Your organization pressures people to lie to you

When the structure discourages honesty, can we blame people for lying?


Nick Argall

3 years ago | 6 min read

Photo by Fizkes via Shutterstock

When the structure discourages honesty, can we blame people for lying?

We’ve all come to accept that people will lie to the boss in order to look good: it feels like an inevitable fact of life. But there’s an alternative, and it’s extremely affordable. If you want an honest workplace, there are two near-universal habits you need to break:

  • Performance review/appraisal should not be conducted by a person’s immediate supervisor
  • Recognize that ‘going over the boss’s head’ is a good thing

In other words, what I’m asking you to do is to defy two universally accepted assumptions about how people should be managed. Well, not quite universally accepted — the concept of the ‘manager once removed’ has been gradually gaining momentum (and misunderstanding) since it was introduced by Elliott Jaques.

The problem with Jaques is that his writing is almost impenetrable, and therefore frequently misunderstood. But he was right about the “paranoiagenic organization”, and how to fix it.

Traditional supervision is a catch 22

I think an honest onboarding in many organizations would sound like this: “Hi Bob, I’d like you to meet your new supervisor. Alice is here to help you, but she’s also really busy with other work.

Your future in this organization depends on keeping her happy, so under no circumstances should you annoy her, or give her the impression that you find your work difficult. Make sure you call on her for help, but never in a way that is inconvenient, annoying, or implies that you need help.

By the way, if her demands are simply impossible, your choices are ‘complain and destroy your reputation’ or ‘fail’. Good luck.”

The solutions we put forward tend to accept this arrangement as inevitable: we then call on people to do the impossible in order to make up for it. Subordinates must be imbued with ‘the courage to speak up’ by leaders who are somehow a blend of Ghenghis Khan and Mohandas Gandhi.

And the miracle is that we have so many brave and honest people in various levels of so many organizations that things often work out well enough to get by. But it’s a miracle that’s harder and harder to believe in, as scandals like Enron provide highly visible examples that there’s something wrong.

There’s nobody I know who hasn’t seen corruption influence a work environment, at least in part because people turn out not to be saints who magically transcend the structures they live in. Structure has an influence, and fighting against it takes work.

A better path of least resistance

Managers and business owners have an opportunity to shape the path of least resistance. Wouldn’t it be nice if the onboarding looked more like this: “Hi Bob, this is Alice. Her job is to get results, so she needs you to get results, and she’s willing to help where she can. Sometimes, when you ask for help or challenge her decisions, she won’t like it very much.

Try not to be unreasonable or waste her time when you ask for help. And this is Charlie, they’ll be making decisions about your pay and whether you get promoted or not. They’ll take into account the fairness of the demands placed on you, and the way you respond to those demands.”

Things are looking better for Bob in this situation. The person he can’t help but annoy is not his only source of support: if he can convince Charlie that he’s capable of doing great work, then Alice’s opinion of him is no longer an overwhelming threat to his organizational survival.

Did we just solve the problem, or merely shift it?

But wait a minute: haven’t we now put Alice in an impossible situation? If Bob fails, his incentive is to blame Alice. And if he succeeds, then Alice doesn’t benefit from it. Bob’s job is far simpler than Alice’s job, and Alice has a lot of people under her supervision. It’s much easier for him to put together a really good case for why Alice is failing than it is for Alice to respond. So isn’t Alice bound to suffer when Charlie reviews her?

This objection is swiftly overcome when you realize that Charlie doesn’t review Alice. Dot reviews Alice. Which means that when Bob goes to Charlie with his complaint, he can’t harm Alice, all he can do is try to promote himself.

The other thing to note here is Charlie’s thought process, because Charlie is Alice’s manager. Charlie’s job is to support Alice in getting results from Bob. If they promote Bob, then they’ll have to deal with Bob themselves. “Is Bob so difficult to manage that he’ll drag me down, or is this the kind of pushback I would be grateful for, even if it annoyed me at times?”

Didn’t Charlie’s workload just explode?

Let’s assume that every manager in this organization has 10 subordinates. It used to be the case that Alice and Charlie were each writing 10 performance reviews, which is quite manageable. Now, Alice is writing zero performance reviews, and Charlie is now writing 100 performance reviews. Is Charlie ever going to have time to do anything else?

Elliott Jaques proposed getting rid of the traditional performance review process, and replacing it with one question “Does this person display good judgement?” My starting point when proposing the MoR system to an organization is to use two questions:

  • Does this person display good judgement?
  • Would you want this person reporting to you directly?

This is effectively the same question asked twice, but redundancy is a feature of reliable communication. It does mean that you no longer have massive questionnaires that attempt to remove bias, but any manager who can’t manipulate a questionnaire to tell the story they want to tell is only marginally competent.

I’ll take ‘clear and honest bias’ over ‘cloaked bias’ any day. (And if you don’t trust your mid-senior management to be able to distinguish quality work from bad work, you’re screwed anyway.)

Silver bullets miss sometimes

Is this a foolproof system for magically delivering an honest culture? No. It can fail, and it can be perverted, and things can go wrong. Will it need to be adjusted according to circumstance? Yes, especially in situations where skilled and reliable managers are in short supply (and as the rate of change in the world accelerates, this is an increasingly difficult problem).

The good news is that honesty stops being an uphill battle. If Alice lies about Bob, she’s liable to be found out by Charlie. And when Charlie says to Dot “I think Alice might be lying to me, how do I handle that?” — that’s a question that’s likely to have an impact on Alice’s performance review.

And sure, Alice or Bob might be so clever that they’re able to orchestrate a multi-layered deception that fools people into thinking they’re doing a great job when actually they’re orchestrating a multi-layered deception. Except that if they’re that smart, then it’s likely that simply doing a good job is likely to be easier and lower risk. So why bother lying?

In Conclusion

You can replace the structural incentive to lie with a structural incentive for honesty. To do this, you’ll need to implement a revised structure for performance appraisal, and communicate to your organization why this scary new way of doing things isn’t as dangerous as it might seem.

To make that happen, you’ll need a potent way of keeping people honest and making sure that initiatives actually flow all the way to the front line: the good news is that properly-implemented ‘manager once removed’ is a potent way of reinforcing honest communication.

Please give it a shot if it seems like it might work, and let people know your story so that we can build a wider understanding the adjustments that need to be made when implementing it in practice.


Created by

Nick Argall

Nick Argall helps business owners to take control of their organization culture.







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