Telltale Signs A CEO Is Lying (Or Not)

from the moving-his-lips? dept

NPR has a story about a study that tried to figure out indicators that a CEO is lying. The researchers went through the statements made by executives on earnings calls for companies that later had to restate earnings, and found a few key signals that indicate lies. The researcher's own summary:
We find that answers of deceptive executives have more references to general knowledge, fewer non-extreme positive emotions, and fewer references to shareholders value and value creation. In addition, deceptive CEOs use significantly fewer self- references, more third person plural and impersonal pronouns, more extreme positive emotions, fewer extreme negative emotions, and fewer certainty and hesitation words.
Honestly though, reading through this, it seems pretty difficult to use this to really come to any serious conclusions. For example, one of the indicators is that:
lying executives tend to overuse words like "we" and "our team" when they talk about their company. They avoid saying "I."
The argument is that the CEO doing so is trying to avoid responsibility for the statement, but couldn't it also be that they actually appreciate the work of the team around them? My initial reaction to a CEO who uses "I" repeatedly is that he or she is hogging the credit and not a good leader.

That said, some of the other parts do make sense, such as answering a different question than the one asked. There was an example given of that:
For instance, in 2002 NPR interviewed Computer Associates CEO Sanjay Kumar, who later went to prison for securities fraud, about his company's auditing practices.

Here's what he said: "There's no one out there today in the world of public companies who has the former chief accountant for the SEC running their audit committee. We do. There's no one out there who has the pre-eminent governance leader, professor [Jay] Lorsch, for example, running their governance committee. We do."

In other words, Kumar was asked, "Can your books be trusted?" And he replied by saying, "We hire the very best auditors." Larcker says that can be a big warning sign.
Finally, the things to worry about are CEOs who use extremely positive wording on things:
"If all my speech is 'fantastic,' 'superb,' 'outstanding,' 'excellent' and all my speech sounds like a big hype -- it probably is," Larcker says.
Of course, if that's true, then Steve Jobs is the worst of the worst of the worst when it comes to lying CEOs. As an example, in the period of about thirty seconds during the iPad launch, he used the words "extraordinary... the best experience ever... it's phenomenal... it's unbelievably great... way better..." etc. Which I think sort of points out why this kind of research, by itself, is pretty tough to be used to indicate anything.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Marcel de Jong (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 6:04am

    obligatory joke

    how to tell whether a CEO is lying, check whether his lips are moving.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Lisae Boucher (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 6:24am

    Steve Jobs is bad?

    Isn't Steve Jobs the worst of the worst? He's just never caught, but that doesn't mean he's Bad to the Bone! :-)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Thomas (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 6:55am

    how about..

    a way to tell when a CEO is telling the truth? That's a LOT less common than a CEO lying.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:03am

    "Telltale Signs A CEO Is Lying (Or Not)"

    Can't we just make the same assumptions that we make with politicians. Whenever he moves his mouth he's telling a lie.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Lance (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:04am

    Does this story include...

    a look at the CEO for NPR? Some of her statements, regarding their own recent debacle, seemed be based on something other than reality.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:27am

    Re: Steve Jobs is bad?

    Honestly, the iPad, while a device with a decent touchscreen, isn't really that impressive. While generally competently designed and executed, it's kinda awkward to hold, and it doesn't do a lot of things I'd expect a computer of that size to do. It does what Apple intends it to do well, and that's about it.
    Steve Jobs may not be strictly lying when he calls it "the best experience ever" by virtue of believing it himself, but he's definitely trying to hype it up and make it sound like the second coming, which it isn't. I tend to find that executives who make positive, but plausible, even downplayed remarks tend to have something much more compelling.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    Jason, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:28am

    Steve Jobs is evil!!

    Flame on!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    BBT, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:40am

    "The argument is that the CEO doing so is trying to avoid responsibility for the statement, but couldn't it also be that they actually appreciate the work of the team around them? My initial reaction to a CEO who uses "I" repeatedly is that he or she is hogging the credit and not a good leader. "

    There isn't an "argument". It's research that found a correlation. Lying CEOs' collective reasoning for using "We" more than non-lying CEOs is irrelevant to the finding.

