Accountability and the art of plausible deniability

The term ‘plausible deniability’ was introduced into the English language in 1975 when the Church Committee, a US Senate committee, conducted an investigation into the intelligence agencies.

It described the situation where the President was not informed of actions such as to assassinate Fidel Castro, but in the view of the Church Committee, was clearly in favour of the action. By not being informed, the president could state that he had no knowledge of the actions. He had a plausible denial.

Plausible deniability has been honed since in government and private enterprise, into an art form. We all do it –  at home with the kids, at work, with our mates from our club and sometimes sadly, with ourselves.

The problem for me is that plausible deniability is a phrase that equates to lack of accountability.

There are, however, telltale techniques that we and others – wittingly or unwittingly – use, created on the base of fallacious arguments that should let us know that what we are being offered or are offering is not the whole truth.

The technique I have heard most often used of late is the technique of offering a plausible argument whilst setting up a defensive shield to deny any request to justify the original proposition embodied in a query.

For example, a hypothetical reporter might ask, “Have you seen the cable referring to the corruption allegations?” A hypothetical politician or civil servant might answer, “I receive hundreds of thousands of cables into my office every year. I can’t be expected to read all of them”.

This technique, in terms of regularity of use of late, has been closely followed by use of a word to attach a clear but subtle change in meaning to what seems to be a simple unequivocal message. The reason for using this technique is to enable the respondent to be equivocal at a later stage if their lines of defence have been stripped away.

Our hypothetical reporter might ask, “Were you involved in a meeting where the details of the new concessional taxation arrangements were discussed before the budget was announced?” Our hypothetical politician might reply, “I have no specific recall that any details were discussed”. The plausible denial has two parts; “specific” and “recall”. An alternate answer might have been, “Sure, we had a meeting and discussed the concessions, but I can’t remember the exact words in the discussion”.

Another technique to look for is the omission of information. Look for what is not said rather than what is said. For example, a hypothetical human resources manager might ask of a line manager who is recommending someone for promotion, “Tell me about her performance”.

The hypothetical line manager may answer: “She is always punctual, everything is done on time. She has a very good knowledge of the subject matter and is considered to be an authority on the topic of policy”.

The inference in the answer is that the person is competent. However, by looking for what is not said one can pick that this may not be the whole truth. There was nothing said about personal skills, for instance.

Another answer consistent with the first might have been: “She has no interpersonal skills and the quality of her work, whilst good technically and punctual, has no human element. Her work colleagues are frustrated because of that and it negatively affects the team performance”.

By not answering the unasked questions the line manager can move an unproductive employee on through promotion, which is much easier than managing their performance. At a later date when the capability of the individual becomes obvious, the line manager can be truthful in stating that he told no lies.

Another technique often used is to attack the credibility of the questioner, rather than addressing the substance of the question.

Adjectives and phrases such as, “minor official”, “not close to the day-to-day operation”, “intellectual” and “cynical” are used to describe the individual and therefore lessen the credibility of what they have to say without providing any proof that what they said was wrong.

Plausible deniability is an issue for public and private enterprise alike. It is an issue because it leaves open the door to abuse of authority and resources, shifting blame and deflecting accountability.

The most serious aspect of plausible deniability is that it increases the level of distrust between senior management and employees. Whilst plausible deniability works some of the time, one can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Leaders who duck accountability by using the technique of plausible deniability or other techniques lose the trust of the very people that they need to follow them. They, conversely, win the admiration of the unscrupulous as an “operator”.

When we lose trust, we can no longer lead. Of that, there is no denying.

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