In this article I am going to address some possible scenarios that can occur at work in which you would like to know if a coworker, employee or boss is a friend or enemy. Since we can’t go around accusing others at work of being liars or thieves without substantial evidence, it is important that we take a look at alternatives to give us a higher statistical probability of avoiding the pitfall of believing a liar. I will take a look at three possible scenarios that can occur and outline a simple strategy to help get to the truth.
Let’s say, for example, you suspect your coworker of being a snake in the grass. You would like to know if he is in it for the team, or if he is out to submarine you. A tactic you can use is to ask him for his advice on an important assignment you have been given. Tell him you are considering a strategy that you secretly know is a horrible idea, and he should know it is a horrible idea as well. If he agrees with your doomed strategy, knowing full well it is a bad idea, then he is not in it for the team. He is allowing you to proceed and fail without regard for how it affects the team, instead opting to further his own agenda. Now you know you cannot trust him going forward. The psychological principle in play here is motivation. People will rarely pass up an opportunity to further their plan.
In another scenario, let’s say you are the owner of a small business. As with most small businesses, you are on a tight budget and have limited resources. You suspect one of your few employees of stealing from the register. In order to find out if your suspicions have merit, you can use the following approach. Address the topic with the employee directly without accusing her and see what happens immediately after you bring the topic of theft up. Start with something like “You know, I can’t believe some people think they can steal from their boss and not get caught.” Now look for signs of agreement or discomfort. This is a powerful tool that reveals a suspect’s motivation. If she is guilty, she will naturally assume you are accusing her. If she is innocent, she will agree and further the discussion. The important point is to look for defensiveness and decline in comfort and confidence. This will give you a strong indication of your employee’s level of guilt. The psychological principle in play here is guilt. Guilty people have a tendency to fall prey to a psychological phenomenon known as the “illusion of transparency”. Once accused, the guilty will fear that the accuser can see through the lies and know her current state of mind.
In a third scenario, you suspect your mailroom manager of being involved in a lapping scheme, which is a common form of skimming. (It is undertaken by mail room employees who are responsible for receiving payments. They skim the checks received, depositing the checks into their personal accounts and falsify company account records in order to cover the theft.) Since, he is the manager he has a good knowledge of the workings of the mail room. He understands the process. The strategy you can employ is to ask him for his advice. State “You are the mailroom manager. You know this operation better than anyone. If you were to steal from the company, how would you go about it?” Now he can take the bait. If he is innocent, he will most likely tell you the easiest plan, the plan most likely to succeed. In this case, the lapping scheme. If he is guilty, he will want to draw attention away from his lapping scheme and might come up with a more complex, convoluted response or one that will not involve lapping schemes at all. He does not want you to look at that possibility. The clue that he might be guilty will come in the form that he does not give you the obvious answer but instead opts to redirect your thought process away from the crime that he is committing. Of course, if you do not know where the weakness lies within the mailroom, you should educate yourself before questioning the manager, otherwise you will not know if he is giving you the appropriate response or not. The psychological principle in play here is fear. The manager fears being discovered as a thief. When we are threatened by something, we fear it. Whether we like it or not, we have a strong tendency to distance ourselves from anything that is threatening. Being exposed as a thief is very threatening, as is the prospect of being fired or even arrested. The manager must protect himself and not allow you to know what he has done.
Keep in mind, that none of these strategies are fool proof. There are no guarantees, but they can help you by increasing your odds of success. Beware aware of which psychological principles are relevant, as this will help you choose a strategy that allows you to find the truth. To be sure, many psychological principles or emotions will be present, but there will be one primary emotion that forces the individual to act in a particular manner. Knowing which emotion is in play is important information in helping you strategize. I recommend you read Dr. David Leiberman’s book, “You Can Read Anyone”. Dr. Leiberman outlines several psychological principles and strategies in this highly effective book.
Also, for a great resource on Body Language and Deception, check out http://www.bodylanguagelearning.org.uk/. It is full of articles by respected and accomplished experts in the field.