    The possible reasoning that they're trying to avoid responsibility is a reasonable one, though. Your proposed reason is lacking, since you give no reason why you would expect a lying CEO to appreciate their team more than a non-lying CEO.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 7:49am

    About Apple I just read that it is being accused of copyright infringement in China, but I think its trademark issue since it has to do with the iPad name there.

    Now if not using I is something to worry about then every Asian executive out there is a liar, there is a cultural aspect to those things and I don't think they have gone very deep yet, there may be clues there that could help people notice something is wrong but I don't think they are there just yet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    Joe Diogenes, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 8:08am

    Looking for an honest man?

    CEO on the podium are essentially marketing their company. While it may be cynical of me, assuming that all marketing and advertising has some kind of deception in it, until proven otherwise, has proven to be a useful approach.

    This post is a "water is wet" kind of headline.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Ben (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 8:29am

    Product Announcement vs. Earning Call

    Honestly I don't think that this research can be applied to any of Steve Jobs public announcements of new products. Remember, the research was done against "earnings calls" not new product announcements or other publicity type interviews. There is a very great difference between the two, one will dictate commercial success with consumers by appealing to their product desires while the other will give investors the information they want on the inner workings and administration of the company and is often used as an official statement of the company for which it is legally bound.

    Steve Jobs is certainly the exception to the rule of the normal CEO and it certainly is a funny comparison to make about his extaordinary statements about Apple products.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 8:30am

    "I" can refer to "my" belief in the numbers, not credit

    I have to disagree with Mike here. Use of "we" in statements about what the CEO thinks _is_ one way to avoid responsibility (perhaps subconsciously).

    It's not taking credit away from anyone to say "I am really pleased with this quarter's results".

    Re "lips moving" - do CEOs lie? Of course. As much as politicians? No way.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    xs (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 8:41am

    Who's to say Steve isn't lying

    or that Apple HAD been making up numbers. Every company will at one time or another be faced with the decision to whether fudge the number to cover up a disappointing quarter, or come clean about it and gets hit in the stock market.

    When we see these signs, we'll just have to dig deeper, be more suspicious, cool our head, so we don't get taken by the lies, if there is any.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    Gary, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 9:13am

    Why do you imagine that CEOs might actually want to give credit to other members of their team?

    They got to where they were by acquiring the skills necessary to get credit for successes, and to avoid credit for failures. Whose work causes the successes or failures is irrelevant to the CEO mindset.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 9:34am

    Just wanted to say...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    RobShaver (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 9:59am

    Research vs. Gut

    "The argument is that the CEO doing so is trying to avoid responsibility for the statement, but couldn't it also be that they actually appreciate the work of the team around them? My initial reaction to a CEO who uses "I" repeatedly is that he or she is hogging the credit and not a good leader."

    So you reject their research out of hand an then substitute your gut. Is that what you're saying? If so, why not just say that?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Nastybutler77 (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 11:44am

    Re: Product Announcement vs. Earning Call

    You beat me to the point I was going to make, but said it much better than I could have.

    Now if Steve Jobs is saying their projected earnings are "extraordinary... the best experience ever... it's phenomenal... it's unbelievably great... way better..." then you might have cause for concern as an investor (although with the way Apple has been performing it might be accurate), but when it's a new product he's hyping, that's par for the course.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Kingster (profile), Oct 27th, 2010 @ 12:56pm

    I remember working at CA during all of this. It was very entertaining from an employee's point of view. We all knew the silliness that went on with back-dating deals... Thank god I was just a consultant and didn't do squat with billing and sales.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 2:42pm

    Mike,
    You're so dense that light bends around you.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 5:27pm

    Re: Steve Jobs is bad?

    So, about 0.3" or so?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Jason, Oct 28th, 2010 @ 5:50pm

    Re:

    Uh wouldn't that be, "so dense that light can't escape you,"? Light bending around you would be an anomaly from the density of the objects surrounding you not your own density.

    Did you mean to say that you are dense? or just to demonstrate it?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    tax cpe, Oct 31st, 2010 @ 2:55am

    positive wording...

    A CEO is not supposed to bad mouth his company or his products. He's supposed to say glowing commentaries, right?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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