Home >opinion >Cubiclenama | Truth is overrated

Keep this strictly between us. But one of my great strengths as an individual is an exceptional ability to lie. This is not to say that I am an untruthful person who goes through life leaving a trail of falsehoods and betrayal behind him.

By and large I tell the truth. I may occasionally exaggerate the odd factoid or point of trivia. But then what self-respecting MBA does not over-kadala the puttu of truth occasionally for cosmetic effect?

But when I do lie... boy, do I lie with a straight face. In fact, I can also control the magnitude of my truthlessness to a very fine degree. Such that, if I want, I can give you the vague feeling that I may be fibbing, and on other occasions not even the merest hint of chicanery will show.

The missus and my family are terrified by this ability of mine. Do I really want to have khichdi for dinner? (Almost never.) And am I really joking when I say that I will become a politician one day? (Well, if Gul Panag insists...)

Like I said before, mostly I find no reason to fall back on this dark art in my day-to-day life. However, there is one sphere of life in which I have found this ability to lie with aplomb particularly useful: the workplace.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that an ability to lie outright, or veil the truth with imperceptible stealth, is essential for sustained success in the cubicle.

Yes, yes. Some of you are outraged. What kind of moral depravity am I advocating here? Have I not read that HBR special issue on morality and the workplace?

Calm down chaps.

Let me explain.

Truth and transparency are, in theory, excellent concepts. Doubly so in the workplace. We all want to work in environments that are truthful, organizations that are transparent, and with people whom we can take at face value.

In theory? Superb. Much like tofu or the United Nations.

But practically? Practically things are complicated.

Imagine, for instance, that you have a subordinate who is good at what he or she does. But simply does not have the capacity or horsepower for promotions or bigger responsibilities. Each year, around appraisal time, this subordinate ambushes you about a promotion or a new profile.

What are you going to say? That she or he isn’t cut out for anything bigger? That they have already reached the maximum level that they are capable of?

Or imagine that you are working on a secret team that is evaluating an acquisition offer for your company. The acquisition could have a deep impact on the careers of the people in your team. Some are going to do better. Some are going to do worse.

Do you tell your team? It is much too early to say if the acquisition is going to go through. Reveal too much and the news leaks could damage a deal that is good for the firm as a whole. Reveal too little and some people may get some very, very rude shocks.

In both instances I feel a lot of us would lie. Or at least cover up the truth. It would take a very brave—or a very foolhardy—manager to place all her cards face up on the table in such scenarios.

Or what about situations in which you have to lead a team through a torrid assignment with close to zero chance of working out? Surely you aren’t going to remind them every day of their near futility of the assignment. Of course not. Instead you are probably going to rally them with an optimism that stretches the truth somewhat.

These are, I think, plausible reasons why an ability to tell a lie well is useful at work. Some situations are too complex for truth, and some people, to paraphrase an old Mohanlal dialogue, simply can’t handle the truth.

There is another very good reason why an ability to lie can be very useful: the power of self-delusion.

Most of the successful people I know have a tremendous capacity to delude themselves into working harder, faster and longer. They seem to have an ability to power through problems by temporarily redacting the hopelessness of the situation from their awareness. Many people in their situation would just give up.

Not these fellows. They keep trying different things. And attacking the problem from different angles. They do often give up. But only after exceptional levels of effort and persistence.

This ability to carry on, in a temporary state of self-delusion, I think, is why many of them do so well at work, and at start-ups and even in their personal lives.

I am not saying that we should all become habitual liars. But the ability to occasionally withhold the truth from others and oneself seems a pretty useful skill if you ask me.

The truth, they say, is out there. Sometimes it should stay there.

Any thoughts? Comment away.

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com.

To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama

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