The whys and wherefores of dishonesty in the workplace

Psychologists' study of impression management finds overt manipulators are hard to identify.

By Heath McCoy
February 2015

Manipulative personalities — the world is full of them and we’re all bound to encounter such individuals in our lives, the workplace being no exception. But identifying manipulative, dishonest co-workers can be particularly challenging and complex according to a recent paper published online by the Journal of Applied Psychology.

That’s because there is a broad spectrum of ways in which individuals express dishonesty and manipulation in the workplace, dependent on various combinations of personality traits. The study, conducted by psychologists at the University of Calgary, shows that employees are often less than adept at detecting these behaviours in their co-workers.

Central to the study is impression management, a social psychology term for behaviours that an individual engages in with the intent of influencing others.

“We all engage in impression management at some baseline level,” explains assistant professor Joshua Bourdage, the paper’s lead author and an expert in industrial-organizational psychology. “The way we dress, the way we talk, it’s all a form of impression management. But the key in the workplace is intent. If I laugh at my boss’s joke because I want that promotion and I want him to think I’m likable, that’s ingratiation, which is an impression management tactic.”

Using impression management tactics

Other impression management tactics used in the workplace include: self-promotion (bragging or talking oneself self up); intimidation (bullying or carrying oneself in a threatening manner); exemplification (someone who works overtime even when they’re not busy in order to appear dedicated and hardworking); and supplication (pretending to be needy or incapable, in order to get someone else to do your work for you).

In their study, Bourdage, and his co-researchers doctoral student Jocelyn Wiltshire and professor Kibeom Lee, investigate the many ways in which impression management manifests itself in the workplace, based on various combinations of personality traits.

“Dishonest people who are charming and extroverted are more likely to engage in self promotion or sucking up to the boss, whereas somebody who’s disagreeable is not going to be very convincing trying to influence co-workers through flattery,” says Bourdage. “Intimidation might be their tactic.”

He adds: “A dishonest introvert might resort to feigning weakness. ‘I can’t do this. Please help me.’ We don’t necessarily recognize that as manipulative, but supplication is an impression management tactic.”

Workplace dishonesty can be hard to spot

While employees tend to be good at accurately assessing most of their co-workers’ defining personality traits, this is not the case when it comes to spotting dishonesty in the workplace.

“We found that people are generally not good at judging honesty in their co-workers,” says Bourdage. This stands to reason given the deceptive nature of dishonesty and the consequences of being perceived as such. “If you have a messy desk or you’re not creative, that’s not going to be a career ender. People won’t avoid you. But once people think you’re dishonest, it’s very hard to be effective. So individuals who are dishonest try to conceal that.”
Bourdage stresses: “We’re not saying that everyone who uses impression management behaviours in the office is dishonest. A lot of us do these things, to some extent. But it’s useful to know that dishonest people are more likely to engage in impression management, and some of these behaviours do lead to long-term career success.”

“If dishonest individuals are rising through our organizations, that’s a concern.”

Continuing in this vein, Bourdage is currently working on a SSHRC-funded research project focusing on the targets of individuals who use impression management techniques.

“How I chose to influence you is a function of my personality, but your personality is also a factor,” Bourdage explains. “What’s the best way to influence you? Right now I’m trying to determine what are the characteristics of the targeted individual that will encourage certain types of impression management.”



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