

Sadly, after the time and energy the staff invested working on the logo design project, because of the executive’s indecision, a logo was never selected and the money spent hiring the logo designer was wasted.

Fear of failure is a dangerous addiction. It creates a vicious circle which goes like this: I’m afraid of making a mistake so I won’t act. I won’t act because I’m afraid of making a mistake.

Takeaway: Fear of failure cripples people from acting and causes them to rationalize their indecisions. Their rationalizations can become so habitual and strong that it blinds them from sound advice and feedback.

Video: When I Grow Up

Note: You can also watch it directly on Vimeo.

“When I Grow Up” is a very short and wonderful video about the power of dreams. The story follows the imagination of a young boy and his dreams for his future. The message is a nice reminder to all of us, young and old, to never stop following our dreams.

Here are lines from the video:

Life is an adventure filled with amazing possibilities.

How about becoming a world famous explorer?
You could be an underwater adventurer.
Maybe even a hero of the untamed wild west.
You could always travel with the circus.

So explore a world that’s waiting to be found.

And though you may fall or the going gets tough, keep pushing on because there’s a world full of mysteries for you to solve.

So fire your engines.
Gather your courage.
Let go of fear.
And dig deep inside.

Because it’s never too soon to shoot for the moon.
So chase down those dreams.

Direction, Animation, & Story by Colin Hesterly.

An Employee’s Uncivil Behavior Can Harm Other Employees and Customers

word of mouth

Photo Credit: Flickr

More than three years ago (12/13/09 to be precise), I wrote about people with a situational value system. That post in December 2009 was about my experience as a waiter and my story about a rude customer, the wife of a famous baseball player, who snapped her fingers in a demanding way to get my attention.

The situational value system post has become the most visited post on WorkplacePsychology.Net. Over the months, and now years, that followed, I have tried to come up with a follow-up or related post. It’s not easy to do a follow-up to something that has been so well received.

Based on the number of visits and people who have shared the post or clicked on the “like” button, it seems many people can relate to or have their own stories about knowing, experiencing, and/or witnessing someone with a situational value system (i.e., an individual who treats people differently based on that person’s status).

What I have wanted to do since that time was to further explore mistreatment and uncivil behaviors in the workplace. Because my original post in 2009 talked about the impact that one customer had on me (an employee), this post in 2013 will be about the negative effects of employee uncivil behaviors on customers, coworkers, or subordinates (if the employee is in a managerial role). There’s quite a bit of research in this area, although my guess is that by writing about it, it will not be anywhere near as popular.

Harm to Customers Who Directly Experienced It or Were Witnesses to It And the Negative Business Effects

Customers Who Directly Experienced Uncivil Behaviors

Hawkins and Mothersbaugh (2010) outlined three coping strategies customers use when confronted with bad customer service (p. 381):

  • Active coping: Thinking of ways to solve the problem, engaging in restraint to avoid rash behavior, and making the best of the situation.
  • Expressive support seeking: Venting emotions and seeking emotional and problem-focused assistance from others.
  • Avoidance: Avoiding the retailer mentally or physically or engaging in complete self-denial of the event.

The customer might work with the organization to try to resolve the situation (active coping). Other customers might decide to vent their frustrations to the company (expressive support seeking) or they might tell their friends or broadcast it online about their bad experience (negative word of mouth [WOM]). The last case, avoidance, is also damaging because a customer might choose to avoid an organization completely or continue to be a customer but makes an effort to avoid the company (either physically or mentally), in which case the result will be lost sales (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010).

“Many times, however, consumers do not complain to the company, but instead take actions such as switching brands or engaging in negative word of mouth (WOM)” (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010, p. 636).

Customers Who Were Witnesses to Uncivil Behaviors

Porath, MacInnis, & Folkes (2010) found that when an employee mistreated or was uncivil (e.g., being rude or discourteous, ignoring or making derogatory remarks, passing blame for their own mistakes, belittling the efforts of others, etc.) toward another employee, customers who witnessed it tended to “make negative generalizations about (a) others who work for the firm, (b) the firm as a whole, and (c) future encounters with the firm, inferences that [went] well beyond the incivility incident” (p. 292). What researchers discovered was that “consumers [were] also negatively affected even when they [were] mere observers of incivility between employees” (Porath et al., 2010, p. 301).

