Research-backed ways to catch a liar at work

catch a liar at work

With the amount of people you come into contact with every day in the office, it is likely that at least one of them has lied to you about something.

In fact, recent studies show that 60% of people lie at least once during a normal 10-minute conversation.

To help you spot liars more effectively in the workplace, here are some things to look out for, based on research by Robert Feldman (University of Massachusetts) and Leanne Brinke (Haas School of Business).

Using too Much Detail or Repetition

When strange and unnecessary details are constantly brought up, or specific details are repeated during a conversation, it is very possible that the person is lying to you.

Liars have a habit of filling up more time in a conversation then necessary, as they want to distract you from their deception.

They’re Covering Their Mouth

Those who cover their mouth when talking are often trying to hide involuntary body language that may give away their emotions.

Liars will often fall into this habit without even realizing it, helping to give away their deception.

If you see someone covering their eyes, mouth, or other emotionally telling area of their face during conversation, the likelihood that they are not telling the whole truth of a matter to you is high.

Changes in Breathing Patterns

Liars often become bothered when they are lying to someone’s face.

Heart rate increases, sweating can occur, and other telling signs are likely to show up as they lie to you.

Liars may even begin having trouble speaking due to the build up of mucous in their membranes, which can lead to a dry mouth and other body peculiarities.

Eye Movement Shifts

Eyes are often referred to as the “windows to the soul,” and for good reason.

When someone is lying, they will have a hard time looking you in the eye, and the urge to shift their eye contact from side to side is common.

However, you need to know the person’s typical way of making eye contact in a conversation to be effective, as the change in eye contact habits is what raises the red flag.

After all, particularly nervous people may have a hard time making proper eye contact in all situations, not only when they are being untruthful.

(Note: this applies to many of the other signs as well. It is all about spotting changes from a person’s typical/normal behaviour).

Attempts to Leave

To avoid being found out, some liars will attempt to distance themselves from the scene as soon as possible.

If you want to find out the truth of a matter when dealing with a liar, then you can confront them about why they need to leave.

If you can determine that their excuse is made up, then it is likely that the rest of their statements have some untruths as well.


When someone fidgets, it is because they have nervous energy built up in their system.

Even the most practiced of liars will have their bodies betray them at times, so looking for fidgeting and other abnormal and nervous body movements is important when trying to determine whether or not someone is lying to you.

Strange Contrasts Between Words and Body Language

If the person you’re talking to has major discrepancies between the words they are delivering, and the actions of their body language, they could be lying to you.

Our bodies have the tendency to show the truth, even when our mouths do not.

So, for example, if someone is telling you a sad story, but they seem to have a blank or happy body state, they could be lying to you, as their emotions are at odds with the words they are delivering.

Bosses that Fear Losing Power May Sabotage Their team

bad boss sabotage team productivity

While bad bosses come in many shapes and sizes including the disorganized, incompetent, and lazy, the worst yet may be those who sabotage their teams.

Professor of organizations and management at Kellogg School, Jon Maner has dedicated himself to studying the boss that fears losing their own leadership/power status.

Specifically, Maner has studied how these bosses sabotage their teams in order to stay on top.

Such bosses will intentionally mismatch teams, place limitations on team bonding and communication, and purposefully take the best players out of the game.

Maner says that these bosses can effectively eliminate any team dynamic by separating individuals and making the team fall apart.

Along with his colleague Charleen Case, a Kellogg School doctoral student, they noticed that bosses motivated by power and dominance were significantly more likely to sabotage the team, than bosses motivated by respect or prestige.

Identifying Why and How Power-Hungry Leaders Sabotage

In one experiment, Maner and Case told undergraduate students that they should expect to lead a group in performing a verbal task. More prizes would be awarded to better scoring groups. These participants were then told that one group member was highly skilled in the task.

Next, these participants were assigned to one of three experimental groups.

  1. The first group was told they would need to be the leader who supervised the task and divided prizes among the group members.
  2. The second was told to supervise the task and give out the prizes but that the leadership role was unstable and someone else could acquire it.
  3. The third group had no leader and all participants would share prizes equally.

Maner and Case were most interested in learning which leaders, under which conditions, would be most likely to undermine their group’s performance. And to see if they would isolate the highly skilled group member in order to limit communication.

As suspected the researchers found that leaders in the second group who had previously tested highly in their desire for power were the most likely to sabotage their teams. They most often did this by going after the skilled team member.

In one experiment, the leader forced the highly skilled team member to work alone in a room despite being told that team work would improve results. In another experiment, the saboteur paired the skilled team member in a group they knew would fail.

Maner was surprised to learn how far these leaders would go in order to retain their own power. Instead of identifying the highly skilled team member as an ally who can help the team win, the leader was threatened by their level of skill thus limiting their influence in the group.

When power hungry bosses think that the management structure is unstable and/or their job security is threatened, they are increasingly likely to employ undermining tactics. Their number one tactic is to remove highly skilled team members from contact with the others.

Dealing with a Saboteur at Work

Although Maner’s experimental results were revealing, these behaviors happen every day in the workplace. So the question is, how can people/organizations prevent this type of sabotage from happening on the job?

  • One suggestion would be clarifying that the leader’s job security relies on the success of the group as a whole.
  • Manner also suggests that leaders must know that they will be held accountable for their actions and won’t be able to shuffle the blame to a subordinate.
  • Another strategy would be for organizations to standardize and regulate team communications so bad bosses would have less opportunity to interfere.

