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Liar, Liar … Pants on Fire!
by Sloan Campbell


Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how much simpler life was when I was younger … when somebody lied you called them on it, maybe with a rousing chorus of "Liar, Liar … Pants on Fire!" Nowadays, I would venture a guess that the majority of us (i.e. Project Managers) spend more time in the grey area than we do in the absolute white or black areas of our business decisions … if we are really honest with ourselves.

For those of you who don't know, "the grey area" is a term used as a border between two or more things that is unclearly defined, a border that is hard to define or even impossible to define, or a definition where the distinct border tends to move. There are several flavours of grey areas:

  • A grey area of definitions signifies a problem of sorting reality into clearly cut categories.
  • A grey area of law is an area where no clear legislation or precedent exists, or where the law has not been applied in a long time thus making it unclear if it is applicable at all.
  • A grey area of ethics signifies an ethical dilemma, where the border between right and wrong is blurred.1

Most of us make dozens of decisions each day without even giving them a second thought … and then there are the tough ones, those decisions that make or break strategies, damage or enhance credibility, build or destroy partnerships or just plain affect relationships (internal or external). These are the decisions that cause sudden, discreet periods of intense anxiety, mounting physiological arousal, fear and discomfort that are associated with a variety of somatic and cognitive symptoms:

  • A sensation of adrenaline going through your entire body
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing or pounding heartbeat or palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness
  • Nausea/stomach pains
  • Hyperventilation
  • Choking or smothering sensations
  • Uncontrollable itching
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands, face, feet or mouth
  • Hot/cold flashes
  • Trembling
  • Feeling of claustrophobia
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling of physical weakness or limpness of the body
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Loss of the ability to react logically to stimuli
  • Loss of cognitive ability in general
  • Racing thoughts (often based on fear; a repeated or illogical worry)
  • Loud internal dialogue
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • Feeling of "going crazy"
  • Extreme-worried feeling
  • Feeling of extreme nervousness
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling of Threatening
  • Feeling of anti-social behaviour from other people
  • Feeling of excitement
  • Feeling of nagging from other people
  • Vision is somewhat impaired (eyes may feel like they are shaking)
  • Terror, or a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it
  • Fear that the panic is a symptom of a serious illness
  • Fear that the panic will not subside
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of living
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Tunnel vision
  • Heightened senses
  • The apparent slowing down or speeding up of time
  • Dream-like sensation or perceptual distortion
  • Dissociation, or the perception that one is not connected to the body or is disconnected from space and time
  • Feeling of loss of free will, as if acting entirely automatically without control 2

Generally, these decisions involve the Schedule, Cost, Quality, SOW (Statement of Work) or Customer Satisfaction of your project and some questionable solution to a problem that has been festering for some time.

I would like to be able to get up on my soapbox and tell all of you that I definitively tell the black & white truth on every decision that I make, but that would be neither true nor realistic. I will tell you that being a PMP, P.Mgr and F.CIM means that I have three different (but similar) 'Codes of Ethics' that I consciously try to follow with all my business decisions … but I would be lying if I said that none of my decisions were infringing on a grey area at times. I don't have any definitive guidance for you here … sorry …

However, I do have some thoughts that I would like to share with you. First, we live in a society where we are conditioned not to hurt peoples feelings or to try not to delivery bad news to anyone we have a relationship with, business or otherwise. Don't believe me ? … OK … you asked for it … here are some of the various types of lies that are typically told:

Bald-faced Lie
A bald-faced (or barefaced) lie is a lie told when it is obvious to all concerned that it is a lie. For example, the child with chocolate all over her face who denies having eaten the cake is committing a bald-faced lie. The adjective "bald-faced" indicates that no attempt has been made to hide the fact that it is a lie.

Lying by Omission
Lying by omission is when an important fact is omitted, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. This includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions.

A lie-to-children is an expression, or more specifically a euphemism, that describes a lie told to make an adult subject, such as sex, acceptable to children. The most common example is "The stork brought you." or hiding honesty and truth i.e. I will tell you when you are a little bit older.

White Lie
A white lie would cause no discord if it were uncovered and offers some benefit to the liar or the hearer, or both. As a concept, it is largely defined by local custom and cannot be clearly separated from regular lies with any authority. As such the term may have differing meanings in different cultures. Lies that are harmless but told for no reason are generally not called white lies.