Harm to Coworkers or Subordinates

Pearson & Porath (2009) discovered in their studies that 1 in 5 employees reported being targets of incivility from a coworker at least once a week. About 2/3 said they witnessed incivility happening among other employees at least once a month. Ten percent said they saw incivility among their coworkers every day.

A survey of public sector employees in the United States found that 71% of respondents reported at least some experience of workplace incivility from a supervisor or coworker (e.g., being treated rudely or discourteously, having a coworker or boss ignore or make derogatory remarks, being blamed for a colleague’s mistakes, being belittled, having someone set them up to fail, being shut out of a team, etc.) during the previous 5 years, and 6% reported experiencing such behavior many times (Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001).

Lim, Cortina, and Magley (2008) found that (1) “uncivil work experiences also appear to have a direct negative influence on mental health” (p. 104), (2) employees who experienced incivility were more likely to be dissatisfied with their boss and coworkers than with the the job itself, and (3) those personal experiences of workplace incivility can lead to them eventually quitting their jobs.

Take-Away:

An employee who engages in uncivil behavior (i.e., being rude, insensitive, or disrespectful) is harmful to: (1) other employees inside the organization, and (2) customers who are direct targets of such behaviors or who might simply be witnesses (from the outside) to uncivil behaviors between employees.

References

Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001). Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 64-80.

Hawkins, D. I., & Mothersbaugh, D. L. (2010). Consumer behavior: Building marketing strategy (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Lim, S., Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J. (2008). Personal and workgroup incivility: Impact on work and health outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 95-107. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.95

Pearson, C. & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it. New York, NY: Portfolio.

Porath, C., MacInnis, D., & Folkes, V. (2010). Witnessing incivility among employees: Effects on consumer anger and negative inferences about companies. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(2), 292-303.

Your Negative (But Honest) Feedback Might Just Set a Narcissist Off

narcissistic

Stock photo: Narcissism

How many times have you heard a supervisor or coworker say: “I welcome any feedback.” On the surface the statement “I welcome any (or your) feedback” suggests someone who is receptive to getting feedback. It might also imply that people are welcomed and invited to come share about problems, issues, and/or concerns.

Myers (2010) said feedback works best when it is presented in an honest and specific manner. However, there’s a caveat: Even when the feedback is delivered honestly and specifically, the reaction of the receiver to that feedback might not always be what you would expect.

There is research (Bushman, Baumeister, Thomaes, Ryu, Begeer, & West, 2009) suggesting that individuals high in narcissism and self-esteem are more likely to either retaliate or be aggressive toward those who give feedback that the person with high narcissism and self-esteem perceived to be critical or insulting.

Simply stated, if you have a narcissistic boss or colleague with very high self-esteem (yes high, not low; there are narcissists with low self-esteem¹), be careful the type of feedback (especially if it’s critical or negative) you share with them. If they perceive your comments/statements as threats to their inflated egos (researchers call it the threatened egotism hypothesis), then there’s a good chance their reactions (words and/or behaviors) will be aggressive².

“[N]arcissists with high self-esteem are eager to dominate their social environment and claim the admiration to which they apparently feel entitled, and when their interaction partners fail to cooperate, they may turn aggressive” (Bushman et al., 2009, p. 441).

Interestingly, the researchers “found no support for the view that low self-esteem causes aggression. . . . On the contrary, low self-esteem reduced or eliminated the independent effect of narcissism on aggression” (Bushman et al., 2009, p. 441).

¹Bushman and colleagues explained that, “Narcissists with low self-esteem may be shy, socially anxious and unconfident, and preoccupied with their own possible inadequacy, but they are still highly self-absorbed” (p. 441).

²Aggression is defined as, “Behavior directed toward the goal of harming another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment” (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 322).

References

Baron, R. A., & Branscombe, N. R. (2012). Social psychology (13th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., Thomaes, S., Ryu, E., Begeer, S., & West, S. G. (2009). Looking again, and harder, for a link between low self-esteem and aggression. Journal of Personality, 77(2), 427-446. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00553.x

Myers, D. G. (2010). Social psychology (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

How Expertise can Strengthen or Dilute your Credibility

trust

Photo Credit: Flickr

Japanese television offers a wide selection of variety shows. Unlike those in the U.S., Japanese variety shows will invite a group of “talents” (although I’m still not sure what many of their talents are, other than smiling and tasting different foods). The thing that immediately got my attention about all of these variety shows was the repeated use of talents (actors or comedians) to comment on any issues, whether the person was qualified to do so or not.

