In a world where leaders spin reality and use alternative facts to make things seem better than they are, is dishonesty becoming the new norm? Or, as a Time Magazine cover asks, “Is Truth Dead?”
“Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere.” ~ Oscar Wilde
When leaders play loose with truth, they make it more comfortable for everyone to do the same thing. When we see successful people getting away with untruths, we start telling our own lies. We call them “our perspective.”
When there are no sanctions, why not? After the financial crisis of 2008, few leaders were punished; and many were let go with multi-million dollar compensation packages.
Dwindling confidence in what our leaders say has become the subject of late-night talk shows and comedy riffs. New terms for this abound: “alternate facts,” and “fake news.” This is of serious concern to anyone who seeks to make the world a better place.
It seems that power is often achieved by spinning the truth.
“Leaders are, by definition, people in positions of great power. And research consistently demonstrates that ‘powerful people lie more often and with more ease.’” ~ Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS, Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, HarperBusiness, September 2015
Have we become blasé? Is being honest less important than achieving what we want? It’s time we look at ourselves as responsible for a truthful culture.
Everyone Does It
Everyone engages in dishonest behaviors, sometimes for good reasons, and often not. Is it part of our human nature? We seem to tolerate a certain amount of “fudging.” We almost expect it to happen in business.
We fudge expense and time reports, fake doctor’s appointments, and claim we’re ill when out doing something fun. We even use our children as excuses for things. Some of us may even cheat on our taxes.
In an effort to discover the truth about dishonesty, Duke Professor and best-selling author Dan Ariely reveals what social scientists have discovered.
In The Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Ariely asks:
- Is dishonesty restricted to a “few bad apples,” or is it widespread?
- What factors curb dishonesty?
- How do others influence us when it comes to right and wrong?
Everyone engages in dishonesty, some in small ways, and some more than others. Most of it involves white lies and exaggerations, and most is perpetrated against faceless institutions. We tell ourselves it’s harmless and find good reasons to justify it.
A Simple Model of Rational Crime
Since we all have the potential to be somewhat criminal, it is crucially important that we 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.
What really causes people to cheat, and in what circumstances will they or won’t they be dishonest?
The Fudge Factors
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.
Each of us has a limit to how much we can cheat before it feels 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.
According to research, we are more 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, while others carry a red flag. Think about the ways you engage in “fudging.” What are the limits of your personal dishonesty radar?
How We Can Influence Honesty
It isn’t complicated to get people to be honest. For example, simply being reminded of ethical standards encourages more honorable behavior. Studies show that people are less likely to steal or cheat when they’re asked to read the Ten Commandments first, even if they are atheists. Reading or signing an honor code or pledge also minimizes cheating.
People want to be honest. They respond to moral reminders when put in situations that tempt dishonesty. Without such reminders, however, we feel comfortable enough to rationalize our behaviors to obtain the outcomes we want by any means.
We are influenced to be more honest in the presence of others who might see or hear us being dishonest. With moral reminders and with other people, we are less comfortable with misbehaving and cheating. Our fudge factors shrink.
It’s not always possible to have people read or sign a moral pledge. We can, however, influence our colleagues and friends when we communicate the value of doing the right things. And in doing so, we also influence ourselves to act in honest ways.