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Dishonesty at work

How honest is your culture?

26th Mar 2015
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Jan Hills writes on neuroscience and how it can improve personal performance, team performance, organisational outcomes and leadership behaviour. She has had a varied career in HR, including over 10 years as a consultant and coach. Jan now runs Head Heart + Brain, a consultancy dedicated to brain-savvy HR and to improving all aspects of the organisation through the findings of neuroscience.

I was talking to a client the other day who made the rather surprising statement that the culture of the company he had just moved to had a lot of dishonesty in it. I was a bit puzzled about why he had moved there but that’s another story. In his early days he was being more honest than most.

Let's face it: not many clients tell you their company has a problem with honesty. Honesty is highly valued in business. At least, we say it is.

Honesty is highly valued in business. At least, we say it is.

Yet the studies of honesty suggest we all lie. Robert Feldman, who wrote The Liar in Your Life: How Lies Work & What They Tell Us about Ourselves, says we lie without even realising it, that at times the lie is outside of our conscious awareness. His research shows that on average people lie three times in a 10-minute period when they are getting to know someone. If that worries you, he also says we lie less to people we are close to. But the lies to those people are bigger.

In his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, behavioural economist Dan Ariely, describes numerous studies he carried out with 30,000 people. What he found is that very few people lie a lot but almost everyone lies a bit.

Ariely discredits the theory that a few people are really bad and 'contaminate' others; the few rotten apples spoil the bunch. He says businesses should worry about the number of people who lie or cheat a little and how dishonesty can be like a virus. Others can catch it.

His research shows that most people want two opposing things; to lie or in other ways be dishonest but not so much that they damage their self- image as an honest person. He says people rationalise their dishonesty, they say to themselves things like, "oh, it was only a small roll of tape, everyone else does it" or "I worked longer hours this week so deserve to bill the taxi fare."

Ariely's research showed group behaviour and norms play a huge role in enabling a culture where dishonesty (or honesty) flourishes. People were much more likely to cheat on an exercise when they saw someone from their group was cheating.

Group behaviour and norms play a huge role in enabling a culture where dishonesty (or honesty) flourishes. 

One handy brain feature that helps us cheat and lie and still feel ok about ourselves is that the brain seems to have evolved to hold different events, emotions and beliefs in 'separate containers' not literally but figuratively, separating our different 'selves' and keeping our narrative about ourselves balanced to manage conflicts in what we do in one situation versus another. We don't think about our behaviour in a consistent way. The circumstances will make it ok to lie in one context and not another: "I'll just tell the boss I am late for work because my child was ill rather than that I over slept."

There is also the old 'get out clause' of the social lie. You might think twice about telling the boss his idea is crazy an hour before your performance review. Of course it's then sensible to acquiesce and hope he rethinks the idea before it goes too far.

Author Michael Shermer says  we “bend and distort data and evidence through a process called motivated reasoning.” When we do this we look for and find information and experiences that support our current view of the world. Our filters and self-interest distort the information or rationalise it to make it fit our desires and actions.

Despite the data and constant “evidence” of declining trust and growing dishonesty in business, most people I know and work with continue to say that trust and honesty are the most important values they desire in their work relationships.  So what do you do if you are living in a dishonest culture? Well apart from taking back those rolls of sticky tape, the research would say that you need to set the right example. Don't lie, check your reasoning - especially around social nicety - and make sure you aren’t rationalising your behaviour.

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