03 Mar 2016

3-Minute Briefing: Pamela Meyer (MBA 1986)

Certified Fraud Examiner; CEO, Calibrate; author, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception
Re: Michael Wheeler
by Julia Hanna


(photo by Cade Martin)

At my 20th HBS reunion I heard faculty member Michael Wheeler describe behavior people engage in when they’re being deceptive. The room was transfixed. No one was on their phone! It turned out there is a robust, well-funded body of research—housed in academia, law enforcement, and intelligence—that had never been brought in a systematic way to the business world.

We all make high-stakes decisions that can punctuate the course of our lives—who to hire, who to work for, who to vote for, which deal to do. The average person is honest, not dishonest. I don’t walk around being paranoid. But the costs of deception are high. It pays to develop a close team of colleagues you absolutely trust and would go to war with.

A complicated stew in our culture is creating a deception epidemic. Social media, for example, makes it possible to create and continuously tweak multiple identities, so there’s a fractured sense of self out there. And the moral bar has lowered. We no longer trust the media to be a fair watchdog, nor our elected officials to act with integrity.

Detecting deception is not a parlor trick; it’s a complex, imperfect science. A first step is to observe someone’s “baseline behavior,” so you have a reliable reference point for measuring changes later.

Don’t point your finger and say, “Oh, your eyebrow twitched, you’re lying.” Look for clusters of verbal and nonverbal indicators of deceit: grooming gestures, postural shifts, repeating questions or protesting them, providing inappropriate detail, detour statements, false smiles.

The issue that I’m most concerned about right now is inside threat mitigation. Studies show that anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of cyberattacks were inside jobs by employees with privileged access. Breaches in cybersecurity resulted in losses of $500 billion in 2014, but we’re only spending about $100 billion to address the problem. There’s a huge gap between the size of the threat and our ability to detect it.

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Sometimes we need to have an uncomfortable conversation, yet so many of us sabotage these moments through passive-aggressive behavior. What you need are the three Ts. Transparency for openly communicating your goals, concerns, disappointments, and expectations. Trust for the small, significant circle of people who serve as your advisors. And tenacity to persevere through the uncomfortable moments. The ability to have a difficult conversation is a necessary social skill that mature leaders have to develop.

Knowing someone is deceptive is quite different from knowing the truth. It’s important to recognize that difference. We don’t have a view into an individual’s internal monologue, and we’re often biased. So don’t waste your energy judging others: pursue facts, not people, and focus on getting to the truth.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1986, Section B

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