Emergency Lie
Emergency lie is a different kind of white lie, which is employed when the truth may not be told because, for example, harm to a third party would come of it. An example of such an emergency lie would be a neighbour lying to an enraged husband about the whereabouts of his unfaithful wife, because said husband might reasonably be expected to inflict physical violence should he encounter his wife in person.

Perjury is the act of lying or making verifiably false statements on a material matter under oath or affirmation in a court of law or in any of various sworn statements in writing. Perjury is a crime because the witness has sworn to tell the truth and, for the credibility of the court, witness testimony must be relied on as being truthful.

Bluffing is an act of deception that is not usually seen as immoral because it takes place in the context of a game where this kind of deception is consented to in advance by the players. For instance, a gambler who deceives other players into thinking he has different cards than he really does, or an athlete who indicates he will move left and then actually dodges right, are not considered to be lying. In these situations, deception is accepted as a tactic and even expected.

Misleading is when a person tells a statement that isn't an outright lie, but still has the purpose of making someone believe in an untruth.

"Dissemble" is a polite term for lying (insincerity, disguise or conceal), it can be considered as just misleading but is also used as a euphemism for lying.

Careful Speaking
Careful speaking is distinct from Dissembling in that the speaker wishes to avoid imparting certain information, or admitting certain facts, and additionally, does not want to 'lie' when doing so. Careful speaking involves using carefully phrased statements to give a 'half-answer': one that does not actually 'answer' the question, but still provides an appropriate (and accurate) answer based on that question. As with 'misleading', above, 'careful speaking' is not outright lying.

Exaggeration is when the most fundamental aspect(s) of a statement is true, but the degree to which it is true is not correct.

Jocose Lies
Jocose lies are lies that are meant in jest and are usually understood as such by all present parties. Sarcasm can be one example of this. A more elaborate example can be seen in storytelling traditions, which are present in some places, where the humour comes from the storyteller's insistence that he or she is telling the absolute truth despite all evidence to the contrary (i.e. tall tale). There is debate about whether these are "real lies", with different philosophers holding different views.

In order to lie, you have to say something that you believe to be false. But lying is not simply saying what you believe to be false. Philosophers have made several suggestions for what the additional condition might be. For example, it has been suggested that the liar has to intend to deceive (Augustine 395, Bok 1978, Mahon 2006), that she has to believe that she will deceive (Chisholm and Feehan 1977), or that she has to warrant the truth of what she says (Carson 2006).6

Augustine of Hippo divided lies into eight kinds, listed in order of severity:

  1. Lies in religious teaching.
  2. Lies that harm others and help no one.
  3. Lies that harm others and help someone.
  4. Lies told for the pleasure of lying.
  5. Lies told to "please others in smooth discourse."
  6. Lies that harm no one and that help someone.
  7. Lies that harm no one and that save someone's life.
  8. Lies that harm no one and that save someone's "purity."

Augustine believed that "jocose lies" are not, in fact, lies. Thomas Aquinas divided lies into three kinds; the useful, the humorous and the malicious. All are sinful according to Aquinas. Humorous and useful lies, however, are venial sins. Malicious lies are mortal sins.

Mark Twain popularized a summary hierarchy of lies attributed to Benjamin Disraeli; "There are three kinds of lies - lies, damn lies and statistics." 3

Please understand, I am not trying to shame you into a complete revamping of your decision-making process/style to make it more truthful … all I want to do is help you better understand your options when 'forced' to make tough decisions that can make or break strategies, damage or grow credibility, build or destroy partnerships or just plain affect relationships (internal or external).

There is an excellent article (which by the way is my personal guide) by Laurie Weiss, PhD, which outlines the Top Ten Principles for Telling the Truth in Business Relationships, where she explains that telling the truth can be risky. It is often difficult to find a balance between telling important truths and protecting the feelings and reputations of everyone involved. Not only that, but honest, well-intentioned people don't always agree about what is true. It may seem easier to keep the truth to yourself than to cause a rift in an important relationship. Understanding and using these principles will help you feel more confident about the choices you make and help you develop the skills you need to tell the truth with grace and skill.

The Top Ten Principles for Telling the Truth in Business Relationships are as follows:

  1. Realize that your truth is not THE TRUTH, and neither is anyone else's.

    You are unique. There is no one else in the world who has had exactly the same life experiences as you. Your past experiences have a profound influence upon how you see and understand your world.

