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Cheating to Win Means Your Organization Loses

What is it about cheating that bothers us so much? Is it because cheating reminds us that life can be unfair, or does cheating trigger our earliest memories of when we felt the sting of injustice? If the old adage “Cheaters never prosper” rang hollow when you heard it the first time, now there may be a reason to restore your faith in the expression. New research links unethical leadership to poor business performance.

Author Robert Cialdini explains that poor performance under deceptive leaders takes the shape of lower productivity, loss of ethical employees and worse, a culture where cheating spreads. But what’s at the root of cheating?

Leaders find themselves under incredible pressure to perform at the highest levels consistently over time, which no one can sustain indefinitely. So, rather than transparently share missteps or the need for corrective measures, lying becomes the easy out on a long slippery slope.

The pressure to perform starts early. Students frequently earn praise for being smart rather than credited for hard work, which makes some more likely to cheat to preserve the perception. Fast forward 20 years and those students become employees who are hired for their impressive résumé comprised of facts and, in some cases, fiction. Remember former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson? He lasted only four months because he lied about having a computer science degree on his résumé.

Because leaders often are vetted for their results rather than integrity during the interview process, the outcome can be a new hire who sends the message that winning is everything so nothing else matters. Other employees begin cheating because that’s the only way to keep pace in an unethical culture. In short, cheating begets more cheating.

If you’re in a position where you can influence others, the best way to disrupt deceptive behavior is to state values clearly, catch people acting with integrity and reward them. Create opportunities to speak about or promote good behavior so the message becomes loud and clear to others.

The same reward system applies upstream where you can influence critical choices. If you serve on a selection committee, be diligent about checking the résumé facts. Encourage your team to craft interview questions that tap into the applicant’s values and choices they’ve made when there was pressure to perform. Applicants who demonstrate integrity naturally move forward in the process.

There’s no doubt we’d all like to succeed. But if you win at the cost of low productivity, suffering morale, and high attrition—was it worth it? Consider the alternative. While disclosing a snag in performance might be painful in the moment, you might be surprised to find that you earned stakeholder and employee trust in the process and, better yet, a chance to truly prosper.

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  1. Len McCreary

    I met a man on a plane who told me, “hire for character first, intelligence second, and knowledge last. Without character, the other two don’t matter.” It was a powerful thought.

    Today, many people – maybe most – consider cheating only in terms of law. If the law or a contract says I don’t have to fulfill an obligation or agreement, then it’s perfectly “right” to not. But integrity has three pillars: legal, moral, and ethical. Its common to satisfy one or two, but not the third. It’s super-important that our teams are made aware there is more to business than law.

    Reply to Len McCreary

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