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The Tangled Web of Deception

Jan. 10, 2012

Employees who practice regular acts of deception to mislead their bosses-and recent Baylor research shows 90 percent admit to deception at least sometimes-should be prepared for negative consequences.

That's because the boss is likely to see through the deception, especially if it becomes woven into a long-term relationship. And when the boss does recognize it, the outcome may be the opposite of what the employee hoped would happen.

When John Carlson, associate professor of Information Systems, began studying deception in the workplace, he was not surprised to find it.

"We know deception occurs in everyday social conversation," he said. "To think it does not occur at work would be naïve."

His co-authors-Dawn Carlson, professor of Management and the H.R. Gibson Chair in Management Development, and Merideth Ferguson, assistant professor of Management-have worked on similar organizational issues. Dawn Carlson has studied deviant work behaviors, and Ferguson's primary research is in two areas: the dark side of organizations, or "bad employee behavior that managers would love to do away with," and issues related to the work-family interface.

But studying impression management through the lens of deception was a new area for all three.

"Deception has been a topic of interest of mine for several years," John Carlson said. "We don't know everything about it, and this is the first paper to really look at these issues together."

He understood that employees might be tempted to employ deception when success is vital to their livelihood. But he wanted to discover whether the behavior earned a payoff. The short answer is no-mainly because too many lies must be "managed and reinforced over the duration of a relationship," he writes in the paper published in the Journal of Business Ethics, "Deceptive Impression Management: Does Deception Pay in Established Workplace Relationships?"

The line between deceptive and non-deceptive impression management is a fine one, but does exist.

"Impression management can be completely truthful," John Carlson said. "There are all sorts of impression management behaviors that we all engage in without thought or intentionality." Impression management can include such positive behaviors as arriving at work before the boss, or smiling frequently.

Deception, however, is intentional and occurs, for example, when a subordinate knows that the supervisor's idea is a bad one, and does not say so-especially if he knows it is his job to speak up.

"If it's a bad idea and the subordinate knows he is expected to provide that honest feedback and does not, he is being deceptive," John Carlson said.

To collect data, the researchers surveyed 59 supervisors at a state agency. Each leader completed a survey on up to five subordinates. Each subordinate received, by mail, a survey to complete. The results include 171 surveys in which employees were asked to rate the following six statements on a five-point scale, with "never" on one end and "almost always" on the other:

• Show him/her that you share his/her enthusiasm about his/her new idea even when you many not actually like it.

• Smile frequently to express enthusiasm/interest about something he/she is interested in even if you do not like it.

• Agree with your immediate supervisor's major opinions outwardly even when you disagree inwardly.

• Make up an excuse when your supervisor is not completely satisfied with what you have done.

• Describe an event to your supervisor so that it appears more positive than it really is.

• Describe your actions to your boss so that you get more credit for an outcome than you deserve.

John Carlson said the researchers posed the questions this way because asking about non-specific events in an indirect way is easier for people to answer than the more direct, "How often do you lie to your boss?" Ninety percent of workers agreed with some of the statements, and 90 percent did not strongly disagree with everything.

Because deceptive impression management involves two difficult aspects-the deception (both the lie itself and reinforcing it over a period of time) and the impression management activity-unmasking seemed likely.

"So our initial thinking was, probably this is going to backfire," John Carlson said. "Maybe not right away or in every instance, but supervisors are going to find out, and the deception will color their perspective about subordinates in a negative way. That's what we found."

Dawn Carlson said this was the first time for the three to work together, and the combination worked well for several reasons. Their areas of research are similar and the co-authors are all Baylor professors.

"It helps to be face-to-face," Dawn Carlson said. "And we all have similar views about the importance of ethics, and that has to do with being at Baylor."

Although she has done previous research on impression management and how tactics that subordinates use affect behavior and evaluations, she had not looked at the issue through the lens of deception. Well-executed impression management can really help an employee, she noted. "Honesty pays."

Although she was surprised that 90 percent of people admitted to some deception, the finding was consistent with research about deviant behaviors in organizations.

"Deviant behavior means taking office supplies home, or leaving early, or playing on the computer while at work," Dawn Carlson said.

Ferguson noted that her role in the research was largely methodology. The supervisor/subordinate responses needed to match, and that was her area because of previous experience. But she enjoys studying dark employee behaviors that beset managers, like incivility or unproductiveness at work.

"I find motivations to engage in bad behavior very interesting," Ferguson said.

John Carlson expects to do more with the research.

"We have all worked with people we see engaging in some of these behaviors, and my tendency would be to think they are getting away with it," he said. "But we found here that it is not viewed as acceptable conduct. The results say people are not getting away with it. They are engaging in it, and it is backfiring. And yet they are still doing it, which is interesting."

He plans to expand on the research by asking if employees can "change course."

"If they do [change course], will that have any effect-because your supervisor will look at everything you do critically," he said.

View the researchers' article in the Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 100, No. 3.

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