I’m not sure Lie to Me is headed in the right direction. In that Fox TV series, the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman, interprets facial and vocal “microexpressions”—facial actions or voice modulations discernible only to the trained or naturally astute observer—to get a good sense of what people are feeling whether they’re lying.

In one scene, for example, Lightman shows a video of a woman talking cheerfully about how she’s ready to see her family, how she’s no longer depressed and is ready to exit institutional care. When he slowed down the video, however, and focused on her face, we can plainly see the smile flanked by momentary facial constrictions, narrowings or strictures that show she is trying to disguise her real feelings literally by turning a frown upside-down, an effect turned right-side-up by slow-mo.

Based on the real-life work of psychologist Paul Ekman, it’s a terrific premise but do Lightman and his team have to descend deep into the criminal underground to uncover dark secrets and lots of people to save?  Fight clubs, masochistic beauty queens, organized crime, kidnapping rings – who needs ‘em when the Lightman Group could be working feverishly (and at a high price-point, I might add) to save a perfectly delightful population of intrapsychically-conflicted, hyper-anxious, and chronically self-obfuscating employees at major corporations?

Try this – Experiment 1:

At your next meeting, look around the room and scan the faces—I mean, REALLY scan the faces.  You may see some smiles but are those really smiles?  Those of you with kids know what a real smile looks like; is that what you’re seeing as you pan across the conference room? Take a look at the ridges above and below the eyes and mouth – what are you seeing?

According to Ekman, expressions of fear are universal. (Image: Maria Yakunchikova "Fear" 1893-95)

If something in those faces doesn’t look quite right but yet seems somehow familiar, try one more thing: try to make those features appear on your own face.  As you begin to recall the last time you’d made that face, you might start to feel something. Even if you don’t, what would you have to be feeling to make a face like that?

Hint: It’s fear.

Well, depending on where you are in your own corporate lifecycle, perhaps it’s fear mixed with contempt. Depending on how you were brought up, maybe it’s fear suppressed with self-loathing. The point is, it’s fear.

Three more experiments:

  1. Listen to the laughter at a meeting. Is that real laughter? Or, does it sound forced? Do you think this is how these people laugh with their friends and family?
  2. Tune into watercooler or drive-by conversations. As I walked from my fourth-floor office to a fifth-floor conference room, I heard two conversations whisper-punctuated with the words, “I’m afraid that…”
  3. What are your colleagues doing as they talk? How are they moving their bodies? During a job interview with a major insurer, a Group VP of Analytics commented, “Oh, when I started here no one called on my group. They didn’t get us. Now, whenever they need to get it right, whenever the CEO needs something, we’re the ONLY ONES they call!” And with that, he threw his right shoulder very slightly forward in two staccato motions. It happened so fast and so subtly that it could have gone unnoticed but like a poker ‘tell,’ it helped me understand something important about the level of fear (and the necessary level of defiance required) in that organization.

So, what are we all so afraid of? Failing. Not living up to the image we have of ourselves. Being canned.  Almost being canned. I could go on and on and probably never come close to the specific things you or I are afraid of every day when we enter the office.

And we could dump a ton of money into psychotherapy and self-examination to figure out why, or get a prescription to manage the tons of symptoms that live off that fear like bacteria on an open wound. Or, we could start living. If we recognize the fear, recognize that that is ALL it is, JUST FEAR, then we can start living.

We lie to ourselves every day when we sit down at a meeting. We laugh when we don’t want to, smile when we feel we have to, and contort outselves into creatures we scarcely recognize.

But we don’t have to. Once I started telling the truth, once I started acting like the person I wanted to be in spite of everything I felt I had to be inside that conference room or manager’s office, I started living.

So, step 1 to surviving corporate America without psychotherapy or drugs:  Recognize that fear dominates much of what we do at work. But, that’s all it is: fear.  Start living.

All the best,

Mike Raven

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