Why people lie at work

Systematic liars are as problematic as people who are systematically late

If you’re dealing with a frequent liar, he or she probably has strong social skills and a fair amount of brains.

If you’re dealing with a frequent liar, he or she probably has strong social skills and a fair amount of brains.


Although every society condemns lying, it is still a common feature of everyday life. So how do you deal with a co-worker you suspect of lying?

It depends on the type of lie, and the type of liar, you’re dealing with. Frequent liars have two salient characteristics.

First, they are morally feeble, so they don’t see lying as unethical.

Second, whereas most people lie when they are under pressure, recurrent liars do it even when they are feeling good or in control of things – because they get a kick out of it.

If you’re dealing with a frequent liar, he or she probably has strong social skills and a fair amount of brains. For example, neuropsychological evidence suggests that lying requires higher working memory capacity, which is strongly related to IQ.

In addition, effective liars tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence, which lets them manipulate emotional signs in communication, monitor their audience’s reactions and avoid something called nonverbal leakage – when our body language doesn’t match what we’re saying.

The key point with frequent liars is not to pinpoint whether they are telling the truth, but whether we can predict what they are likely to do. I may say “I enjoy working with you,” and I could be lying.

However, so long as I keep pretending that I like working with you when we work together, then who cares about how I really feel about you? When lies are based on objective facts – “I graduated from Stanford” or “I will finish this project by Monday” – then they are self-defeating, because they damage the reputation of the liars when they are found out; so while it can be tempting to feel responsibility to punish the liar, recognise that simply exposing the lie may have the same effect.

Systematic liars are therefore as problematic as people who are systematically late: All you need to do is work out their typical patterns of behaviour and plan around them.


Unless you want them to stop lying to you, in which case you can gently expose their deceptions to show them you are not as stupid as they think. An infrequent liar has a different psychological makeup.

Many of their lies are the product of insecurity. These are lies motivated by fear, and they provide temporary psychological protection to the liar’s ego.

For a trivial example, when asked whether you know someone important or have read a popular book, you may instinctively answer “yes” in order to avoid rejection. But this in turn actually increases your insecurity – what if you’re found out? – which will increase your probability of continuing to lie in the future.

The best way to deal with insecure liars is to make them feel accepted. Insecure liars are extremely self-critical, so it takes time and effort to compensate for their neurotic perfectionism and make them feel appreciated.

Show them that you value them for who they are, rather than who they would like to be.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at University College London and vice president of research and innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems. In association with Harvard Business Review