Lie Unselfishly to Advance Your Creativity

The hidden value of untruths at work

If your business appointed a renowned new chief creative officer, you'd assume this person knows what they're doing. But if they confessed that quite often they were simply making things up as they go … would you say they were a fraud or a genius?

Some might say if the ideas generate profit, it doesn't matter. 

Still, it's hard to discern whether this scenario is honest imposter syndrome, or a lie about credibility. And if we are lying about something that demands implicit trust—shouldering the responsibility of innovation and profit for an entire company—there's reason to doubt what people, even experts, have to say. And maybe we should. 

But in the business of creativity, can lying ever be a good thing? 

I ask because in advertising and marketing (and actually in every business) we all lie about matters little and large. A GoodQues study showed insight into topics people admittedly lie about—from subject matter to skill sets. Also, a USC study showed an average person lies about 200 times daily. Assuming this behavior doesn't end at work, and we're spending eight hours daily at the office, we're probably telling some of these lies in our workplace. 

A common reason to lie is to fit in; you harmlessly nod along about the latest TikTok trend your co-workers are discussing, which you haven't seen. (Maybe you don't even have TikTok.) But we see other lies. Lies we tell to make ourselves look better, like in the context of a job interview. Lies to avoid something, like telling the boss you already reviewed something you truly intend to review later. We lie to cover for ourselves or others, captured in "I must've missed your email" emails.

Even imposter syndrome is its own kind of lie. Who's to say we're not good enough—except for the lies we tell ourselves? Consider the hypothetical renowned CCO from our intro, who doesn't know how to deliver success with absolute certainty, but still delivers results for the business.  

As a behavioral specialist at a research company built to make businesses more empathetic, I think we should embrace the intrinsic behaviors no one wants to think about. We can't divorce our creative practices from ethics and philosophy, but if we accept that lies are a reality, and they do sometimes work for business without significant harm, then what's the common link between acceptable and effective lies?

Ultimately, lies are most beneficial—even opening creating opportunities—when they're intentionally unselfish. If we know lying is inherent in our nature, we can start to understand and even harness lies for good in creating, then shift them towards a positive culture.

Without judgment and with empathy, let's conduct some self-inventory for when we lie. Directly accounting for some lies we tell every day, ask how self-awareness around these behaviors can keep us ethical. 

Can a lie defeat imposter syndrome?

The lies of this rampant affliction look like "I can't do this," "I'm not good enough." The implications for work are lost ideas, internalized stress, productivity burnout, and a perfection obsession that yields lowered output and frustrated creativity. 

With an empathetic, applied understanding of these lies, you could recognize the need for validation and enabling. How might we uplift people when they don't always uplift themselves? Offering people safe spaces for dialogue and support can help detect and curb these self-harming lies, creating a culture of empowered confidence.

Can a lie foster empathy?

Some lies take the form of "I know how to do this," "Of course I know about that topic," or ''I'll agree to this even though I don't think it's appropriate." The consequences are setting yourself up for failure, misguided concepts, and a lack of commitment to what you don't understand—even when it's something you're capable of learning.

Addressing these lies means we can still lie to help someone feel good, accepted or confident until they're ready to perform. "Fake it till you make it" is not always a bad thing. Encouraging diverse definitions of success on your team can show people how differences are celebrated, leading to long-term loyalty and happiness.  

Can a lie drive innovation?

The most cultural, creative lies are alter egos, screen names, and tales of fiction—a disparity from reality, created to inform possibility. The implications for work are fairly positive: lowered inhibitions, a diversity of thought and personality, more space for our multifaceted selves, and a sense of community rooted in shared imagination.

A new appreciation of these lies allows you to borrow from the metaverse and employ good questions to tap into people's imagination for innovative solutions. Enabling people to personify their alter egos can be the bridge between who they are and who they'd like to be; you can channel current lies to riff ideas for progress, growth and new truths.

If lying is unavoidably human, color it with compassion. Intention drives impact, so account for intention in understanding the behaviors and culture of untruths. But always lead with the impact. If we must, let's lie to help ourselves and others, and to create a better world—just don't ignore the behavior or its influence.

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Nishita Tamuly
Nishita Tamuly is global director of behavioral insights at GoodQues.

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