Career Path

Surviving Your Boss: What to Do When Your Boss Lies to You

There are times when managers skirt the truth or withhold information. Here's the best way to deal with a boss that lies. Last in a series.

Recently, an up-and-coming analyst we’ll call Tom thought his boss acted strange when Tom asked to help out on a new project. His boss quickly changed the subject, after giving a few illogical reasons for why he shouldn’t want to join. By the end of the conversation, Tom was all but certain his boss wasn’t being candid at all.

Even in the best boss-employee relationships, there are times when your boss isn’t being upfront. Maybe he or she is trying not to divulge confidential information, or trying to protect you from an ugly mess of office politics. Or, perhaps, he or she is insecure that by letting you in on the matter, you’ll usurp some control.

One of the most difficult things for direct reports to do is to empathize with their boss.

And while on the surface it may seem like there aren’t good intentions for omitting information, there actually can be, particularly in the workplace. Bosses, due to the nature of how organizations are structured, have information that they must choose, every day, to funnel to employees or keep to themselves. Sometimes it’s best for team motivation to stay mum, or to put on a bright face when the reality is a bit grim.

But in an era of constant communication, the “sin of omission” can create issues, says Kirsta Anderson, a senior client partner and head of cultural transformation at Korn Ferry. “If something is out there but no one is really talking about it, it can turn into a big deal,” Anderson says. Indeed, one survey from the training firm Interaction Associates found that 82% of respondents said trusting their boss is essential to their effectiveness on the job—and yet more than half of them also said they don’t trust their boss. Here's what to do if your boss lies to you: when to sound off and when to turn a blind eye.

Look for indicators.

Before you think about what to do when your boss lies to you, you first have to get a sense of what actually happens when he or she fibs. Does his voice go high or does he pause longer than usual? Does she avoid eye contact, or give a runaround of bad explanations? The longer you work with your boss, and see him or her in different situations, the better you’ll be able to pinpoint indicators that the boss is withholding information or spinning the truth.

Once you’ve crafted your lie-detector checklist, you can consider the following options:

Level 1: Ignore it.

One of the most difficult things for direct reports to do is to empathize with their boss. “It doesn’t occur to them that bosses are human beings with feelings and insecurities too,” Anderson says. But the reality is often much different than a direct report’s perception, and a falsehood might not be born out of malice, but rather fear. In these types of situations, it can be helpful to think about your boss’s perspective, which, in turn, will help you gain perspective. Was the boss’s intention to shield you from criticism? Or to stall to give your team more time to find a solution? If so, it may be best to let the lie go.

Level 2: Work around it.

Oftentimes we hear only black-and-white advice: if someone lies, the relationship is completely eroded—you can’t trust him or her anymore. But the reality is that there are many gray areas in which you may be able to work around the fabrication, or initiate a reset. “The game is changing constantly, so people are having to relearn and rebuild trust all the time,” Anderson says. (Indeed, trust in direct reports was up 23% from the previous year in the survey mentioned above.) The trick, then, is evaluating your relationship with your boss, and your own personality. If your boss’s intentions for fibbing were good and the impact was beneficial, then you could still have a decent working relationship with your boss. But if the lying is only for your boss’s benefit, and impacts you or your team negatively, then you may find it harder, or unacceptable, to deal with. 

Level 3: Address it.

If you’ve considered the above approaches and still think you need to have a frank talk with your boss, do so practically and leave as much emotion out of it as you can. Start by saying something like “This is what I heard from you,” instead of saying “This is what you said,” which immediately could put your boss on the defense. Then explain what you’ve heard elsewhere and the impact it had on you. Remember: the one thing you don’t know until you talk to your boss is why he or she did what they did. The key to having this conversation go smoothly is telling your boss that you’ve come to him or her to understand what is really going on.

Need more boss tips? Check out Part 1: How to become indispensable to your boss; Part 2: Handling a bored boss; and Part 3: Can you ignore your boss

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