The 3 types of liars: How to spot and deal with them before they ruin your team

Everyone's worked with them. Here's how to effectively and ethically deal with a liar in your organization.

Ethics, the usual topic of this op-ed, is not confined to studying only ideal behavior. There’s also the descriptive ethics side of the coin: looking at deception, corrupt behavior, crises, and scandal. We don’t just study the good, we also contemplate the bad, the ugly, even the terrible.

Through my decades in studying ethics, I have come to understand a great deal about deception and the liars who package it. We often cannot pick our teams, clients, and coworkers and can get stuck with some immoral people who create problems of all types through dishonesty. You can protect yourself from the chaos they create by using ethical understanding to identify and deal with the liar.

In ethics terms, lies are unacceptable because they undermine the humanity of everyone. In other words, if lying were acceptable, society would break down. We would have no way to agree on what time of day it was, much less the rate for billable hours, if everyone lied. Lies defy both logic and humanness, making them particularly objectionable from any school of ethics.

There are three primary types of liars requiring different ethical strategies to defeat their deceptions. Although both ethicists and psychology scholars study deception, I use layman’s terms to keep things simple. But let’s be clear about one thing: although you may be able to contain a liar’s damage and lessen the impact of their deviousness, you can never fix a deceptive person. You can simply lessen the impact of deception on your PR team and performance.

The pathetic liar
The pathetic liar wants to be liked and creates deception in order to avoid conflict and have coworkers like him or her. These types of liars go along with groupthink, rarely offer their own opinions or leadership, and seem to change their minds frequently. The pathetic liar may have exaggerated his or her experience and take on more than is feasible, resulting in a litany of excuses for poor work. Although their lies are damaging, these are normally the least dangerous type of liar and often the easiest to contain.

Strategies to contain this type of liar include requiring written assessments or ideas before a meeting, asking for verification of completed work, examples, or simply asking the person to explain why a sudden change in opinion has occurred. Giving the pathetic liar permission to deviate from group norms often decreases their propensity to prevaricate. Often the pathetic liar will decrease their exaggerations and lies once these steps are taken, but you must always manage the situation carefully.

The narcissistic liar
The narcissistic liar demands attention, yet the lies that he or she create always deny responsibility and accountability for the actions of the narcissist. The narcissist is driven entirely by ego, rather than logic, and will defend the ego at all costs. This type of person never admits to making a mistake, even when the mistake could be a growth opportunity for your PR team. He or she is often a "people person" seeking attention when things go right, bragging or exaggerating accomplishments, while being quick to place blame and criticize others. Look for childish, deviant behaviors in the narcissistic liar, scapegoating other employees, or creating a web of unlikely mishaps or victimization. For this reason, putting a narcissistic liar in charge of a team is a disaster that will result in misery and frustration for the team. Narcissistic liars are more damaging to your public relations department than pathetic liars because of the narcissist’s inability to be responsible or accountable. The narcissistic liar is incapable of exercising reflection and rectitude because he or she is a hollow ego of fragile self-perception and denial. Every missed objective is someone else’s fault.

In managing the narcissistic liar, you should work to create multiple checkpoints in which the liar has no way to deceive. Demanding yes or no answers, rather than complicated list of excuses, and explaining the need for responsibility in an immediate and simple fashion can lessen the damage of the narcissist. Multiple reporting lines for a team with the narcissistic liar on board are an absolute necessity.

It may be helpful to build advanced deadlines when managing a narcissistic liar, in the expectation that initial deadlines will be blown, always at the fault of someone else. Narcissistic liars enjoy the drama that they create. Therefore, a meeting and firm review of performance in logical terms, rather than dramatic terms, is a necessity, as is minimizing the conflict and drama that this person enjoys. Finally, confronting the narcissist directly with lies and demanding that he or she take responsibility for his or her work, regardless of a myriad of excuses, may be your final line of management. Explaining that there are no excuses, the work is either done or not, can help to box the narcissist in to taking some responsibility. The person may be able to get the work done, with a lot of oversight, but never expect honesty. Verify everything.

The sociopathic liar
Sociopathic liars are the most damaging types of liars because they lie on a routine basis without conscience and often without reason. Whereas pathetic liars lie to get along, and narcissistic liars prevaricate to cover their inaction, drama, or ineptitude, sociopaths lie simply because they feel like it. Lying is easy for them, and they lie with no conscience or remorse.

The constraints and norms imposed by society against lying are meaningless to the sociopath. They are lacking in respect for the truth, and for other beings; they can lie to you because you are a tool to be used in whatever exploit they have going, simply to gratify their own needs.

Researchers using computer-assisted brain scans find that the physical brain of a sociopath is different than that of someone with a conscience. Researchers believe that sociopathic liars have both a hereditary component to their pathology and a component of a lack of nurture (neglect) from childhood. The areas of a sociopathic brain associated with empathy, responsibility, and moral conscience simply do not exist and do not activate the neural pathways in response to stimuli as do those of a normal human brain. They are animalistic in nature without ethics.

Sociopathic liars often enjoy creating confusion, chaos, and disappointment in others because they set themselves outside of a societal expectation for truth telling. Some believe that it is fun to torture others, or that it makes the sociopath in some way "superior." Sociopaths are often highly-functioning people, yet many lie so pathologically that they do not even know when their deception took over. Other sociopaths lie out of convenience rather than always lying to deceive others for some type of gain. One sociopathic physician told me, with a laugh, that a lack of courage was the reason for prevarication: "I don’t set out to lie, but it’s just easier!" Obviously, sociopathic liars are to be avoided at all costs. The sociopathic liar will ruin your public relations department or team efforts quickly, and often for no reason other than because he or she can.

Sociopathic liars cannot handle the use of logic against their schemes because they rely on the confusion and misunderstanding created by their deceptions. Ethicists advise using honesty, rational agency, and a measure of humility to confront the perfidious. If you must work with or manage a sociopathic liar, document everything in writing as much as possible so that you can point to specific details and deadlines. Do not take the bait and become angry or obviously disappointed when confronting them because sociopaths feed on the discontent created by their immorality. Finally, boxing in the sociopathic liar to expose his or her lies in a public manner, such as in a meeting, will be worth the effort. Sociopathic liars detest exposure of their schemes above all else and will eventually move on to fresh territory to begin an insidious cycle of destruction anew.

Take heart in being an ethical public relations manager and minimizing the destruction caused by three types of liars, excluding them and their behaviors as much as possible. Recognizing these types of liars and minimizing the damage they cause can further the effectiveness of your communication activities. A few more pro-ethics, anti-liar pointers:

  • Reward moral courage on your team;

  • Model honesty;

  • Honor ethical questions with some thorough discussion and ask for multiple viewpoints;

  • Talk about honesty as a core value on a regular basis.

As a function based on creating trust and relationships between organizations and publics, we must focus on truth and honesty in all of our communication.

Shannon Bowen researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors of the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column focuses on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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