Leaders Beware – Employees Lie and Cheat Because it Feels Good

If we only worked with nice, honest people life would be much easier, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, the workplace often has its share of liars and cheats.

But before you begin pointing the finger, consider the fact that research shows even the nicest among us is likely to cheat if they feel they won’t get caught, and those that do cheat enjoy it. Getting away with something makes people feel good.

Unethical behavior like lying and cheating not only fails to evoke a negative emotional reaction from the people who demonstrate it, but can give them an “emotional high,” say researchers from Wharton University, the London Business School, the University of Washington and Harvard Business School.

The experiments conducted by the researchers found that when individuals were confronted with moral decisions that didn’t seem to directly impact a specific individual, then they were less likely to feel badly when they lied or cheated. So, if you can fudge that expense report or stuff some office supplies into your backpack, then you may not feel badly about it – not like you would if you stole $5 out of a coworker’s pocket.

“I think we often presume that guilt and remorse are going to hold people back. As humans, I really think we’re quite good at justifying our own behavior and putting it out of our mind in a way that makes guilt and remorse poor disincentives,” says Wharton professor Maurice E. Schweitzer.

In his new book, “The Truth about Trust,” David DeSteno explains that his research shows that 90% of those in an experiment cheated because they didn’t think they would get caught, even though they had earlier said such behavior was wrong. When asked about their cheating, they reported believing that what they did was acceptable, even as they condemned others for doing the same thing.

“They were perfect hypocrites – absolving themselves of guilt for the same moral failures for which they condemned others – and as such were immune to self-reproach,” he reports.

Researchers point out that if leaders want to prevent unethical behavior, they need to not only be brutally honest about their own lapses, but also understand the psychology behind cheating and lying. Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., says that her research shows people in their daily interactions lie one in five times, while Pamela Meyer, author of “Liespotting,” says that we’re lied to from 10 to 200 times a day.

Wharton’s Schweitzer says that the good feelings involved in cheating may come from a sense of accomplishment in beating the system. In other words, keeping a constant vigil on worker behavior may have the opposite effect and prompt workers to try and overcome such a challenge.

“People may perceive it like a game, Schweitzer says.

Schweitzer explains that companies offering amnesty programs allowing workers to return pilfered tools or equipment have had “truckloads of tools” returned to them by workers.

“To reduce cheating, I would change the culture, communicate your expectations and acknowledge that you’re trusting people to do the right thing. These actions may curtail cheating,” Schweitzer says.

At the same time, be aware that a negative reaction isn’t going to be enough stop people from the inner thrill they get from pulling a fast one.

How should leaders deal with lying and cheating in the workplace?

Tips from the CIA on Detecting Lies

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  • There is a potential negative feedback loop between fear of getting caught and enjoyment at gaming a system. That potential is activated if management focuses on the issue of lying solely in terms of policing and catching offenders.

    The broader, longer-term answer is to establish a tone of ethical values, and to have management live by those values and insist others do as well.

    The downside of violating rules is simply getting caught. The downside of violating values is social shunning – a much more powerful motivator.

    The upside of obeying rules is, well, no downside. But the upside of obeying values is that you feel like a member of the society – again, a much more powerful motivator.

    If you want to eliminate the “good feelings” that come from cheating, make the issue one of ethics. It should have been that way all along. Somewhere we got off the path and started framing social and ethical issues as issues of motivation and reward systems.

  • terredean

    Employees lie and cheat, yes they might do that. To avoid this,
    leader should keep a friendly behavior and at the same time keep a track on the
    employees work. We too have been dealing with all of this.