It is simply baffling to me how a group of people, with no discernible expertise on a subject matter will comment on just about anything. The subjects can vary from management to mental health to melting snow, and believe it or not, a group of people will comment on it. Last week, I saw five people on one variety show standing around commenting on different shapes of snow.

In another week, a young man (one of the “talents”) was on a talk show embedded inside a joint infomercial and a soap opera (I’m not joking). The young man shared that he was concerned about his melancholy outlook on life and his tendency to be negative. Another “talent” (I think he’s a former teacher) proceeded to play armchair therapist by asking the guy to read aloud from Romeo and Juliet.

Ok, so what does all of this nonsense have to do with psychology and workplace behaviors? Two things: expertise and credibility.

I realize I’m making a huge leap from talking about Japanese variety shows to the business environment, so please bear with me. But, the more I watched these “talents” the more I kept thinking about expertise and credibility. Because these “talents” do not have the expertise to offer anything of substantive value (that I could not otherwise get by simply asking my next door neighbors for their opinions), they (at least in my eyes) end up diminishing their own brand and/or jeopardizing their own credibility.

In Business Leadership (2003), Kouzes and Posner said credibility is one admired characteristics of a leader:

“Credibility is the foundation of leadership” (Kouzes & Posner, 2003, p. 262).

“The qualities of being honest, inspiring, and competent compose what communications researchers refer to as source credibility. In assessing the believability of a source of information—whether it is the president of the company, the president of the country, a sales person, or a TV newscaster— researchers typically use the three criteria of trustworthiness, expertise, and dynamism. Those who rate highly in these areas are considered to be credible sources of information” (Kouzes & Posner, 2003, p. 261).

Kouzes and Posner (2003) said your credibility must be earned over time. It’s not something that’s bestowed upon you when you get a new title or job. What’s more, credibility can affect the workplace.

“Credibility has a significantly positive outcome on individual and organizational performance” (Kouzes & Posner, 2003, p. 266).

In The Leadership Challenge (2007), Kouzes and Posner explained in greater details about why credibility matters. They wrote (pp. 38-39):

“Using a behavioral measure of credibility, we asked organization members to think about the extent to which their immediate manager exhibited credibility-enhancing behaviors. In our studies we found that when people perceive their immediate manager to have high credibility, they’re significantly more likely to

  • Be proud to tell others they’re part of the organization
  • Feel a strong sense of team spirit
  • See their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization
  • Feel attached and committed to the organization
  • Have a sense of ownership of the organization

When people perceive their manager to have low credibility, however, they’re significantly more likely to

  • Produce only if they’re watched carefully
  • Be motivated primarily by money
  • Say good things about the organization publicly but criticize it privately
  • Consider looking for another job if the organization experiences problems
  • Feel unsupported and unappreciated

“Credibility makes a difference” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007, p. 39).

References

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003). Leadership is a relationship. In J. M. Kouzes (Ed.), Business leadership (pp. 251-267). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Good Liars: Their Characteristics and Why They are So Hard to Detect

Liar | Credit: Jacopo Comanducci

[NOTE: This post was updated December 2017]

Politicians and car salesmen are notorious for being dishonest. But what’s often overlooked are skilled liars who might be a coworker, a supervisor, a top executive, a family member, or even a neighbor. It isn’t until a major scandal, like the ones involving Ponzi schemers Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff, that people take note that lying is more pervasive and much more difficult to detect than we think.

The scandal in 2009 involved CEO Allen Stanford and other top executives of Stanford Financial Group. They were charged and convicted of fraud for scheming investors (for more than two decades). Allen Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison for a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

The NY Times article said: “Prosecutors argued that Mr. Stanford had consistently lied to investors, promoting safe investments for money that he channeled into a luxurious lifestyle, a Swiss bank account and various business deals that almost never succeeded.” It also stated that Stanford was convicted “of running an international scheme over more than two decades in which he offered fraudulent high-interest certificates of deposit at the Stanford International Bank, which was based on the Caribbean island of Antigua.”

And, even as he made his final statement in court, Stanford continued to lie by saying: “I’m up here to tell you from my heart I didn’t run a Ponzi scheme.” The federal prosecutor called his statement “obscene” and said this: “This is a man utterly without remorse . . . from beginning to end, he treated all of his victims as roadkill.”