But these suggestions would not solve the entire problem, since the root cause would still exist i.e the boss feeling that their position/power is unstable.

In an effort to keep an organization’s flexibility while promoting a better work environment, Maner suggests companies try instituting periods of stability so bosses know their jobs are secure.

These periods of two or three years would alternate with the opportunity to change leadership if needed. This suggestion would be similar to that of elected government officials who hold office between two and six years.

Finding Leaders Who Aren’t Power Hungry

If an organization can give those seeking respect and prestige positions of leadership, less sabotaging might result.

Unfortunately, those who want power are often the ones who strive for leadership positions and are eager to move up to roles of higher responsibility.

Although Maner’s work seems to favor the prestige-seeking leaders, he cautions that this might be an oversimplification and that they’re not necessarily an organization’s remedy. He plans to focus more research on these leaders’ decision making process. Ultimately, Maner wants his research to help increase productivity and improve a company’s efficiency.

Understanding and dealing with office politics

handle dealing with office politics

Just the thought of dealing with office politics can make most people cringe.

In one national survey of executives:

  • 67% said “organisational politics in my organisation are damaging.”
  • 95% said “organisational politics impact decisions in this organisation.”
  • 69% experience stress caused by organisational politics.
  • 49% spend 1 day a fortnight on organisational politics.
  • 74% have seen careers damaged by negative rumours and office politics. 92% have seen careers helped by office politics (so it does have benefits as well).

What is Politics? It is simply the result of what you get when you have two or more people with different views, values or beliefs. It is healthy because it promotes debate and is a catalyst for change. However, it can become unhealthy when one person/group wants to ‘win’ at all costs over another and forgets that there is a wider picture. Such people/groups might ‘play games’ to get what they want and express their views, values or beliefs.

So politics is inevitable, especially at work. This is because:

  • People with different views, values or beliefs = Politics.
  • Some people have more power than others, either through hierarchy or some other basis of influence.
  • Of the desire to move up the ladder and get promoted.
  • Most people care passionately about decisions at work and this encourages political behavior to get their way.
  • Office decisions are impacted by work-related goals and personal factors. There is further scope for goal conflict.
  • People and teams within organizations often have to compete for limited resources; this can lead to a kind of “tribal conflict” where teams compete to satisfy their needs and objectives, even when this is against the greater good.

The political games people play can include:

  • Insurgency game
  • Counter-insurgency game
  • Sponsorship or Favouritism game
  • Empire-building game
  • Rival Camps or Gang game
  • Knowledge and Expertise game
  • Promotion and Position game
  • The Blame game

For dealing with office politics effectively and use it yourself in a positive way, you must first accept the reality of it. Once you’ve done this, you need to develop strategies to deal with the political behavior that is going on around you.

Here are 5 steps to help you deal with office politics:

Step 1 for dealing with office politics: Re-Map the Organisation Chart

Office politics often circumvent the formal organisation chart. Sit back and watch for a while and then re-map the organisation chart in terms of political power. Consider:

  • Who are the real influencers?
  • Who has authority but doesn’t exercise it?
  • Who is respected?
  • Who champions or mentors others?
  • Who is “the brains behind the organisation“?

Step 2 for dealing with office politics: Understand the Informal Network

Once you know who’s who in the organisation, you have a good idea of where the power and influence lies. Now you have to understand the social networks.

  • Who gets along with whom?
  • Are there groups or cliques that have formed?
  • Who is involved in interpersonal conflict?
  • Who has the most trouble getting along with others?
  • What is the basis for these interrelationships? Friendship, respect, manipulation?
  • How does the influence flow between the parties?

Step 3 for dealing with office politics: Build Relationships

Now that you know how the existing relationships work, you need to build your own social network accordingly.

  • Don’t be afraid of politically powerful people in the organisation. Get to know them.
  • Ensure you have relationships that cross the formal hierarchy in all directions (peers, bosses, executives).
  • Start to build relationships with those who have the informal power.
  • Be friendly with everyone but don’t align yourself with one group or another.
  • Be a part of multiple networks – this way you can ‘keep your finger on the pulse’ of the organisation.

Step 4 for dealing with office politics: Make the Most of Your Network

Use your network to promote yourself and your team positively in order to:

  • Gain access to information.
  • Build visibility of your achievements.
  • Improve difficult relationships.
  • Attract opportunities where you can to shine.
  • Seek out ways to make yourself, your team and your boss look good.

Step 5 for dealing with office politics: Neutralise Negative Play

Your mapping of the informal spheres of influence in the organisation will have helped you to identify those people (‘political animals’) who use others for their own purposes, and not necessarily for the common good. It’s natural to want to distance yourself from these people as much as possible – but what can often be needed is the opposite reaction. The expression, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” applies perfectly to office politics.

  • Learn how they behave so you can anticipate when they may be playing a game. The more information you have, the more you will be able to ‘play them at their own game’ if needed.
  • Get to know these people better and be courteous to them, but always be very careful what you say to them.
  • Understand what motivates these people and what their goals are, and so learn how to avoid or counter the impact of their negative politicking.
  • Be aware that these people typically don’t think much of their talents and frequently envy others (that’s why they rely on aggressive politicking to get ahead).