top of page

Are People Lying to You?

Like it or not, emojis have become part of our life. They may seem like silly little additions that pre-teen girls obsessively use, but this is no longer true. In fact, over ten billion emojis are sent each day. Keep in mind that this wonderful planet of ours has only seven billion people on it and despite the fact that 39 percent of senior leaders believe using emojis is unprofessional, we still do . . . even in the workplace.


Because words alone can't be trusted. The studies vary, but the most cited one states that words express only 7 percent of communication. This has become a big problem as we've moved more and more to online communication such as emails, texting, MS Teams chat, Snap, Insta, and FB Messenger over the last several decades. Since we can’t include tone and body language in our electronic communications, this means that we are missing out on perhaps as high as 93 percent of what is trying to be communicated.

So, we've reverted to emojis because people believe that emojis can express their feelings better than words.

Are you guilty of this?

Most likely you are, but you shouldn't feel guilty. When you include emojis, all you are trying to do is to add non-verbal communication to the written word. This makes sense because non-verbal communication makes up so much of what you are trying to say . . . or not say.

As uncommon connectors, this is critical for you to understand—not the part about using emojis, but the part that so much is said that is not said with words. If you miss the non-verbals, you can miss a lot of what is really going on.

Early in my career, I worked as a dean at a high school where one of my responsibilities was to hold staff accountable for setting yearly goals. It was a few weeks into the school year and I had noticed that Nancy, an art teacher, had not submitted her goals into the computer system. I called her to my office and asked her, "Have you set your goals for this year?"

"Yes," she replied.

"Great. Are they in the computer system?"

Again, she replied, "Of course."

I then said, "Hum, interesting, because I didn't see them in there."

To which she replied, "Oh, I just put them in this morning."

What I didn't notice at the time is that with every response her shoulders rose slightly. Sort of like what you would do if you were unsure of something. They were rising because she was lying to me and although her words were what I wanted to hear, she could not stop her non-verbal communication from telling me the truth. I later learned that this was her "tell," or her observable sign that occurred whenever she was lying to me.

But why would she lie to me? That's simple. I’m her leader.

People will lie to their leader

Like it or not, simply having the title of leader causes people to be nervous around you. You could have best friends at work and then get promoted into a leadership role and it's like a switch flips in their mind. They are now much more cautious around you. They are careful with what they say. They tend to only talk about the good things that are happening and might not be as free with all of the things that are not going right.

I wish it were different. I really do, but it's not. Over time and with a deeper connection, this feeling of nervousness in your employees can go down, but I don't think it ever leaves. They will always be protective when interacting with you and this means that sometimes their words and their body language will disagree.

Please understand—they are not lying to you because they are bad people. They most likely are good people. It’s because they are good people that they don't want to disappoint you. So, they stretch the truth, or don’t share it all because they are afraid to admit failure, or they don't want to look bad in front of you, or maybe they are not sure how you will handle negative news, or they are not sure if it's safe to be vulnerable with you. There are many reasons why their body language and words disagree, but the truth is they do. So, what can you do?

Average leaders will either ignore this little quirk in conversation or they may simply get upset at the fact that people don’t always tell the truth. They may want to learn how to become the ultimate lie detector so that they can catch people in their lies and punish them accordingly. They may want to make an example out of the liar for others, hoping to set an expectation that you shouldn't lie to your boss. Unfortunately, taking this route does not end well. If you set up others as an example, if you get upset and punish the liars, people will start to lie even more because you've shown them that talking about the truth is not safe around you.


Your body doesn't know how to lie. Unconsciously, with no directions from you, it transmits your thoughts and feelings in a language of its own to the bodies of other people, and these bodies understand the language perfectly. Any contradictions in the language can interrupt the development of rapport.

— Nicholas Boothman


On the other hand, uncommon leaders approach this conundrum very differently. They look at moments of deception as opportunities to connect with their staff. They become experts at recognizing when someone is uncomfortable and then they strive to make the situation safe. That is, they become really good at paying attention to the non-verbals. If they notice something off, they ask questions to explore any signs of discomfort, and they create environments of safety where deeper connections can be made.

