Six months ago, at your request, your boss agreed to put your name forward for a new position that works directly with the CEO. Weeks went by, and you heard nothing. Then someone else got the job. When you asked your boss about it, he gave a long, confusing explanation for why the CEO considered you a strong candidate but “had to go another way.”
Last week, you bumped into the CEO in the hall. She pulled you aside and asked why you never raised your hand for the new job, confessing that she wasn’t very happy with the person in the role. As she was talking, you knew one thing for certain: Your boss lied to you. What now?
There are two ways to handle deceit from above: reactively or proactively. If you are in reactive mode, stay calm and be constructive. Breaks in trust are infuriating and hurtful, but they don’t entitle you to flame out, throw a fit, or stomp around rolling your eyes. Try to keep the steam from coming out of your ears.
Do a cost/benefit analysis.Once you spot deceit, you have to choose between the lesser of two evils. If you confront your boss, you may poison the relationship forever. The same may be true if you go to someone else in the firm, such as HR or your boss’s boss. Think before you act, gossip, or complain. Have a hard conversation with yourself. Do you want to keep your job? Confrontation or sounding an alarm is not a good way to do that. But if changing jobs is not out of the question, it may make sense to directly address the deceit.
Turn the situation around.Before you engage in a hard conversation, try to understand the motivations your boss may have had. Is he trying to be discreet about a pending merger (which is morally understandable), or is he trying to hide a series of illegal kickbacks (morally repugnant)? Perhaps what feels like deceit to you is actually an attempt by your boss to protect you. Never confront your boss alone if you suspect laws have been broken; always consult an attorney first.
Have the hard conversation.Never corner or ambush your superior. If you choose to clear the air, provide a face-saving escape. Avoid labeling the deceit as such, and do not be accusatory. Put on your curiosity hat — remember, you might learn something. Use language such as “I might be seeing this the wrong way” or “I understand that there may have been circumstances that prevented you from sharing all the details with me.” Ask for an explanation of recent events that gave you the impression that you were not receiving an accurate portrayal of what’s been happening. To go back to the opening example, after the CEO pulled you aside, you might choose to relate that conversation to your boss and inform him that you avoided any discussion of previous opportunities — but also expressed enthusiasm about the chance to help her out in the future.
Be explicit about your moral code.Dan Ariely, best-selling author and Duke University professor, conducted research in which college students were asked to solve math problems and grade their own results. There was a bit of cheating. In later rounds of the experiment, the researchers asked students to recall the Ten Commandments before engaging in the exercise. There was no cheating in those rounds. “This result was very intriguing,” observes Ariely. “It seemed that merely trying to recall moral standards was enough to improve moral behavior.”
Similarly, Sreedhari Desai, of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan- Flagler Business School, found in her research that displaying a virtuous quote can “reduce the chances that you’ll be asked to do bad things.” So consider taking this simple step. Add a moral quote, such as “Success without honor is worse than fraud,” to your email signature line or in a framed print on your desk. The more you talk about, and live by, your principles, the harder it will be for others to treat you in a morally ambiguous manner.
Build strong relationships.If you have good relationships with your colleagues and become known as someone who sweats the details and always follows up, it will be harder to sustain a falsehood in front of you.
Pay attention.Carefully read memos and presentations that your boss and others circulate, and ask yourself if they fit logically with the messages your boss is giving you. By paying attention, you will be able to spot deceit earlier. If you begin to suspect deceit, document it. Write down specific examples, save copies of documents, and see whether your gut instincts hold up when listed in black and white. But don’t show anyone…yet.
There is a downside to this strategy: If you push it too hard, or run around all day long with a “gotcha notebook,” you may become known as a person who can be incredibly tiresome to work with. But there’s plenty of room in the middle. Situational awareness is a skill that takes practice, looking, and listening. Focus on the benefits of developing the skill, not on your boss’s wrongdoings.
If, after taking these steps, you find your boss lying to you again, it may be time to move on. A friend of mine once realized that her boss was highly supportive to her face but actively critical of her in private. In short, he was her enemy, and he was lying about it. It didn’t take her long to decide that there was no upside for her in confronting, or accusing, her boss, so she quietly and methodically made a plan to leave the company, and ended up with a much bigger job at a competitor nine months later. While it can feel unfair to have to make a career decision because of a morally deficient boss, doing so can sometimes lead you in the right direction, if a bit faster than you otherwise would have preferred.
Pamela Meyer is the author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, and the CEO of Calibriate, a deception detection and inside threat mitigation consulting firm. Her 2011 TED talk, “How to Spot a Liar,” is one of the 20 most popular TED talks of all time.