Caught In A Lie
by Leslie Dickson
That’s the sad – but unmistakable – sound of best-selling author Jonah Lehrer’s credibility imploding.
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that Lehrer, whose book Imagine: How Creativity Works inspired a recent VoicePro blog post, had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, a key character in his New York Times bestseller. But it gets worse. When initially challenged by Michael Moynihan, the Journal reporter, Lehrer lied about the source of his quotes. He claimed they came from materials supplied by Dylan representatives.
Of course, the truth eventually came out. Lehrer’s book has been pulled by his publisher and he’s resigned from his staff writer position at The New Yorker magazine.
How did it all fall apart? I want to start with a line from Lehrer’s public apology. “This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic,” he said.
A Moment of Panic
That’s when emotions hijack your brain and overpower your better nature. It’s physiological, actually. When we perceive a threat, the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the “fight or flight” reaction, is instantly triggered, and adrenaline floods the system. The threat alert is also traveling to the cerebral cortex, the seat of logic, but by a slower neurological path. For our prehistoric ancestors that meant being ready to fight off a predator without giving it a thought – literally. Then it was an advantage, but today we generally need our brains for fighting battles, not our hormones.
Let’s hope you never put yourself in Lehrer’s position, but you can be sure you’ll have your moments when your amygdala will try to take over. We all do. You’ll stumble in front of an audience. Someone will challenge your decision. You’ll get a question you can’t answer.
You can’t prevent a hardwired emotional response, but you can control it. Or, more specifically, you can wait it out. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Give your cerebral cortex time to catch up. It takes only moments for your mind to clear and give you back the thinking power you need for the situation.
The Road To Panic
Now consider this. I can’t help wondering if Leher’ “moment of panic” wasn’t simply the final one in a series that stretched back to his first draft. He had a point of view, a hotshot reputation and deadlines looming, but not the hard facts he needed. He allowed his amygdala to lead him down the slippery slope.
There’s a lesson in that for all of us, too. It’s not The Big Lie we have to guard against so much as a pile-up of small deceits. All of us can be tempted to present the facts that support our argument while failing to mention the weaknesses. We may want to point a finger at a coworker to deflect blame. Or look the other way when we could have made a difference.
You can be sure colleagues will know it -- no Wall Street Journal expose’ required. And the result? Lost credibility that blunts leadership, broken trust that poisons relationships. That’s one of the reasons why, at VoicePro, our philosophy includes the principal of personal responsibility: "I bear the responsibility for communicating who I am and what I stand for, so people don't have to guess."
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Image provided by Akbar Sim