People want to be loved, and job seekers want to get hired. That’s why they all embellish their stories. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert grouses about an rolling disaster of a junior manager who got one over on him with a lovely (and completely misleading) tale.
One of the cardinal rules of business leadership is that when it comes to past accomplishments, everyone lies about their achievements to everyone else all the damned time. A savvy leader should listen politely, but should never stop being cynically suspicious of what he or she hears. The odds are good that any tale told that paints the teller in a good light has at least been embellished, if not completely fabricated. It’s fine to enjoy the story; it’s also quite dangerous to accept that story as gospel truth. That’s one of the most common ways that you’ll get burned as a leader.
The thing is, this is to be expected. People are inherently vain. Despite our insistence that we’re rational, mature adults, everyone really wants to be liked, respected, envied, loved, feared, revered… Moreover, we can’t stand being ignored. We share positive stories about ourselves in order to leave others with a favourable impression; we teach others about a version of ourselves that we’d like to have been. This is the oldest form social marketing: it’s literally ‘selling ourselves’ to others. It’s normal. It’s expected.
A great example of ‘self-aggrandizing’ tale-telling appeared in 1970s picaresque comedy Little Big Man. In it, Dustin Hoffman plays a 121-year-old man recounting a lifetime of adventures to an enthralled biographer. Since there’s no one around anymore to gainsay his stories, Hoffman brags about having been abducted and raised by Native Americans. He describes having been a snake-oil salesman and a gunslinger, having served with the Army as a muleskinner and even having led Col. Custer’s cavalrymen into the fateful ambush at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Hoffman’s individual stories are possible if not exactly plausible; assembled, the whole story comes across as a shovel full of steaming fresh braggadocio. Of course, if Hoffman was the only surviving eyewitness of each of his stories, who’s to say that his rendition of each event wasn’t actually the truth?
This situation occurs in the workplace the same way that it does in cinema. Ambitious balderdash is how the clever lads and lasses audition for a new team. Jumping ship to a new crew of strangers offers the daring opportunist a perfect stage on which to ‘re-interpret’ his or her recent embarrassing failures as gripping tales of daring heroism. All this greatness, their stories imply, could be yours for a laughably-affordable £40,000 per annum. I’m the best that ever was…
Leaders encounter this illusion-rich sales pitch in nearly every job interview. For the hiring manager, it’s an occupational hazard; for the job seeker, it’s an audacious gambit. The possibility of the big reward at the end of a discussion motivates a mediocre candidate to cast real events in a more flattering light. Making matters worse, when it’s just the presenter and the audience – with none of those pesky witnesses around to interrupt and contradict the narrative – well, then, what’s the harm of a little self-serving embellishment?
What’s the harm, you say? The harm is that the leader puts an under-qualified tale-spinner into a position of responsibility who then can’t do the work. As a boss, that’s a predicament that you want to avoid at all costs. Signing a fraud onto the team ties up a payroll resource that you can’t get back until you fire the offender (which can take months, even when HR’s willing). It also cripples the other team members’ morale because they then have to do the tale-spinner’s work. It infuriates the customers  because the team isn’t delivering at full capacity. Finally, it aggravates leaders slam-the-hell off because a clever tale-spinner never stops with just the one tale. Lies become their go-to solution every time they find themselves in a predicament. This leads to no end of drama.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years. Heck, I wrote an entire book on the subject. I’ve watched more than 400 people stammer at me from across an interview table. Over the years, I’ve learned to spot a lot of liars’ ‘tells’ – those signs that suggest that a candidate is ‘embellishing’ his or her accomplishments with some good old-fashioned twaddle. Unfortunately, even a bitter old curmudgeon like me can get taken in by a plausible story… especially one that’s skillfully told.
Case in point: Bobbie. Miss Bobbie came to us from the other side of the country in response to our advert for a replacement network engineer. The woman seemed suave, confident, charming and enthusiastic. She wasn’t very technically competent, but she had stellar recommendations from her previous bosses. Something about her set me off, but I couldn’t place it. I second-guessed my own instincts and wondered if I was giving her a fair shake.
