Charles Good on Deception in the Workplace

Let’s face it, we are all liars. We lie to others and ourselves on a daily basis. Research suggests that, on average, we lie at least two times per day to others. Most lies are self-serving and benefit us in some way. From the person on the job interview who embellishes their past job experience to how you claim you’re taller than you really are on your driver’s license, we use falsehoods to make ourselves look or feel better. We learn to lie at such an early age and do it so often that we become quite good at it.

Despite all the research done and technology, there is still no foolproof way to detect deception in others. Even though there are no foolproof methods of detecting deception, anyone can become better at detecting it.


According to IMS educator and body language expert, Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, lie detection doesn’t exist, but stress detection does. She acknowledges in her book, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace, there is no foolproof technique that will tell you if someone is lying. But with that being said, your brain needs to work much harder when fabricating a lie than it does by telling the truth; therefore, there will likely to be certain verbal and nonverbal cues.

Adding to the complexity of detecting deception is everyone doesn’t always show the same cues. These differences could be due to personality or cultural difference or varying skill level when it comes to deceiving others.


Much of our nonverbal behavior is controlled by our limbic system, which is under the control of the more primitive part of our brain and outside our conscious thought. Therefore, it is difficult to control, monitor, and change in real time. And as a result, our nonverbal behavior can provide reliable markers of our emotional state, assuming we know what to look for.

First, you need to establish a baseline with that person. The better you know someone, the more accurate you will be at interpreting their body language. If you don’t know the person, then you need to establish rapport with them prior to asking them pointed questions designed to uncover falsehoods. Remember that in certain situations, a liar and truth-teller may be difficult to distinguish. For example, during investigative questions methods used by law enforcement, everyone will show signs of stress and anxiety. Second, look for clusters of cues. The more nonverbal cues of stress you see in close succession, the more reliable they are likely to be.

One of the common myths about deception is that liars avoid eye contact. Although this may be true with children, good liars know this, and make sure to have good eye contact. Another myth is when someone is lying, they will look to the right. Once again, research studies have found little to no support for this claim.

So what should you look for? Nonverbal cues that are difficult to fake, such as the ones listed below. Remember, these are signs of stress, not deception.

  • Pupil dilation–this will increase when that person is experiencing something stimulating or stressful.
  • Blink rate changes–there has been research showing a person’s blink rate increases rapidly after a stressful event, such as telling a lie.
  • Hand gestures–these are minimized when telling falsehoods since the person is less convinced about what they are saying.
  • Quick check glance – this is when a liar has a tendency to look down and away, then looks back at you again briefly to see if you bought the falsehood.
  • Foot movements–the most honest part of your body since it is farthest from your brain, it is also the hardest area to control when lying. Look for changes in foot movements, going from active to still or curling the feet and crossing them underneath the legs.

According to nonverbal expert Paul Eckman, Unmasking the Face, most of us can manage what we are saying, but your facial expressions can be rapid and outside of your conscious awareness. This means there may be a lack of alignment between our facial expression and words we are saying when we are lying. Why does this happen? One explanation is that you either have to show an emotion you are not feeling, or you have to cover the wrong emotion. So be observant for delays or asynchrony between a person’s body language and what they are saying.


There are also various verbal cues that have been shown to be reliable indicators of stress. The following are some of the common ones.

  • Change in pitch of the voice–when a person is experiencing stress, their voice has a tendency to have a higher pitch. As soon as their lie has been uncovered, their voice immediately becomes lower.
  • Use of qualifying language–increases in use, such as “To the best of my knowledge,” or “If I recall correctly.”
  • Increased use of softeners–when describing something, a truthful person tends to use more assertive, unambiguous words.  
  • Overly formal language–liars use more formal language and fewer contractions in their speech.
  • Avoidance language–liars avoid fully answering the question. For example, if asked, “Did you steal the money from the cash register?” They respond with something like, “I was not even working that day.”

Verbal cues are always easier to detect if can get the person talking before they have time to prepare what they are going to say. Also, listen carefully to what the person in saying and especially what they are telling you they are not doing. In many cases, this tells you what they are doing.

In the end, deception detection is all about getting better at detecting stress in others and knowing what to look for in both their nonverbal and verbal behavior. For more information, listen to a recent IMS podcast with Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman which discusses additional body language tactics in helping uncover deception. You can also learn more about body language from our previous blog on Body Language and Leadership.


Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.

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