3 Reasons Distance Makes Your Team Lie to Each Other

Last Updated Apr 21, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

Recent research has proven what most managers of remote teams already know: it's a whole lot easier to lie over email and other distance communication than it is on paper or face to face. There are two questions for us then: why and what can we do about it?

According to Charles Naquin, of DePaul University, participants in a game simulation were 33% more likely to lie if all the communication came electronically than if they had to use old school methods of communication. Additional research (also from DePaul, which makes one wonder what's going on over there) by my friend Alice Stuhlmacher shows that there is a tendency to lie, or at least stretch the truth, when negotiations are conducted virtually rather than across a table.

What gives?

  1. White lies are easier when you don't have to look the person in the eye. If I believe there's even a slim chance of meeting my deadline, I'm more likely to tell you it will be done. One reason is that you can't hear the hesitation in my voice, the panic in my eye or the sound of me swallowing nervously before I answer. In cyberspace, no one can hear you sweat. Rather than conduct your check-ins just before delivery date, you're more likely to uncover problems if you maintain contact early in the project and check for signs of trouble. As deadlines loom, the pressure builds and people are less likely to be forthcoming unless things are at crisis level, in which case it's too late.
  2. No one wants to cop to failure in front of virtual strangers. If your team doesn't know each other well, conference calls can be full of landmines. A direct but vague question like, "How are we doing on that -- still on track?" is likely to put someone on the spot and elicit a vague "oh yeah," rather than an honest answer. Instead of asking a closed question like, "Will it be done?" try an open-ended one like, "What else do you need to make that happen?" You'll be surprised how much more forthcoming people will be if they aren't put on the spot.
  3. The stakes are greater than the consequences. When people feel like the personal stakes are high (exposure as a failure -- or at least an incompetent) and the consequences are low (missed deadlines and broken promises happen all the time on this team and I'll never see these people again anyway), the conditions for less-than-truthful behavior are perfect. As the leader, you have to set the expectations for behavior right up front, maybe in your team charter, and reinforce those expectations consistently through the life of the project or the team. Oh, and if you can't model the behavior yourself by keeping deadlines and promises, don't expect your team to step up.
In this era when your team might never physically meet (so the social ramifications of lying are low -- they never have to bump into the person they lied to in the breakroom) or the team answers to different managers (so priorities conflict, and the tiebreaker goes to the person who can fire them), it's critical to check assumptions, hold each other responsible, and reinforce the larger stakes to the team. That's why you're the manager.

photo by Flickr user Search Engine People Blog, CC 2.0