In the end, we didn’t select Bobbie for the infrastructure job since we had a number of very competent local talent to choose from. Bobbie stood out to the board, though, so when we finally received a hiring chit to replace a service desk supervisor, I gave Bobbie a call and asked her to apply. I figured that if there really was something sketchy about her, we’d be able to figure it out in her next hiring board appearance. If she really was on the up-and-up, we’d be giving her a fair chance to prove it.
Long story made short, Bobbie stomped her competition and got the supervisor post. She quickly moved across the country to join our team and swiftly ingratiated herself with the team. Everything seemed… great, actually. We felt like we’d made a good hire. The senior manager that I had running the service desk opined that he’d finally be able to concentrate on his ‘problem children’ now that his most vulnerable work centre was anchored by a strong shop supervisor.
Seasoned readers will no-doubt recognize that an Evil Bob column like this never ends in everything working out for the best. It turned out that Our Bobbie had some… problems. Some big problems.
Not at first, of course. At first, everything was smiles and rainbows. Productivity went up, morale improved, customer complaints dropped… Then, after we’d had a chance to enjoy Bobbie’s good side for around six months, her well-concealed dark side started to manifest. That’s when we started to suspect that we’d been masterfully conned.
It started during a major disaster exercise. All of the plant’s work centres were tasked to send a third of their staff to a week-long, off-site training event. Most of my people – especially the veterans – didn’t want to play. The old guys cheerfully gave up their seats to the young and eager bucks. Run around in the summer heat in a HAZMAT suit pretending to scrub radiation off of industrial equipment? Ugh. No, thanks. That sort of thing only counted as an ‘adventure’ once. We thought that Bobbie would be overjoyed to hear that she wasn’t being sent off to go play ‘plant accident’ with the kids. Instead, she grew morose, then sullen, and then downright nasty with everyone.
Bobbie’s senior manager brought her attitude problem to my attention after the first ‘scrimmage team’ got back. The manager told me that Bobbie felt left out of the big exercise. He said that it made her feel like she wasn’t valued. I asked the branch boss if he felt comfortable taking her along. He said he’d be glad to since she was such a hard worker. My instincts warned me that something about the situation reeked, but I couldn’t explain what. I approved Bobbie to join the next exercise.
In between events, I did some unofficial digging. I called Bobbie’s former employer and tried to track down some of the people that had recommended her as ‘the best thing since’. Oddly, every single manager that I tried to reach had also left the company… some over a year before Bobbie had joined us. That seemed… odd. Not one currently-serving member of management remembered her.
During the run up to the next exercise, our service desk was saturated with certifying all of the deploying PCs. All hands in the shop worked like demons for two weeks straight since they knew that everyone else in the plant was counting on them. Bobbie was ostensibly in charge of the certification work, but she was absent from the workplace every time I went to check on her progress. I asked Bobbie’s senior manager about the problem, and he sheepishly admitted that Our Bobbie was having a tough time of it. She seemed overwhelmed by the constant pressure, he said, and started snapping at everyone around her.
This, I thought, does not bode well. If Bobbie couldn’t hack it while operating from her own office while surrounded by friends in a mutually-supporting environment, then Bobbie probably didn’t have it in her to operate under intense pressure in front of a bunch of inspectors. I asked her senior manager again if he was comfortable taking her downrange, and he swore that he was. So be it. His selection, his responsibility; I wasn’t going to gainsay a top leader.
My team members packed their bags, left for the exercise… and the wheels came completely off. The team had barely been gone two days when one of the inspectors – an old mate of mine – broke protocol and phoned from the exercise area. He strongly recommended that I have Bobbie committed as soon as she returned. ‘She’s gone completely barmy,’ he told me. ‘I watched her completely botch a simple printing job. When her teammates called her on it, your kid lashed out at them. Called them all “back-stabbers” and “demons” before storming off to go have a cry.’ I thanked my mate for his insider’s perspective and resumed my investigation into Bobbie’s background.
