The short answer to that question is rarely. Yet bosses matter a lot because nearly all employees have them. And most bosses also have bosses. There are at least 21 million bosses in the United States. Bob Sutton points out that estimates run as high as 38 million bosses. Far more often than not our success is tied to that relationship with our boss. It's invitable In organizational structures that we sometimes wonder whether the information coming from our boss is really the truth.
Bosses can be deceptive for any number of reasons: they lack permission to share information, they don't think we need the information, they don't understand our need for information, or they're defensive.
As a result, most of us prefer face-to-face meetings when there's a lot at stake. We like to think we can gauge the truthfulness or sincerity of our boss's words by the look in her eye and the tone of her voice.
So, how good are you, really, at ascertaining when your boss is telling the truth?
Paul Ekman, the well-known expert at non-verbal assessment and lie-detection, has found ...
In an earlier blog, Powerful People are Better Liars, I pointed out that research has found that if you give people power, they're more comfortable lying, and it will be harder to tell they're doing it. That's supported by recent research that has found that the higher up the ladder and more isolated from his or her people, the more oblivious and indifferent to your needs your boss becomes.
There are two obvious routes for subordinates: extreme cynicism or extreme trust. Neither approach is of value.
So, how can you get better at determining your boss' truthfulness?
Build the best relationship possible
The starting place is the quality of the relationship you have with your boss. Relationship development is not significantly about chemistry or emotionality, but primarily about skills. Although you may want to begin honing your skills with likable people who share your values, it's even more important to develop the skills to relate successfully with people of diverse cultures, different values and even what you may consider to be troublesome styles. Quality relationships give you a baseline of his/her typical behaviors and responses out of which you can better judge your boss's truthfulness or deception.
Listen with your eyes
Poker players look for their opponents' "tells." If you saw the movie, Casino Royale, you'll remember that Agent 007 focused on identifying Le Chiffre's tell--that unintended signal that a player sends when bluffing or when he's drawn aces. Good players watch opponents long enough to detect a pattern. It's not at all easy to control the emotions that bubble up to the surface. So, the more you know and understand your boss, the more identifiable his or her patterns of truth and deception.
Look for anomalies
When we've known a person fairly well for a long time, there are occasions when what he says or does is out of sync with his usual practices. In an article on deception in negotiation, Harvard's Michael Wheeler tells a story with which many of us in Minnesota are familiar.
Several years ago (Clancy Prevost) had a student who seemed amiable, even if he wasn't a particularly skillful pilot. In casual conversation. . . Prevost happened to ask the student if he was Muslim, which drew the reply "I am nothing." (The student) sort of flushed. It wasn't the right reaction."
Prevost took his concerns about the trainee pilot to school administrators, who eventually contacted the FBI. The student was arrested near the flight school on August 16, 2001. He was Zacarias Moussaoui, now charged as the so-called twentieth hijacker in 9-11.
Prevost apparently had no special training in reading nonverbal communication and assumed that Moussaoui was a typical customer. But the coupling of an odd statement and a flush jolted Prevost into realizing that things were not as they seemed. Moussaoui's visceral response told a critical truth about him that the instructor was alert enough to catch.
Similarly, when what your boss is telling you sounds a bit odd, and when you ask a question about what's been said, a nonverbal response such as a slight flush or difference in vocal tone or conversational speed may be a signal that he's being deceptive.
Ask careful questions
No subordinate is going to ask her boss whether what he's saying is true. You'll either get yourself in trouble or get a bullshit-yes. Furthermore, deception often hinges on what's not being said. Some bosses feel morally bound to respond truthfully to any question you ask, but not obliged to volunteer information.
Your task is to figure out what to ask that is not being said, and how you can ask a question that won't anger or alienate your boss.
Suppose, for example, you know that your business division has lost a major portion of its market share. Your boss gathers the organization together to assure the members that their jobs are secure. They've decided to do blah, blah, blah--all rather obvious strategies that haven't worked previously. You might find it useful to quietly ask what other strategies the organization is currently considering. If he has no significant answer to that question, that silence is telling and could mean any number of things.
Operate on a three-track basis
First, you'll be paying attention to the substance of what your boss is saying. Second, as I've indicated above, you'll want to be watching and listening very closely, as well as asking better questions. And finally, as Marshall McLuhan taught 50 years ago, context triumphs over content. It might be largely impossible to immediately process all three of these tracks. So before you make a decision about your boss's truthfulness, you may want to go back to your cubicle and think through the three-tracks:
- What did your boss actually say? (the substance track)
- What did you learn from watching and listening? (the nonverbal-sensory track)
- How does your boss' message relate to the organization and business? (the context track)
Hone your skills
In spite of the fact that many make the attempt, it's no longer possible to think like a 1960s factory worker and hold down a job in today's world. The skills for success in the 21st century job market can be complex. It's especially difficult to gain immediate feedback on the truthfulness of your boss's statements, but your livelihood may depend on the ability to do so.
You aren't a passive member of the team when your boss is making a declaration. Being an active participant gives you the chance to get a better grasp on the validity of your boss's statements. While you can't magically determine whether he's telling the truth, there are definite skills for raising your batting average and even hitting a home run.
If you take the cynical route or permit yourself to be conned by your boss, you may be putting a nail into your own coffin. Likewise, if you act duplicitously or pounce on him when he's making a statement, he will have little reason then and in the future to be open with you.
One of the best rules, however, for promoting truthfulness in your bosses is to give them reason to be truthful with you