Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Honest Expectations and Dishonesty

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“…I heard the Chaplain say, Women and Children and Chaplains First”

Harry Chapin from Dance Band on the Titanic

People pause just a bit upon hearing the words to Harry Chapin’s song, Dance Band on the Titanic due to the violation of social norms implied by the chaplains’ words. In a civilized society the strong are supposed to look after the weak, parents (or parental figures) look after their children (or child-like figures), in the world of work organizational managers are not only assumed to be looking after the organization’s health but the well-being of organizational members. Those who genuinely aspire to look after our spiritual well-being (if not charlatans) are also tasked by their followers with looking out for how we behave ethically as individuals and collectively as a society – especially if it is a “calling” to which they are drawn rather than something they do simply for profit. Violation of those precepts, or violation of the moral obligations by those to which others look towards as standard bearers, placing in them their confidence and trust, leads one to look closer at what is occurring, and whether the trust that was given was misplaced.

Consider a male physician who is paid in a transactional way to look after the physical well-being of a male lawyer (treating him for say a nasty fungus). The expectation that a male physician would give up a seat on the Titanic’s lifeboat for the male lawyer who happens to be his patient is just not there and there would be no moral obligation for him to do so. The physician violates his moral obligation to the lawyer only if he violates his occupation’s ethical rules, or the societal rules surrounding the physician/patient relationship, such as treating the lawyer’s fungus with a cure that he knows to be worthless or charging for treatments that did not occur. 

Contrast that to higher order social “contracts” which are performed not for the sake of earning a living or barter of some sort. These social contracts will often create a much stronger bond between the parties involved in the contract/relationship. For instance, a parent/child relationship (or between parents and society regarding how they should behave with their children) creates much stronger expectations regarding certain protective behaviors then one done for compensation, such as between the physician and the patient, even when the child is adopted and does not carry the parents genes. When a violation of the societal norms occur in the parent/child relationship/contract, as in the case of child abuse, society may step in to protect the child, the weaker party in the transaction. People devote themselves to their community, causes, political party, religion, heritage, etc. generally without the expectation of financial gain, but never-the-less creating very strong attachments and social contracts to the various groups and with those strong attachments come expectations. When those expectations are clearly shown to be violated, people’s attachments (first after potential denial) can be severely weakened.  

Another implication of Chapin’s Titanic song is that somehow the chaplain, possibly of weak character, also considers himself more worthy of saving than others and this just does not sit well, a violation of fairness and situational efficacy – the potential of the situation to lead to success for an individual. In the workplace, the managers who consider themselves more worthy of or more deserving of special favors, the accumulation of wealth or organizationally bestowed benefits given to them at the perceived expense of other employees, fall into the same category. When one of them gets caught up in scandal, ethical violations, or illegal activity, once again attention is focused, and people can feel like fairness and situational efficacy are being restored.

What are some of the differential drivers of when various social norms, honesty or ethical behavior apply? One aspect seems to be time pressure. Benno Torgler examined the behaviors of those sinking on the Titanic, which took 2 hours and 40 minutes to submerge into the ocean’s depths and compared it to those on the Lusitania, which sank in 18 minutes. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and reported in Science News, Torgler found that on the Titanic healthy young men were more likely to go down with the ship while women and children (doesn’t say anything about chaplains) where significantly more likely to have made it into a lifeboat. In fact, women were 50% more likely to survive then men. Young men between the ages of 16 and 35 were 7 percent less likely to survive than a referent population (those over 35, childless and traveling in 3rd class). On the Lusitania, with much less time for social norms to kick in, “an every person for themselves” mentally seemed prevalent, with young men being 8 percent more likely to survive, while women in total faced the same odds as men. Children on the Titanic were 31 percent more likely than the referent population to make it into a life boat, while on the Lusitania they fared slightly worse than the referent population. (This is the same methodology that I use to conduct diversity studies in organizations and it works well.)

Society’s and individual’s expectations of what is proper normal behavior, ethical or honest behavior is not independent of the circumstance in which people find themselves, but rather is heavily influenced by the unique circumstances in which people or a workforce is enmeshed. And what is normal or acceptable may also look different in hindsight when compared to the pressures of the moment.