By the time the expeditionary force made it home I’d sussed out the truth of it. It turned out that Our Bobbie hadn’t actually performed the jobs that showed on her CV; she had been in them for a few months… as a junior trainee… and then got herself transferred to a completely different facility after a big blow-up. Something involving accusations of willful misconduct and counter-accusations of sexual harassment. It seemed that Our Bobbie had both exaggerated her professional competency and had conveniently characterized all of the bad parts of her experience in the telling. She’d never lied to us so much as she’d bent the truth into a mighty attractive pretzel… and we’d swallowed it.
It got worse: I’d managed to track down one of Bobbie’s actual former supervisors – one that wouldn’t have recommended her as a crash-test dummy. The fellow warned me that Bobbie’s started out rocking her job like a dream-come-true. Then, once she hit her first real challenge, she imploded. She cut all of her social ties, started loudly accusing her peers of trying to ‘destroy’ her, and became a massive discipline problem. Bobbie became about as toxic as a mercury aperitif, hidden behind an aw-shucks cute-and-innocent façade.
I called Bobbie’s senior manager in and asked what the hell had happened. He was perplexed; he hadn’t seen any of the drama himself, and none of his other team members had been willing to tell him what had actualy happened. He’d noticed that both Bobbie and everyone else on the team seemed to be staring icy daggers at each other but he didn’t know what had caused it. I told him what I’d learned and his jaw dropped. ‘It was Word,’ he said. ‘My God… It was Microsoft Word that set her off…’
It turned out that one of Out Bobbie’s administrative duties was to keep the company phone directory updated. The senior manager had assigned Bobbie the work since she’d put ‘Expert in MS Word’ on her CV. Then, as the changes started coming in fast and furious during the big (graded) exercise, Our Bobbie got slower and slower with the revisions until she had a wicked nasty meltdown and left the whole team hanging. All because, we discovered, Bobbie didn’t know how to manage pagination with font size changes and paragraph spacing tweaks. Intermediate-level skills.
So, she’d lost it. She’d lost her composure first, and then squandered all of her credibility in short order. Worse, she’d had her explosive meltdown in front of an inspector who was honour-bound to report the episode in his official report. We took a hell of a black eye over it.
Even worse, Bobbie was ruined with our crew once the whole sordid story came out back at home station. First, Bobbie lost all professional credibility for her demonstrated inability to control her temper in the field. Second, her technical skills were brought into question; angry co-workers started to reveal that they’d been covering for her in the spirit of (now-dead) friendship. Finally, Bobbie’s aggressive and caustic attacks on her (now-former) mates burned up the last traces of personal and institutional goodwill that might have helped save her job. As to that, I cut Bobbie’s contract before her nasty attitude cost me any more workers. 
Later on, I found out that our sister company across time had hired Bobbie to work for them. I called my counterpart and warned him what we’d experienced from her. My analogue sneered at me and haughtily shared with that Bobbie had ‘told him everything’. He told me all about how she’d been star performer with our crew and how everyone else on the team was jealous of her. I laughed, wished the other director all the best, and left him to his miserable fate.
Looking back on it, I understand how Bobbie was able to hoodwink us all – and not just once, but twice. Unlike most job candidates who manage to fool a hiring board with their wild tales, most of Bobbie’s flattering stories were backed up with physical evidence. She had letters from former supervisors praising her hard work and good attitude. What all of us selection board members had missed was that the dates on Bobbie’s letters of recommendation didn’t line up with her actual dates of employment. She’d wheedled those LORs from her bosses after having worked for them for only a month or two each – always before she went off and made a hash of things. Her stories – such as they were – were all true, but they were only true for a very small percentage of the time she spent at each assignment.
All throughout the process, my subconscious had been barking at me that something didn’t ring true with Bobbie’s stories. It wasn’t until I went back through all of my interview notes that it finally struck me: Bobbie had slipped up. She’d never once told us a self-deprecating story. For all her actual strengths, she couldn’t take criticism or correction in any way, shape, or form. I learned from her to always look for evidence of humility and good humoured modesty in candidates. A candidate that could only ever tell stories where she was the hero of the tale was almost certainly full of crap.
 Internal or external customers; it doesn’t matter.
 I’m fairly sure that at least one part-time employee resigned over her crap attitude. Couldn’t be helped, unfortunately.
Title Allusion: Arthur Penn, Little Big Man (1970 Film)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.