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How to Tell When Your Boss Is Lying: Cool New Study

There’s a fascinating study by two researchers over at the Stanford Business School based on transcripts of American CEOs and CFOs statements during 30,000 quarterly earnings conference calls between 2003 and 2007. They found some interesting patterns–based on research on detecting lies–that predicted apparent deception by the CEOs and CFOs.

The most recent Economist summarizes a fascinating study by two researchers over at the Stanford Business School–Professor David Larker and PhD Student Anastasia Zakolyukina–based on transcripts of American CEOs and CFOs statements during 30,000 quarterly earnings conference calls between 2003 and 2007. Yes, 30,000! They linked the language that bosses used in these conference calls to whether or not the firms later “materially restated their earnings.” Their paper is called “Detecting Deceptive Conversations in Conference Calls” (here is the pdf) and they found some interesting patterns–based on research on detecting lies–that predicted apparent deception by the CEOs and CFOs:

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1. They used more general words and fewer specific words.

2. Referred less to shareholder value (perhaps to minimize lawsuits).

3. Use more extreme superlatives, for example, saying “fantastic” instead of “good” (apparently in an attempt to bullshit more effectively).

4. They use “I” less and the third person more–to distance themselves from the deception, it appears.

5. They say “um” and “ah” less–because, the authors hypothesize, they have rehearsed their lies.

6. They swear more–in fact, the Economist article starts with the famous case where Enron’s Jeff Skilling called an investor an “asshole” after he challenged Skilling’s positive assessment of Enron’s financial conditions.

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Enron

The Economist doesn’t say why the liars swore more–I would guess that it is because people who are lying are more tense and emotionally and cognitively overloaded and that inner leaks or, in Skilling’s case, floods out. In the article, the authors suggest that swearing is part of a pattern of anger that goes with lying, and that makes sense and is related.

I have written and talked about the strategic use of swearing in the workplace. But after the publication of this delightful study, I suspect that swearing during earnings calls will be seen as a distinctly non-strategic behavior!

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His most recent book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst, will be published September 2010. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility.

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