SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

February 25, 2015 10:30 ET

The truth behind dishonesty in the workplace

Impression management study finds overt manipulators can be hard to identify

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - February 25, 2015) - Manipulative personalities -- the world is full of them and we're bound to encounter such individuals in our lives, and in our workplace. Identifying manipulative, dishonest co-workers can be particularly challenging and complex according to a recent paper published online by the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The study, conducted by psychologists at the University of Calgary, shows that employees are often less than adept at detecting manipulative behaviours in their co-workers. Central to the study was impression management, a social psychology term for behaviours that an individual adopts 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."

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."

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."

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 behaviors 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."

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction to become one of Canada's top five research universities by 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.'   

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Contact Information

  • Media Contact  
    Heath McCoy 
    Communications Advisor, Faculty of Arts 
    University of Calgary  
    Phone: 403-220-5089 
    Email: hjmccoy@ucalgary.ca