But a scandal in late 2008 is perhaps even more outrageous and infamous. It involved Bernie Madoff, wherein he lied, stole and laundered money, and deceived thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Even more incredible was that the scheme lasted for two or even three decades! Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his Ponzi scheme.

An article in Scientific American led me to a book by professor Aldert Vrij called “Detecting Lies and Deceit” (Vrij, 2008). Professor Vrij defines deception or lying as:

“a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue” (Vrij, 2008, p. 15).

Dr. Vrij identified three different categories that make detection of lying challenging: (1) a lack of motivation to detect lies; (2) difficulties associated with lie detection; and (3) common errors made by lie detectors. I want to focus on “good liars” (identified on pp. 378-381), one of the seven reasons listed under “difficulties associated with lie detection.”

“Good liars are those people: (i) whose natural behaviour disarms suspicion; (ii) who do not find it cognitively difficult to lie; and (iii) who do not experience emotions such as fear, guilt, or duping delight when they are lying” (Vrij, 2008, p. 378).

CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD LIARS

There are 8 Characteristics of Good Liars (Vrij, 2008, p. 378-379):

(1) Being natural performers: “Directed gaze to a conversation partner, smiling, head nodding, leaning forward, direct body orientation, posture mirroring, uncrossed arms, articulate gesturing, moderate speaking rates, a lack of ums and ers, and vocal variety” are often associated with being honest and likable.

(2) Being well prepared: “Good liars therefore say as little as possible or say things that are impossible for others to verify. The less verifiable information is given, the less opportunity it provides for the lie detector to check.” The better the preparation (and the more believable the lie), the easier it is for good liars to lie effectively.

(3) Being original: People who are especially good at lying are mentally creative and original. They’re able to offer a convincing and credible answer in almost any situation.

(4) Rapid thinking: Good liars are quick to respond to a question because waiting too long to answer would arouse suspicion. Thus, being able to think quickly is an important characteristic.

(5) Being eloquent: Being eloquent, in the context of being a good liar, means that you provide a long-winded, intentionally vague response to avoid answering the question. Good liars might even say something that, on the surface, sounds plausible, but actually does not answer the question. Just imagine a skilled politician dodging a question and you get the idea.

(6) Good memory: Good liars must have a good memory or else they risk getting caught in their web of lies. They have to be able to recall what they’ve previously said so they can repeat theta same information without contradicting themselves.

(7) Not experiencing guilt, fear, or delight: “Deceiving others is made easier if the liar does not experience feelings of guilt, fear or delight, because in that case there will not be any emotional behaviour that needs to be suppressed.”

(8) Good at acting: If a person is not a “natural performer” (the first characteristic listed) or they are not especially skilled at masking their guilt, fear, or delight when lying (the seventh characteristic listed), then being a good actor is a must. Good liars are masters with excellent decoding skills. They can adapt to quickly to disarm suspicion.

SPOTTING LIARS DIFFICULT DUE TO LIE DETECTION MISTAKES

Under “Common Errors Made by Lie Detectors”, Dr Vrij explained that, in addition to lie detection being difficult, those who play the role of lie detectors also make SEVEN mistakes. I’ll just mention five mistakes below.

(1) Examining the Wrong Cues: Lie detectors (referring to people whose job is to spot liars, such as police detectives) might look at the wrong cues. For instance, one police manual says that liars tend to look away and make grooming gestures. But a lie detection study, Dr. Vrij found that the more police officers endorsed the lie cues promoted in that police manual, the worse they were at detecting suspects who lied and suspects who told the truth.

(2) Neglect of Interpersonal Differences: There are large differences when it comes to people’s behavior, speech, and physiological responses. “The result is that people whose natural behaviour looks suspicious (e.g., people who naturally avert their gaze or fidget a lot) are in a disadvantageous position, because they run the risk of being falsely accused of lying . . . Introverted and socially anxious people in particular run such a risk” (Vrij, 2008, p. 383).

(3) Neglect of Intrapersonal Differences: “Not only do different people respond differently in the same situation (interpersonal differences), the same person also responds differently in different situations (intrapersonal differences). Neglecting or underestimating those intrapersonal differences is another error that lie catchers make. The failure to control adequately for intrapersonal differences is one of the main criticisms of concern-based polygraph tests” (Vrij, 2008, p. 383).

