Merge's Blog

When do exaggerations and misstatements cross the line?

I read a very interesting article last week published by the Wharton School of Business that posed the question: when do exaggerations and misstatements cross the line?  Specifically, the article looked at what happens to people’s (in particular public figures) reputations, when they are caught embellishing their accomplishments or qualifications.  According to the article, experts say that exaggeration is part of human nature, and almost everyone does it.  Yet, it’s when those small seemingly-harmless lies grow and amplify, unimpeded by any reality checks, that they can result in serious and potentially career-ending consequences.  If you want to read the complete article, you can access it here, but in a nutshell, here are the key points I took away from it.

  • Bending the truth so it’s more favourable, selective memory of the facts, and embellishment on resumes are all human nature and commonly occur; but once you’re caught in even a minor deception, you’ll lose your credibility.  And once that happens, trust is very hard to recover.
  • A certain amount of exaggeration is expected in some situations such as marketing and advertising campaigns.  Similarly, you’d expect that people would accentuate the positive in recommendation letters and job interviews.  The challenge is to walk the fine line between bragging that is harmless and untruths that could come back to haunt you later.
  • There is significant pressure to deliver, particularly in North American organizations that are facing financial and unemployment crises, and this can result in people embroidering the truth.
  • In today’s Internet-connected world, exaggerations and misstatements are much more likely to be detected, sometimes from years ago.
  • The best way to avoid career-damaging misstatements is to become adept at self-editing, and to be open to allowing a coach or a colleague to question and vet what you plan to say.

The article also comments how the leaders in a particular environment set the standard for what actions will be tolerated from others.  So true! Is it okay to bend the truth to meet organizational or personal objectives?  What level of exaggeration do you tolerate in your organization or in your department?  Do you have any examples of seemingly-innocuous “white lies” that have come back to bite someone in the behind?

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