The difficulties of Brian Williams, the NBC-TV anchor who apparently played fast and loose with the truth about his experience in Iraq, got me thinking: Don’t we all lie sometimes?

I’ll be truthful with you: I do. Not frequently, not in print, and not, I hope, about anything really important. But when telling stories in a social situation, I can think of a time or two when I embellished the narrative to impress.

Obviously, you’d like your employees to tell you the truth as much as possible. Is there anything you can do to encourage this?

Time promotes truth
According to research from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, there is. Kellogg researchers found that when people take time to consider whether to tell the truth or prevaricate, they’re more honest than when they make a snap decision. Also, people are more likely to tell the truth if they first have a brief conversation with another truth-teller.


The researchers came to these conclusions from an experiment in which each participant could either lie or tell the truth to another participant. There were financial incentives for both, but the incentive to lie, at $10, was twice the incentive for telling the truth.

The participants were divided into three groups:

  • One group decided immediately whether to lie or not
  • Another group contemplated the decision for three minutes before making it
  • The third group exchanged e-mails with an anonymous person who was supposedly making the same decision. This person encouraged either honesty or dishonesty.

A clear difference
The results were stark. Fully 84% of those who either mulled over their decision or got an e-mail encouraging truth-telling, actually told the truth. Just 53% of those who made a snap decision or communicated with a “dishonest’ e-mail correspondent did so.

What does this mean for those tasked with employee learning? If you want people to be more honest more of the time, you might want to consider:

  • Introducing the idea of contemplation in your employee training programs
  • Coaching your people to use specific decision-making frameworks
  • Stressing the organization’s values of truth and honesty through reminders. These might include role-playing scenarios, memos, or even posted slogans.

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