In the perennial debate over the qualities that go hand-in-hand with good leadership, many commonly cited virtues have to do with how leaders communicate:honesty, integrity, transparency, authenticity, and so forth. While some leaders take honesty to the next level, and others defend the art of deception, cognitive scientist Art Markman opines at Fast Company that the measure of a leader is whether their actions reflect the same values as their words:
This doesn’t mean that what leaders say doesn’t matter, but despite appearances to the contrary, people tend to pay much closer attention to what leaders do—and, most importantly, to what behaviors are rewarded and punished: In companies, who gets promoted, who gets a raise, and who gets access to the best projects and opportunities; or in political offices, whose causes get advanced, whose needs get addressed, who wields the most influence, and who doesn’t.
By now, it is firmly established in the conventional wisdom that good leadership today is all about honesty, transparency, and even radical candor. Millennials value open and honest relationships with their bosses, so the thinking goes, and being an up-front and straightforward manager will make you more trustworthy, more respected, and ultimately more effective.
But Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer still believes “that the ability to lie convincingly may be the single most important management skill.” Writing at Fortune, Pfeffer argues that the virtues of deception are not to be discounted. Pointing to decades of research into the power of high expectations to improve performance, he stresses that leadership sometimes means convincing people that you have more faith in their abilities than you really do:
In many cases, for positive expectations to improve performance, leaders or teachers must deliver false or bogus information to the targets. If poor performers are going to improve because they are told they are expected to do great, leaders may have to say things they may not believe. …
Jeffrey Pfeffer at Fortune makes the case that “authenticity” has limited value for good leaders:
First of all, authentic leadership is a construct with numerous dimensions, definitions, and measurements, which makes it impossible to study empirically.
Second, one component in many definitions is relational transparency—being honest with others so they know what you think of them. But this is often a horrible idea. A former student of mine once worked at a company that supposedly encouraged employees to share their honest feedback with others. She gave her boss at the time some (constructive) criticism. You can guess what happened next—the boss moved to get her insubordinate subordinate fired. Flattery is almost certainly a surer way of obtaining support than telling others what you honestly think of them. …
Anne Fisher at Fortune highlights a new survey of 3,500 employers from HireRight:
Consider: Five years ago, 70% of recruiters, HR staff, and hiring managers reported they had caught a misrepresentation of some kind on an applicant’s resume. In the most recent poll, 88% had.
What’s behind that change?
For one thing, people move around more and wear more hats at once than they used to. … Not long ago, a standard seven-year background check would usually cover just two or three previous jobs. Now, a resume might show seven, eight, or even more gigs during seven years. The assumption that an employer won’t pursue details about all of them often leads to what [Mary O’Loughlin, HireRight’s vice president of global customer experience,] calls “job inflation, or overstating what you actually did.” And as more Baby Boomers retire and leave senior jobs, “we’re seeing Gen X and Gen Y candidates going after those positions without necessarily having enough experience or the right background,” she adds. “In order to seem qualified, people tend to exaggerate.”