I’m exploring the issues of truth and dishonesty at work. If we all have the potential to cheat, we must first understand how dishonesty operates, and then figure out ways to contain and control this aspect of our nature.
The prevailing notion of cheating, according to Nobel laureate Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, says that people commit crimes based on a rational analysis of a situation.
In the Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC), we seek our own advantage as we make our way through the world; we weigh the costs versus the benefits of an act (without consideration of right or wrong), comparing the possible positive and negative outcomes.
This model is, however, imperfect and incomplete. It doesn’t say anything about moral conscious, self-image, or emotional irrationality, all key topics now being studied by behavioral economists.
One of the best books that reveals current thinking on this important topic is The Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves by best-selling author, Professor Dan Ariely. We need to figure out what really causes people to cheat, and in what circumstances they will or won’t be dishonest.
The Fudge Factors
What I find in my coaching sessions with clients, once we’ve developed trust, is that many people confess to fudging occasionally. There’s a delicate balance between the contradictory desires to maintain a positive self-image and to benefit from cheating. No one likes to think of him or herself as a cheat. Most of us agree that dishonesty at work is deplorable.
Yet each of us has a limit to how much we can cheat before it becomes sinful. It has to do with our self-image. How much can we fudge before we feel guilty? Usually we allow a certain amount of flexibility before our self-image is affected.
To illustrate, there’s an old joke. When 8-year-old Jimmy comes home with a note saying he was caught stealing a pencil, his father is furious. He lectures him about stealing. Finally, to conclude, he tells him that if he needed a pencil he could have simply asked him. “You know very well that I can bring you dozens of pencils from work.”
According to experiments, we are more ready and willing to steal something that does not explicitly reference monetary value. While we would steal paper and pencils at work, we hesitate to take money from the cash box.
Some actions slide by our personal moral radar more easily than others that carry a red flag. Think about the ways you engage in “fudging.” What are the limits of your personal dishonesty radar?