    Since there is always more data coming at you than you or anyone else could possibly process, your brain screens out everything that it believes is irrelevant to you. Your brain makes those instantaneous decisions based upon what it has previously learned is pleasant or painful. That means that whatever you perceive (your truth) is only a part of what is present.

    Anyone who has had a different life than you have had (including your sisters, brothers, significant other, children, parents, co-workers, etc.) chooses somewhat different things to screen out. Therefore, what they perceive as true (their truth) is bound to be different than your truth.

    Understanding this basic fact, shows how pointless it is to argue about what is THE TRUTH. THE TRUTH simply does not exist.

  2. Know what is true for you, including the signals that you are unaware of some aspects of your own truth.

    Since you are the only one who knows what you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell, it is important to pay attention to that information. You may not understand why something is attractive or repulsive to you, but knowing that you have feelings about it is one way to help you make choices, including the choice to learn more about why you feel the way you do.

    When you were a child, others didn't necessarily appreciate or agree with your expressions of what you liked or hated. In the course of becoming civilized, you learned to stop paying attention to your own truths. You then learned to pay attention to what others believed instead, and to invalidate things about you that others did not like.

    Many adults cover their own uncomfortable and invalidated truths by doing things to keep their attention away from their own experiences. Mindlessly watching TV, overeating, smoking, overworking, alcohol and drug abuse, are all ways of tuning out this awareness. Make a habit of using your favourite way of tuning out as a signal to check in with yourself and learn your own truth.

  3. Learn to tell the difference between your observations -- what anyone else would also observe -- and your interpretations and assumptions -- the meanings you put on what you observe.

    You spend your early life learning that the things you see, hear, feel, etc., mean something. You learn to interpret that a smile on someone's face means that they are pleased with you, and a frown or sharp word means that you have done something wrong.

    You become so used to associating meaning to what you observe, that you carry those connections into adulthood, never realizing that the same signals may now mean different things. A smile now may be simply a social cover-up to hide someone's true feelings, a frown may mean someone is concentrating, and a sharp word may mean that someone is upset with something that has no relationship to you.

    A video camera might accurately record and validate what you observe, however, you can only guess (or ask the other person) whether or not your interpretations are correct.

  4. Assume that, at any given moment, you and others are doing the best you can to get what you need, given the knowledge and resources available at that moment.

    Only a few people learn to recognize what they want and gracefully and skillfully communicate that information to others. The rest of us just bumble along doing the best we can. Often our behaviour is unskillful, and we inadvertently hurt others in our quest to take care of ourselves.

    Of course, some people are belligerent, and seem to deliberately go out of their way to hurt others. Looking more deeply, you may see how they, too, do not know of any other options for themselves. You still need to take appropriate precautions in your life. However, approaching situations with this attitude will make it possible for you to examine many otherwise hidden options for creating truthful relationships.

  5. Decide what you hope to accomplish by telling the truth.

    It helps to remember that your truth may not be the same as somebody else's truth. Often the reason you want another to know your truth is because you want them to behave differently. Sometimes you just want to be heard and understood.

    Knowing what you want to accomplish will help you design your communication more skillfully, so that you are more likely to accomplish your goal.

  6. Think about how what you say will impact the other person.

    Often, truth telling is perceived as criticism. Before criticizing someone, put yourself in their shoes by answering the following questions.

    * Are they in any shape to hear this?
    * Have they heard it before?
    * Can they do anything about it?
    * Am I committed enough that I would be willing to stay overtime to work this through?
    * Am I positive that this criticism is really about them and not about myself -- something I don't want to take responsibility for?
    * Is it possible that maybe what they really need is more validation?

    (These questions are adapted from a lecture by Sid Simon, 1987).

  7. Build rapport and trust. It doesn't do any good to tell the truth to someone who isn't ready to hear it.

    You can help someone get ready to hear what is true for you, if you first take the time to learn what is true for them. One easy way to do this is to listen carefully to what they say to you and check your understanding by paraphrasing it back to them and asking if you have heard them correctly. Many books and training programs provide instruction for this active listening technique.

  8. Don't always tell the truth; sometimes asking questions to understand the other's truth is more valuable.

    When you strongly disagree with another's position about something, sharing your own opposite beliefs may lead to conflict and cut off further conversation. To create a dialogue instead of an argument, try asking them to explain their views in more detail.

