Sharing Benefits Increases CheatingPosted: August 15, 2011
Today’s post is a thought bubble on honesty and cheating in the workplace following two articles I read recently. The first is an interesting report on how people are more likely to cheat if the benefits of that cheating are shared with another person, even with an anonymous stranger. The likelihood of behaving dishonestly doubled (21% to 43%) when participants could point to another’s benefit from their own unethical behavior.
The report was based on experiments involving word games and other online activities in which the researchers left opportunities for participants to over-report their performance. Splitting the benefits of cheating was considered less unethical by participants than taking the benefits all for themselves.
Self-interest clearly motivates people to behave unethically. However, the studies here indicate that people may actually be more likely to behave unethically when they do not capture all of the benefits that the unethical behavior yields. Because most of us have a need to ourselves themselves (sic) as moral, we face limits in how unethically we can behave lest we lose the view of ourselves as moral people. When we can rationalize that our unethical behavior benefits others as well, we may be able to simultaneously act unethically and preserve our positive view of our selves.
What’s the relevance?
The experiment is a distilled characterization of a modern working environment. Offices are filled with online systems (e.g. status reports through email, electronic workflows, bug tracking systems). We do a lot of self-reporting (e.g. self-assessments, project progress). The reports can impact ourselves and our team positively or negatively. Together we have the ingredients that create incentives for deception.
Drawing general conclusions from a specific experiment is a fraught process. However, I think we can surmise that:
- In any organization of reasonable size there is likely to be unethical behavior motivated by self-interest;
- An organization’s response to internal communication (particularly expected benefits and penalties of good and bad news) may increase the incentive for unethical behavior
Decision Makers Hide Negative Data on Almost-Done Projects
The second interesting report is the flip side of the first. Where the first describes the exaggeration of positive news for self or shared benefits, the second deals with the suppression of bad news. The Consequences of Completion: How Level of Completion Influences Information Concealment by Decision Makers found that as a big project gets closer to completion decision makers are more likely to conceal negative information about the project.
In this research groups of undergraduates participated in a fictional business project in which a significant problem arose. They were asked to decide how much more to invest in it and then to report their reasoning. If the project was near complete (90%) 81% failed to mention anything negative. Whereas if the project was freshly started (10% complete) only a minority (37.5%) failed to mention anything negative.
The more time that has been spent on a project, the more you stand to lose and the greater the temptation to hide bad news in the hope that it will get back on track. Sometimes this creates the space for the project team to sort out problems but also risks getting further off track and escalating the problem and the consequences.
For project managers, hope creep happens when the project manager starts lying about the status of the project (which is behind schedule and over-budget) to the stakeholders and the client, while hoping that he will be able to get the project on track before anyone discovers the truth. Since hope creep involves lying to important people either inside or outside the company, the project manager will always be in panic mode because he knows that he’ll most likely be fired when the truth comes out, and it usually does.
Similar to scope creep, nothing good comes out from hope creep. In fact, it is nearly impossible for the project manager to get the project on track (schedule and budget wise) once he starts lying.
Hope creep involves sending misleading status reports about the project showing that the project is on time, on budget, and on schedule.
The behavior is endemic in some organizations because too often the bad news messenger is shot in the search for blame. Where there is hope, no matter how remote, that the project can be rescued secretly many people will avoid the short term pain and let their optimistic bias kick in.
Most of us have had to confront the ethical and political considerations of how to report problems considering the impact on our own reputation and that of our colleagues. The reality is that some organizations will punish candid reporting of problems. That is despite the long-term consequence being the suppression of important information and misreporting that will ultimately punish the organization. Fostering open communication becomes even more important as projects near completion and, as the research finds, the incentive for misreporting increases.
Reporting bad news may require some courage and test the nerves of all involved. What a smart organization does is to focus on sorting out the problem while deferring the search for explanations and accountability.
To deal with the behaviors listed above an organization needs a consistent culture that rewards honest communication, avoids shooting the messenger that brings bad news and deals professionally with inevitable hiccups in projects.
Where an organization allows inaccurate or self-serving communication it will slowly create a level of cynicism. People will start second-guessing the communication of others or read negative motives into communication. Cynicism is hard to turn around once it enters the workplace.