The Intricacies of Strategic Misrepresentation in Project Management

By Mark Vincent


I recently joined a panel discussion in London hosted by the Association of Project Management. The focal point was Strategic Misrepresentation—a rather formal term for lying or distorting the truth. The phenomenon is particularly pervasive in project management, contributing to only 0.5% of projects achieving their expected benefits within time and budget, according to recent Oxford Business School research.

The Anatomy of Strategic Misrepresentation

At its core, Strategic Misrepresentation is the intentional manipulation of facts and figures, often to secure project approval. This could mean overstating benefits or understating costs and timelines, all done with full awareness. Unlike naive optimism, this act is carried out consciously and deliberately.

Delving into the Psychology of Lying

So what drives individuals to engage in Strategic Misrepresentation? A variety of factors, many rooted in our basic instincts, can explain this. Here are just some of the common causes, outlining the psychology behind dishonest behaviour:

  • Self-preservation: Lying to shield oneself from harm or to evade punishment.
  • Fear: A fabricated narrative to sidestep judgment, rejection, or conflict.
  • Personal Gain: Dishonesty that serves the goal of accruing power, wealth, or other resources.
  • Protection of Others: Lies stemming from a sense of loyalty or desire to maintain relationships.
  • Conflict Avoidance: Fudging the truth to maintain or restore peace.
  • Social Acceptance: Falsehoods aimed at conforming to societal norms.
  • Lack of Self-Confidence: Exaggerations to inflate one’s self-image.
  • Manipulation and Deception: Lies as strategic tools to control or influence others.
  • Habitual Lying: A pathological pattern of deceit with unclear motives.

I’d also add external factors to the mix. Group dynamics, power structures, and authority figures can heavily influence dishonest behaviour, as illustrated by the experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.

The Road Ahead for Project Management

Given these complexities, the challenge lies in crafting an environment less conducive to Strategic Misrepresentation. Could technologies like AI contribute to solutions, despite growing concerns about their ethical implications? This dialogue, no doubt, will evolve in the coming years.

If you’re keen to delve deeper into human behaviour’s impact on organisational change, consider joining me at the next FREE High Impact Changemaker event. There, you’ll gain insights to accelerate positive transformations in your workplace.

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Understanding the psychology of Strategic Misrepresentation can serve as a catalyst for cultivating more transparent and successful projects. By addressing the root causes of these unethical practices, we can foster a project management environment that’s not only more honest but also more effective.

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