Friday, August 3, 2012

Lie to me, I'm the Project Manager

Truth Hurts: Lie To Me
Have you ever seen Lie To Me? The main character is Cal Lightman who has the ability to detect lies by observing micro-expressions. While this is a fictional TV series, the point is really interesting: can you detect a lie?
The good news is that there are some signs that are difficult to disguise even to experts in deception, say poker players or actors.
The bad news is that there no absolutes in this field, so you should consider this only as an indicator that you should investigate further.
If you want to learn some more please keep on reading.

A warning first: this article is about stuff that is not on field of expertise but stuff that I actually use and hopefully you'll find useful too. Just don't take my word for it and double check the content because it's just not in my knowledge domain - yes, I had some training; yes, I've read a bit about it; and yes, I do use some of it while managing projects but that's not enough for me to present this as actual facts, as things really work.

Types of signs

There are a few different types of signs (known as body language) that could show that someone is not telling the truth, namely:

  • Microexpressions (but let those be with Cal Lightman and his associates)
  • Facial expressions
  • Body posture
  • Gestures
  • Eye movement

Microexpressions are split seconds expressions in your face that can't be made on purpose - but can be prevented to some extent. There are 7 universal (that is, cultural independent) expressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. You can check Wikipedia for more on these - it's always a good place to start looking for stuff. But microexpressions are really a subset of facial expressions. And unless you're Cal Lightman, they're of no use. At least I can't detect them anyhow.

Now, facial expressions are the expressions you voluntary (although they can be unintentional) put in your face that show your emotions - like smiling shows you're happy. Facial expressions are hard to dissimulate in moments of tension and namely actors are experts in using the facial expression that best suits they're needs. It's hard to imagine Steven Seagal beating someone up with a happy expression or Marilyn Monroe flirting someone with an expression of disgust, right?

Body posture is your body attitude and position that usually reveals your mental state. An open posture (like open arms) reveals openness but a closed posture (like with your arms crossed) reveals fear or hiding. The proximity of the people talking is another indicator. As it is the body inclination, what you do your hands and so on. When you stand in a meeting to present something, do your hands hold the back of the chair where you sat on? That might show insecurity. Do you talk closer than everybody else when you meet someone in a business meeting?

Gestures (like pointing, crossing arms, OK sign like the picture in your left, ...) serve to reinforce what you're trying to say and it's a subset of the body posture. If you're presenting something to an audience and you want to focus their attention on something on the screen, you point in the screen's direction, right? Pay attention that gestures are cultural specific: the same gesture can mean completely different things in different cultures, they're not universal like the 7 basic expressions.

Eye movements can indicate a few different things but one is really relevant for this topic. When someone looks up and to his/her left, they are constructing images which indicates... well, basically a lie. It seems this works particularly good with kids - so parents, beware!

Spotting a liar

The entire body language should normally go together with what you're saying or doing. If it doesn't, that is a warning sign. Imagine you're having someone at your house for the first time. When he/she arrives, your body posture is open and you smile, just the the picture on your right. There's simply no way around it, is there?
So this is the secret to lie spotting: find a mismatch within the body language or between the body language and what people are saying or doing and you may have someone lying (or hiding, misleading,...)!
Also, when the eyes move upward to the left (that is, to your  right). That's a warning sign.
So that's it! No big deal, right? Not so fast... if it was this easy the police wouldn't have the trouble they do investigating crimes. The fact is that it requires practice and a lot of reasoning that, at least for me, is uncommon. It's perfectly possible that instead of the picture of this man welcoming someone you have the same man with his arms crossed simply because it's cold. Or because he usually stands with his arms crossed. Or because he is feeling his elbow that he hurt on the last ball game he played. Or whatever other reason, this could go on forever, do you see what I mean?
As a rule of thumb, you should ignore one single mismatch such as this. And investigate further if you get more than one repeatedly. As for conclusions that would enable you to say "that is a lie", they should require some kind of hard evidence. All these about body language should only alert you to the possibility that you're being lied to.
And you should also practice somehow. I got a set of cards on this training I did some years ago. The cards are great, they're from Body Language Cards, and although my set is not very comprehensive they do have several sets there that can help you knowing about some typical postures and what they usually mean.

What good is it for Project Managers?

This can serve you in many ways, but basically people eventually lie. And the sooner you know that what you're told might be a lie the sooner you can find out if it really is a lie.
If you ask someone "is your task well under way? will you finish it on time? are you having any problems?" and you get "I'll finish it on time, no problem" as an answer with the wrong body language (for instance, crossed arms, looking up and to the left or with a worried expression) that is a sign that it might not be so.
Now, what you do with this information is up to you. Suppose that, in this case, the task is some minor task that doesn't impact the project in any way (you can do it afterwards, by someone more experienced, in less time, and so on) and it's being done by this new guy in the organization, just out of college on his first job. Probably the best course of action is to register that he said everything was fine and confront him with that if he doesn't deliver on time and show him the impact that his action could have had if it was a crucial task. Because, in this scenario, what's at stake here has very low value. But suppose this guy is difficult to replace, the task is already late and delaying the project and that you're getting huge contractual penalties for each day you're late. Probably you should pay very close attention to this and maybe spend more time with him, get the real current status of this task, put someone in your team working with him or whatever the particular context demands. But nevertheless, you should pay close attention to this situation so things don't go really sour later.


As Project Managers, we expect problems within projects. Other than really short projects for doing stuff that we do all the time, projects and problems always go hand in hand together.
So this article is about opening your window of opportunity to address them: spotting problems earlier so you can address them before the damage is done or they get too big for you to handle. And many times problems arise because someone lied...

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