Getting Past Fake Talk At Work

Fake talk diminishes relationships, slows work down, and jeopardizes results. At yet, the B.S. factor is alive and well in corporate America. We need more straight talk about fake talk.

Fake talk is attractive as an easy way out. But when fake talk’s the norm, the real game becomes guessing what’s really happening or what people mean.

Overcoming Fake Talk

This week, I spoke with Overcoming Fake Talk author, John Stoker about the dangers of Fake Talk:

“Fake Talk can be defined as any time a person intentionally misrepresents the truth, is unintentionally vague or unclear, when people go along to be agreeable or not rock the boat, and when people are focused on being politically correct rather than discuss and understand the finer nuances of what is going on. When people engage in these types of behavior, then performance is not improved, work is often redundant or inefficient, accountability is lacking, and the bottom line ultimately suffers.”

He shared a story that seems crazy, but sadly not surprising.

“Years ago I was hired to do a culture assessment for a CEO and his team of VPs. After I had interviewed all of the vice presidents and identified what was not working, I met with the CEO and his senior team to give them feedback. I was barely five minutes into the presentation when the CEO stopped me and said, “We really don’t talk negative about our company. I have to ask you to stop.”

I responded, “I’m not talking negative, I’m going to tell you the reality of what is working here and what is not working, with the intent of improving your processes and getting results.” All of the vice presidents in the room were uncomfortable and looked down.

overcoming fake talkI continued, “If you can’t talk about what’s not working, then how can we ever identify what it is that we need to improve here?” Fortunately, he let me continue. I would venture to say that this was the first real conversation this team had conducted in a very long time.

Individuals in corporate America, be they leaders or managers, who are not willing to talk about the real issues and take steps to improve what it is that they are trying to achieve cannot really hope to achieve anything different. Progress simply cannot happen in a vacuum.”

So how does our LGL community discourage fake talk? I asked John his thoughts on how to develop and encourage leaders to hold real conversations. His advice, “help them prepare.” When we deal with tough conversations in the moment, our survival and protection instincts kick in. 

Even if we know intellectually that we want to tell the truth, it’s tough to think straight in the heat of the moment. Prepare for what you need to say, and anticipate potential reactions. His book offers a four quadrant model on how to prepare.

Planning For Real Conversations

Prepare – What outcome would you like to see? What could you do?

Connect – Consider What do YOU want? What do THEY want?

Initiate – Attention check: I’d like to talk about.

Data – I noticed.

Interpretation – I’m wondering if

Discover – What questions should you ask? What answers do you need?

Posted in Communication, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of several books: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020), Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Looks like a great book! Thanks for sharing John’s insights. I can remember when I was working for an SVP brought into do a big time turn around and the COO kept telling him she was behind him 100%… up until the day he was fired.

  2. Excellent preparation to have real talks about real issues. Not focusing on real issues a company may be having will result in ultimate demise. Having a backbone to engage in real conversations and hear real issue-focused feedback makes all better. Love the preparation points to engage in non-fake talk! Jon

  3. I never thought about the concept before. My thoughts today are influenced by three questions: Who am I? Who are you? and What are we doing together? I am not a guru of these fake talk situations, but if one party can apply these three questions to a fake talk situation, there is a greater chance all parties will be authentic in their communication. Why? Because fake talk is either deliberate (like the author’s example) or a thoughtless crutch — and if one party is mindful of the communication situation and asks these three questions, I believe this person is in a better position to interrupt fake talk. How? “Excuse me, what is our purpose together?” goes a long way.

  4. I agree w John…there should always be a purpose behind what you are trying to accomplish instead of just complaining. There are many who say they want to get real feedback and in reality they don’t because real feedback may force the leader to change or take action. Being oblivious and partaking in fake talk can eventually bring a team or organization down and eventually have employees afraid to speak up! Great information….thank you.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation. I agree, when we ask for feedback and input without being ready to seriously hear it…. we do more harm than good.

  5. I agree Steve Borek, model. This is particularly difficult to balance with the admonition to be positive, and to create a positive atmosphere. These points about candor are right on, but should be balanced with the desire to avoid an overly critical, negative environment. For me the number one challenge is to make sure I’m not reacting defensively to critical comments from staff, to take in the truth, and to push us to a positive outcome. Thanks, again, great points!

    • Bill, So true. It’s not what you say, but how you say it… and when. Sometimes taking time to steep helps. Terrific additions. Thanks, as always for your comments.

  6. A great interview, Karin and the book looks awesome!

    I think leaders have fake conversations when they have fear of speaking up that there may be a negative result. I think it takes a lot of courage to share your true thoughts. I love the idea of preparing and find it critical to choose respectful and clear words for the message that needs to be communicated.

  7. This is one movement I believe needs to start from the top. Leaders need to be aware of what people are not saying, but are communicating. (One cannot not communicate.) Unfortunately, unless the environment is safe, people are not going to say what they’ve been thinking. It’s that fear of “kill the messenger” that prohibits the flow.

    • Excellent point Bill! I hear such comments from leaders frequently. To which I will usually respond, “If you think that will be negative consequences for engaging in REAL Talk, you need to seriously count the costs for speaking up or not speaking up. But at least, you can practice the skills for holding REAL Conversation you believe it is safe.”

    • John, Terrific point…. at least learn the skill so you have it to use… and try it out.. the consequences are often fabrications of our minds. I’ve very seldom regretted speaking the truth (when I delivered it well)…..and the times I regret were all sloppy.

    • Bill – I so agree and want to specifically say one thing that this and some other posts hint at. The leader needs to make it SAFE to speak the truth, to be open to and to make changes. Even if something is not implemented, being able to talk about it creates a more engaged team which leads to all sorts of benefits. In addition, ideas that are not acted upon may lead to even better ones which are.

  8. Fake names and fake truths. I remember a colleague of mine faking the truth telling the supervisor “I prepared the compound, but not with enough purity”. The disguise of truth comes from fake people. Is the problem with the song or the singer?
    Karin- this is a lovely post. I read the preceding and enriching comments. All I may add: faked people only make faked truth. It is short-sightedness and short-term perspective that make people sake the output, regardless of the longer term outcome.

  9. Hi,

    Eric Ries writes pretty nicely about 5 Why’s technique within his “Lean Startup”. How to make it getting into the real problems and how to avoid fake or blame discussions… whole book is worth of reading…


  10. In conversation when I see a leader or team in turmoil, or emotional distress, I will often ask “what is the right conversation?”. We so often opt for the easy or politically correct statement — and the real issue or concern is not voiced (or even identified!). This includes self talk about why I can or can’t be “honest.” one can be frank and gentle, and hold the right conversation — the one that is at the heart of the issue or relationship.

    • Michelle, Great to have you in the conversation I love that question, “what is the right conversation?” What a great way to get your head into the healthy place for productive dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.