(4) Use of Heuristics: Following general decision rules (heuristics) can easily lead to mistakes and biases. For example, facial appearance heuristic is the “tendency to judge people with attractive faces or baby-faced appearances as honest” (Vrij, 2008, p. 385). And the fundamental attribution error which occurs when we form impressions of others and then overestimate their character factors while underestimating situational factors. Thus, if we believe someone to be trustworthy, we will judge that person a telling the truth in any given situation. On the other hand, if we think someone is untrustworthy, we’ll tend to judge that individual as dishonest in any given situation. “Obviously, trustworthy people are not honest all of the time and untrustworthy people are not always dishonest” (Vrij, 2008, p. 385).

(5) Overestimating the Accuracy of Lie Detection Tools: We tend to overestimate the accuracy of lie detection tools. However, despite the belief that polygraphs or fMRI brain scans are effective, Dr. Vrij argued that “every single lie detection tool used to date is far from accurate and prone to errors” (p. 386).

Polygraphs measure finger sweating, blood pressure, and respiration. Dr. Vrij explained that one of the most frequently used polygraph test today is the Comparison Question Test (CQT), also referred to as the Control Question Test. I would recommend reading Ch. 11 “Physiological Lie Detection: The Concern Approach” of his book for a detailed explanation about the CQT and the criticisms of the CQT. Professor Vrij (pp. 304-305 citing Iacono [2000]) contended there are three reasons why the CQT is controversial: (i) there is no consensus amongst scientists that there exists an adequate theoretical foundation for its application; (ii) the polygraph profession operates outside the scientific environment and is practiced most by law enforcement officials trained at freestanding polygraph schools that are unrelated to universities; and (iii) polygraph tests can have profound consequences for individuals subjected to them. [***It is not the intent of this post to argue for or against the merits of the CQT because I do not possess expertise in this area. However, the criticisms about the CQT are worth noting.]

According to Dr. Vrij, when we try to deceive others, we activate higher centers of the brain. fMRI scans (when used to detect deception or lying) are supposed to reveal this. However, “different people tested in the same situation revealed different patterns of brain structure and area activity when they lied (interpersonal differences) and the same person shows different patterns of brain structure and area activity when he or she lies in different situations (intrapersonal differences)” (Vrij, 2008, p. 371). Therefore, Dr. Vrij argued, fMRI scans aren’t much different from the traditional polygraph lie detectors.

“So far, research has not yet shown that the fMRI technique does produce more accurate results than traditional polygraph testing, and I therefore do not recommend using such scans in real-life settings for lie detection purposes” (Vrij, 2008, p. 372).

The sad reality is that there are very skilled liars who are able to effectively lie for years or, in the case of Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff, even decades before they’re caught. And, I suspect, there are many other good liars who have never been and probably will never be caught.

A 2016 study in Nature Neuroscience discovered that our brain actually adapts to being dishonest, and that habitual lying can desensitize our brains from “feeling bad,” and may even encourage us to tell bigger lies in the future.

Bottom line: Good liars (those with natural behavior that disarms suspicion, who do not find it cognitively difficult to lie, and who do not experience fear, guilt, or delight when they are lying) can be hard to spot because they’re very skilled at the art of lying. Even polygraphs and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning techniques will not adequately identify those who are good at lying because these lie detection methods have important limitations.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor

References

Bering, J. (July, 2011). 18 Attributes of Highly Effective Liars. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/2011/07/07/18-attributes-of-highly-effective-liars/

Bernard, S. (February, 2009). Baylor alum accused of money fraud. Retrieved from http://www.baylor.edu/lariat/news.php?action=story&story=56377

Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S. C., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19, 1727–1732.

Healy, J. (June, 2009). Madoff Is Sentenced to 150 Years for Ponzi Scheme. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/business/30madoff.html

Henriques, D. B., & Healy, J. (March, 2009). Madoff Goes to Jail After Guilty Pleas. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/13/business/13madoff.html

Iacono, W. G. (2000). The detection of deception. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of psychophysiology, 2nd edition (pp. 772–793). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Krauss, C. (June, 2012). Stanford Sentenced to 110-Year Term in $7 Billion Ponzi Case. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/15/business/stanford-sentenced-to-110-years-in-jail-in-fraud-case.html

NY Times. Bernard L. Madoff. Retrieved from http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/m/bernard_l_madoff/index.html

NY Times. Robert Allen Stanford. Retrieved from http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/robert_allen_stanford/index.html

Vrij, A. (2008). Detecting lies and deceit: Pitfalls and opportunities (2nd ed.). West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons.