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Volume 13, Issue 27;   July 3, 2013: Active Deceptions at Work

Active Deceptions at Work


Among the vast family of workplace deceptions, those that involve presenting fiction as reality are among the most exasperating, because we sometimes feel fooled or gullible. Lies are the simplest example of this type, but there are others, and some are fiendishly clever.
An inflatable aircraft of the U.S. Ghost Army in World War II

An inflatable aircraft of the U.S. Ghost Army in World War II. That inflatable aircraft were used as part of the simulation of ghost divisions is interesting enough, but if you look closely, you'll notice that it is camouflaged with netting overhead. The camouflage that was used was intended to be ineffective enough that the dummy aircraft would be detectable by enemy reconnaissance aircraft. This deception thus conforms to the pattern we here call "Layers of the onion." the idea was that the enemy should be able to detect the dummy aircraft because the camouflage deception was ineffective. Having detected it, the enemy would then conclude that it was a real aircraft, and not examine it carefully enough to determine its true nature. Indeed, a dummy aircraft without camouflage would certainly have seemed suspicious. The stakes were actually much higher than simple detection of dummy aircraft. The enemy had no inkling that the Ghost Army was engaged in deception at all. If even one of their deceptions had been uncovered, their effectiveness overall would have been compromised.

So it is with workplace deception. Once one becomes known for engaging in deception, trusting relationships become difficult to maintain. Isolation is a serious risk.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives.

As we saw last time, passive deception disguises an actual capability, facility, or intention to make it difficult to detect, while active deception disguises a non-existent capability, facility, or intention to make it appear real. Dozens of wonderful examples of active deception from the military domain come from the activities of the so-called Ghost Army in World War II.

The Ghost Army, officially the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops of the U.S. Army, deceived the enemy by creating the impression that forces were positioned where no forces actually were. They carried out missions in Britain before the Normandy landings, and staged 20 deceptions in Europe after the landings. Using inflatable dummy vehicles, sound trucks blaring recordings of mechanized vehicles, and false radio traffic mimicking actual units, they succeeded in distorting enemy positions and even drawing fire.

Here are two examples of active deceptions at work.

Layers of the onion
This ploy involves concealing a deception behind another deception. When the targets notice the frontmost deception, and see through it, they most often presume that what they find behind it is real. They rarely attempt to remove another layer of the onion.
For example, finding in the output tray of a shared printer a resume of a colleague, we often assume that he or she is quietly job-hunting. We assume that we've detected a deception. We rarely consider the possibility that someone else printed the resume and left it there to deceive the discoverer into believing that the resume's owner is job-hunting. When we think we've detected a deception, we assume that the most obvious alternative explanation is true.
False threats
In the context of When we notice a deception,
we usually assume that
whatever lies behind
it is truth
workplace politics, a threat is a statement of intent to inflict harm or discomfort. Threats are usually conditional; that is, unless the target complies with the wishes of the threatener, the threat will be executed. A false threat is a threat that the threatener doesn't intend to carry out. It appears to be a real threat, though, and that's what makes this tactic an active deception.
For example, to persuade a subordinate (Saul) to work six days a week for an extended period, a deceptive supervisor (Belinda) might threaten Saul with dismissal by saying, "If you won't do this, we'll find someone else who will." Some supervisors use this approach even when Saul has skills and knowledge that make him irreplaceable. If Belinda doesn't actually believe that Saul is replaceable, she's engaged in active deception. Sadly, the tactic often works. It's most effective when unemployment is high, because Saul fears losing his job.

These are simple examples. Some deceptions contain both active and passive elements. Understanding the nature of active and passive deceptions can reduce the chances of your being deceived. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Workplace Politics and Type III Errors  Next Issue

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Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.

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