Why would an organizational manager for instance “cook the books”, thinking that they could get away with falsifying something that becomes memorialized and is available for detailed inspection over a lengthy period of time?  As in the Lusitania sinking, one possible answer to behavior that upon a lengthier period for reflection might be viewed as unacceptable are the time pressures that managers feel in order to “make their numbers”, the pressure of the here and now. But other factors show up as well. One study on dishonest behavior on the part of managers in organizations comes to the conclusion that the opportunity to cheat and behave dishonestly is able to explain dishonesty and cheating more than any of the other factors or characteristics of the manager, in other words simple access to the opportunity to be dishonest. Checks and balances anyone? Regulatory oversight?

Elizabeth Scott and Karen Jehn of the University of Pennsylvania and The Wharton School respectively, define dishonesty as occurring when “a responsible actor voluntarily and intentionally violates some convention of the transfer of information or of property, and, in so doing, potentially harms a valued being.” They then refine this definition to differentiate among various categories of dishonesty, such as theft and deceit. James Eck from Washburn University demonstrated that those with dishonest characteristics can not only cause organizational failure but by measuring the lack of honesty in management you can predict organizational failure 3-years out. He determined that most failures of property-liability insurers resulted from dishonesty and the removal of assets from the company and into the possession of management. And that an approach that measured honesty, rather than relying on loss reserves and loss ratios on the balance sheet, as is done today, was successful in correctly classifying 88% of the firms three years prior to their liquidation. Measuring organizational members, their attitudes, characteristics and behavior as a way to determine organizational success, has been demonstrated time and again as a powerful predictive tool, rather than simply relying on the numbers kept on the balance sheet.

The likelihood of managers (or others) being dishonest can increase after they observe dishonest behavior on the part of others. This is especially so if those engaged in dishonest behavior view the benefits received as greater than the costs associated with dishonest behavior. For instance, if a manager observes another manager cooking the books, and that manager is rewarded for doing so, then observing another manager benefit from dishonest behavior will increase the propensity of otherwise honest managers to also act dishonestly (Becker).  Managers it was also found increase dishonest behavior when dishonest behavior is condoned by the peer group to which the manager belongs. (Cialdini &Trost).

When the group being observed as being dishonest is not considered a peer group (a group that the manager considers him or herself similar to) by the observer, a contrasting effect may emerge. Observation of a dishonest act in this case may increase the awareness of the dishonest behavior as something to be avoided, for who want to be like those that are observed as dishonest (Gino, Ayal & Ariely).  Additionally, increasing the perceived costs of acting dishonestly with a swift and a forceful reaction may increase the perceived costs of the dishonest behavior and reduce the occurrence of dishonesty.  

Honesty and dishonesty, what is perceived as acceptable vs. violation is not only influenced by societal norms and values, but also by basic underlying characteristics that as human beings we all contain. Those characteristics are not binary with for instance, someone being either honest or dishonest, truthful or a liar, etc. but rather exist along a continuum. Someone who is normally quite honest when placed in an inappropriate enough situation may lose their honesty, at least temporarily. And it has been shown that cheaters in academic or business situations, may be willing to cheat just a little bit, but of course even cheaters have their standards and will not violate them by cheating to an extent that violates those standards. As humans, gathering and processing the daily doses of information that impinge, we tend to categorize and paint with a broad brush, everything can be seen as either black and white, but often that is just not the case. The path to increasing honesty and fulfilling our expectations around honesty can be impacted by:

  • increasing the amount of measurement on the “honesty” component within organizations
  • removing the opportunity for dishonest behavior – installing checks and balances or oversight within organizations
  • not looking upon dishonest individuals as peers, but rather have peer groups in place that exhibit honesty – changing the norm
  • not allowing a “pass” on the part of those behaving dishonestly, in effect rewarding dishonesty; but rather rewarding honesty
  • allowing time for adequate reflection on the consequence of behaviors; avoiding snap or time pressured decisions.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


One Response

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  1. Enjoyable article, until I got to the end! The 5 bullet points appear to be methods for organizations to employ which give managers a set of guidelines for when they can be dishonest. In other words, an organization can remove any feeling of guilt for wrong doing. Lets define dishonesty as a disease that needs to be accepted! I don’t think that was your intent, or perhaps it is just my interpretation of your blog that is off base.

    Everyone has their own moral compass that helps guide their decisions. I have worked with individuals whose compass wildly swings based on circumstance and others who are much more predictable and consistent. Doing the “right thing” is not always easy, and at times can be downright painful — either way, it is necessary and lacking in many cases.

    Let’s not excuse dishonest behavior but reward those individuals that have the courage to be accountable and responsible.

    Andy Bynum

    April 5, 2010 at 9:08 am

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