You see, the wonderful thing about non-verbals is that they are unconscious movements of our bodies. We don't readily acknowledge them and even the very best find it almost impossible to change them. Quite simply, our words can lie but our body cannot. It won’t lie because it can't lie.

What is also nice about the non-verbals is that they cross all lines of nations, cultures, and ethnicities. For example, eye blocking, a movement of trying to cover our face/eyes with something, is universal. You can find it in America, in Egypt, in Australia, in India, and even in blind people. It's a natural human response when we feel like we want to hide because we are uncomfortable.

Make it comfortable for your employees

My purpose here is not to make you a lie detection expert. I'm going to explain some non-verbals below so that you may become more observant. Being observant will do two things for you. First, you’ll become a better listener because you’ll understand both the words and the body language. Second, becoming more observant can help you recognize when people are uncomfortable. When they are uncomfortable, they will close up, not be true to their feelings, or put up a barrier to connecting with you. When you observe these signs and investigate them, you break down the barrier and open the gates to a deeper connection with your employees.

I know, this sounds pretty touchy-feely, and it is. However, if you can become more observant, you'll be surprised at all the expressed communication that you've been missing. Here is a list of ten things to watch for.

Blocking — This is the act of covering some portion of your face and/or eyes with another object, such as your hand or paper. The reason you do this is you want to "hide" from the situation and so you use your hands to partially cover your eyes thinking that if you can't see them, they can't see you.

Shrugging — Like Nancy in the story above, shrugging is a slight upward movement of the shoulders. Imagine someone saying "I don't know." Most often this phrase is accompanied by a shoulder shrug. When you are not telling the full truth, you may say something like "I'm fine" and include with the phrase a slight shoulder shrug, suggesting that you are actually not fine.

Head Nodding — Often when you say "yes" or "no" your head moves in a direction that is consistent with your words. However, if you are feeling uncomfortable, you may be pressured to say "no" when you really mean "yes." If so, the words will come out fine, but there may be a slight up and down nod of the head, even though you are saying "no."

Lip Pursing — This is the act of rolling the lips back to the point where they almost disappear. This is not really a sign of lying, but it is a sign of being uncomfortable. You purse the lips, sometimes tightly, in an effort to stop your mouth from talking. That is, this is a sign that you are trying to hold back information or that you don't want to speak.

Pacifying — When you were a baby, your mother would use a pacifier to calm you down. Unfortunately, sucking on a binky is not accepted adult behavior, so you now pacify in other ways. This includes rubbing your neck, arms, or the tops of your thighs. When you notice someone trying to calm down by stroking their neck, they are using a pacifying non-verbal. This is one of the most common signs of discomfort.

Yawning — This is a non-verbal that used to irritate me tremendously as a school administrator. In the heat of me trying to discipline an unruly student, occasionally the said student would start yawning. I would get so upset at what I thought was disrespectful behavior. Only later did I learn that it is a default behavior some people use when they are nervous. Recently, I've noticed that I yawn before major speaking engagements . . . not because I’m tired, but because I'm nervous.

Fidgeting — This act is one of the easiest to spot. When you are uncomfortable, your body gets a shot of adrenaline, and you need to find some sort of outlet for this surge of energy. Getting up and running around would be inappropriate, so you might fidget—you click a pen, play with your hair, spin the ring on your finger, fondle your necklace or otherwise mess with anything you can get your hands on. Be careful because this could be a sign of nerves or a sign of boredom. Either way, it's an important one to notice.

Hand Clasping — Similar to pacifying, this is a movement that calms the nerves. When a young child gets scared, they grab their mother's hand for comfort. Later in life, you may reach for your spouse's hand. However, when you are in a one-on-one work situation, it would be really strange to reach out and grab your boss's hand. So, you grab your own hand in the absence of other hands that would make us feel comfortable. This could be done by interlacing your fingers or by placing palm to palm.

