Being able to spot deception at work could boost your career

Carol Kinsey GomanDeception is in the headlines and on the world stage. We’ve been introduced to the concepts of “alternate truths” and a “post-truth” world.

But deception is also in the workplace – and the ability to spot bluffing, empty promises, or misleading information is often a crucial factor in someone’s career. So, how good are your deception detection skills?

Do you know, for example, that much of what we call “lie detection” is actually “stress detection?”

Here’s why …

To tell a lie, the brain must first stop itself from telling the truth, then create the deception, and then deal with the accompanying emotions of anxiety, guilt, and the fear of being caught. And, because lying is taxing for the human brain, most of us are rather bad liars who signal our deceptions with nonverbal stress cues. These can include the following:

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  • Pupil dilation. The larger pupil size that most people display when telling a lie can be attributed to an increased amount of tension and concentration.
  • Changes in blink rate. In general, blink rates increase with stress levels. But a unique pattern has been associated with deception: A study at Portsmouth University shows that a person’s blink rate slows down as they decide to lie and stays low through the lie. Then it increases rapidly (sometimes up to eight times the normal rate) after the lie.
  • Fake smiles. It’s hard for liars to give a genuine smile while seeking to deceive. Real smiles crinkle the corners of the eyes and change the entire face. Fake smiles involve the mouth only and are often asymmetrical.
  • Retracted lips. Lip retraction (where lips are compressed and pulled back between the front teeth) is a common reaction when people are drawn or manoeuvered into a discussion in which they feel they must hold something back.
  • Duper’s delight. A fleeting smile after an untruthful statement indicates someone believes they have fooled you.
  • Dry mouth. Watch for the sudden increased need to drink water and to lick or moisten lips when the autonomic nervous system downloads a rush of adrenaline, causing a dry mouth.
  • Nose touching. A person’s nose may not grow when he tells a lie, but watch closely and you’ll notice that when someone is about to lie or make an outrageous statement, he’ll often unconsciously scratch, rub, or cover his nose. This is most likely because a rush of adrenaline opens the capillaries and makes his nose itch.
  • Mouth touching. Mouth covering is a common gesture seen when very young children are being untruthful. Adults have learned to eliminate this “give-away” display, but the unconscious urge remains. It is not uncommon to see liars bring a hand to their faces to brush the side of their mouths or to touch or even cover one cheek.
  • Increased pacifiers. To ease the tension, liars will attempt to soothe themselves with self-pacifying gestures like wringing hands, massaging between the eyes, scratching the back of the head, grabbing the back of the neck, biting a lip, fiddling with jewelry or hair, touching the earlobe, pulling at a collar or loosening a necktie and touching the throat notch at the base of the neck or playing with a necklace.
  • Decreased illustrators. Because liars are less spontaneous than truth-tellers, they use fewer illustrative hand gestures (pointing, drawing a picture in the air, holding their hands apart to show a measurement) to help tell their stories.
  • Jaw tightening. When feeling stressed, a person may tighten their jaw. This cue is more obvious when it is clearly out of context with the message being delivered. For example, if your team leader is telling you how proud he is of the team’s recent efforts, but you notice he is clenching his jaw as he says it, there’s a good chance he is not being entirely candid.
  • Partial shrugs. A partial (abridged) shoulder shrug usually indicates that a person lacks confidence and conviction in what they are saying.
  • The “telltale four.” According to research at Northeastern University, there is one specific cluster of nonverbal cues that proved statistically to be a highly accurate indicator of deception. The four nonverbal signals associated with lying are hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away.
  • Incongruence. When thoughts and words are in tune (when people believe what they are saying), you see it corroborated in their body language. Their gestures and expressions are in alignment with what is being said. You may also spot incongruence, where gestures contradict words – a side-to-side head shake while saying “yes” or a slight shoulder shrug as your boss tells you he is “fully committed to this initiative.”

Notice that I haven’t listed decreased eye contact. That’s because the biggest myth around lie detection is that liars can’t look you in the eyes. While some liars do find it difficult to make eye contact, many practiced liars will deliberately overcompensate by making too much eye contact and holding it too long.

But here’s what makes deception detection so challenging: All of these stress signals may be caused by the effort of lying – or by something else, including a truthful person’s fear of not being believed. Even verbal-nonverbal incongruence may be a sign of intentional deceit, or it may simply indicate an inner conflict between what someone is thinking and what they are saying.

In addition, not all lies are stressful: Social lies, for example, are so much a part of daily life that they hardly ever distress the sender, and polished or pathological liars rarely display signs of stress or guilt. Truthful people can exhibit anxiety for a variety of perfectly innocent reasons, including (again) the fear of not being believed. And if a person really believes the lie being told, there is no way that you (nor a polygraph, for that matter) can spot that falsehood.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to identify every lie you hear, but I can help you become more keenly alert to the signs of increased stress and anxiety that most often accompany deception. As you increase your ability to spot these signals, you’ll begin automatically to pinpoint and monitor behaviours that need to be investigated: indications of concealed thoughts, feelings, or opinions that suggest the whole story is not being told.

Enhancing that ability may be very good for your career.

 Carol’s passion for showing audiences how to develop the verbal and nonverbal habits of leadership presence has helped thousands of leaders in 32 countries reach their next-level career goals. She is an international keynote speaker, seminar leader, executive coach, creator of LinkedIn Learning’s best-selling video courses, Body Language for Leaders and Collaborative Leadership, and author of the award-winning STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. 

For interview requests, click here.


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