    Although you feel tempted to refute their position, keep listening and asking questions until you feel you understand how they have arrived at their beliefs, and why those beliefs are important to them. When you reach this point decide whether or not it now seems useful or important to share your own truth.

  9. Express your truth in a way that communicates that the other person is valuable and important to you.

    Most people want to know that you care, before they care what you know. Listening is one way of showing that you care. Not interrupting is another. Expressing your genuine appreciation for something that they have said or done helps others know you care about them. So does remembering and referring to personal information that they have previously shared with you.

  10. Share your experiences -- what you see, hear, feel, intuit -- before your conclusions and interpretations; invite others person to do the same.

    When sharing your experiences, first describe what you have noticed (seen, heard, or felt). Then ask whether your interpretations and conclusions are correct.

    You might say "I noticed..., I believe it means that..., Am I right?"4

    Good advise no matter what situation you find yourself in …

    My second thought is that the more we, as Project Managers or employees, are forced into the grey area, the more the fabric of Ethics is stretched or damaged to almost the point of no return/repair. It is my opinion, and only my opinion, that this has a lot to do with many of the workplace retention issues that organizations are faced with today.

If we look at the Top Ten Reasons Why People Quit Their Jobs

  1. Under-staffing
  2. Poor Communication
  3. Lack of Challenge
  4. Lack of Empowerment
  5. No Recognition
  6. Limited Work-Life Options
  7. Poor Company Culture
  8. The Employee's Life Situation Has Changed
  9. Questionable Promotional Practices
  10. No Enjoyment 5

… virtually all of them can be linked to the organization or the individual having some or all of their work practices planted firmly in the grey area … or … to the organization and/or the individual just outright misleading one another. If you are having a hard time believing this connection all you have to do is to understand the Psychology of Lying and it should all begin to make sense …

" The capacity to lie is noted early and nearly universally in human development. Social psychology and developmental psychology are concerned with the theory of mind, which people employ to simulate another's reaction to their story and determine if a lie will be believable. The most commonly cited milestone, what is known as Machiavellian Intelligence, is at the age of about four and a half years, when children begin to be able to lie convincingly. Before this, they seem simply unable to comprehend that anyone doesn't see the same view of events that they do -- and seem to assume that there is only one point of view: their own -- that must be integrated into any given story.

Young children learn from experience that stating an untruth can avoid punishment for misdeeds, before they develop the theory of mind necessary to understand why it works. In this stage of development, children will sometimes tell fantastic and unbelievable lies because they lack the conceptual framework to judge whether a statement is believable or even to understand the concept of believability. When children first learn how lying works, they lack the moral understanding of when to refrain from doing it. It takes years of watching people lie and the results of lies to develop a proper understanding.

Propensity to lie varies greatly between children, some doing so habitually and others being habitually honest. Habits in this regard are likely to change into early adulthood."3

If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be that "it is often difficult to find a balance between telling important truths and protecting the feelings and reputations of everyone involved. Not only that, but honest, well-intentioned people don't always agree about what is true. It may seem easier to keep the truth to yourself than to cause a rift in an important relationship."

So, with liars all around us (don't lie -- we ALL lie at one point or another, even those "little white lies" count), it's imperative to have a guide to help you with your Project Management endeavours and to keep your ethical & moral compass pointing in the right direction … hopefully this article will help.

I will leave you with two quotes that sum this article up perfectly … "Bad news is not like good wine, it does not get better with age" (a modified version of the Robert Dickinson Esq. Quote - "Bad debts are not like good wine, they don't get better with age") and "None of us could live with a habitual truth teller: but, thank Goodness, none of us has to" (Mark Twain on the universal complicity with and desirability of polite lies).

Good Luck … & Trust Your Instincts!


1. Grey Area:
2. Panic Attack:
3. Lie:
4. Top Ten Principles for telling the Truth:
5. Top 10 Reason Why People Quit Their Jobs:
6. What Is Lying?:


The Author


Sloan Campbell is an Implementation Project Manager at SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada). SOCAN is an organization that administers the communication and performing rights of virtually the world's entire repertoire of copyright-protected music, when it is used in Canada. You can e-mail your comments to the author at .

Many more articles in Project Management in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2008 by Sloan Campbell. All rights reserved.

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