Body Turning — Think for a moment exactly how you'd stand if you were to fight someone with your fists. Most likely you'd turn the core of your body away from the other person (protecting your vitals), resulting in your shoulder and leg extending toward the other person. This is body turning and you do it for one of two reasons: to fight or to prepare to run. Either way, if you see this movement, know that the other person is quite uncomfortable.

Again, my intent here is not to make you an expert in body language (Joe Navarro and Vanessa Van Edwards can help you do that). What I hope to inspire in you is more focus on how other people are communicating. That is, when you are observing both the words others are using AND their body language, you are becoming a better listener and that makes you a better connector.

Also, please know that just because you saw one sign of discomfort it may not mean that they are lying. Consider context, how many signs they are showing, and your relationship before you go and make any sort of conclusions.

Furthermore, I want to be crystal clear as to what you do after you notice a sign or two of discomfort. Please, do not come out and say, "I just noticed you rubbing the top of your legs . . . that is a sign that you are lying! Why are you lying to me?"

The important thing is not that they are lying; it is why they are lying. In other words, something has occurred or your relationship is not deep enough for the other person to feel safe talking with you. Average leaders will either ignore the signs or call the person's behavior out. Uncommon leaders, like you, will recognize this as an opportunity to deepen your connection with the other person.

If you believe that they are uncomfortable, try using phrases or questions that will encourage them to open up to you. Here are a couple of examples of how you could do this.

Example 1:

You've noticed Stacy rubbing her neck in a conversation about transferring her to another position. She says it is fine, but you're not too sure.

"Stacy, I know you said that moving you to a different position on the line is okay, but I want to make sure it is." You notice that her hand is trying to hide her face.

"You see, sometimes when I ask others to change, they have certain reactions. Some just do it and don't complain because they believe that this is what a good team member does. Others might be looking forward to it, but they have a concern or two about the change, and still, others might not want to change at all and are just too scared to tell their manager.

"By chance, would any of these describe what you're thinking right now?"

In this example, you are giving Stacy an easy way to express her honest thoughts. You've noticed a discomfort non-verbal and decided to explore this a bit more. You share concerns that others may have to make it safe for her to open up to you.

Example 2:

An employee reported to you that John took a two-hour lunch. You checked the cameras and sure enough, he was gone for an hour and fifty-seven minutes. You confront him about this, but he denies it. You noticed that his feet are pointing away from you like he wants to run. You also see that he is rubbing his hands together rapidly.

"John, I want to believe you when you say that you didn't take a two-hour lunch, but I've got some reservations.

"I've worked with enough people to know that sometimes they will lie or hide the truth in order to not be punished. They fear the consequence, so they'd rather cover it up. Please know that I'm not here to make an example out of you. What I care most about is our relationship and since relationships are based upon trust, I'm asking you to be honest with me. We all screw up, we all make mistakes, and yes, we've got to pay for our mistakes, but what is most important is that we own up to those mistakes-that we are honest even when it is tough.

"So, John, can you be honest with me? Can you really let me know what happened because I care about you and I care about this relationship?"

Here, you share with John your honest opinions. You may be irate inside, but you are keeping your cool and allowing an opportunity for John to be honest with you. You even share that you care more about him being honest and your relationship than you do the consequence, making it safe for John to be truthful with you.

Obviously, these are two pretty simple examples. I know that it's never this simple. I also know that even though you make it safe, not everyone is going to open up to you. Some will still lie no matter what. However, if taking this approach causes even one person to open up who otherwise would not have, I'd call that a win. By their opening up, you can have an honest conversation with each other, which is going to deepen the connection between you and the employee. This gets you further in your ability to influence and lead them and is exactly where you’d like to be as an uncommon leader.

Yes, sometimes this doesn’t work but if you choose to be an average leader and take a hardline approach you'll guarantee more lies because you've not created safety within your team. Conversely, every effort you take to make it more comfortable will create an uncommon environment where trust and deep connections can be built.

77 views0 comments


bottom of page