The culture of honesty in the workplace: with nudges you can!

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“There are honest people in the world, but only because the devil thinks the price they ask is incredibly high”. That’s a matter of opinion, but it’s hard not to smile ironically at American writer Peter S. Beagle’s definition of a concept that is as concrete as it is abstract and about which the Nudge can do a lot, even if few people (yet) know it.

Honesty is like diet…

Being honest is not easy, let’s be honest…. And not always do the examples highlighted in the press help us stand firm on our good intentions. Fortunately, however, resisting the temptation to behave unethically is not as impossible as one might think.

This is according to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. According to Ayelet Fishbach and Oliver J. Sheldon, honesty is a bit like a diet: difficult to follow if you don’t keep in mind the objective (honesty) for which you joined that specific diet, and the long-term consequences of your actions.

In the study, the two researchers carried out several experiments with a group of volunteers faced with a series of dilemmas. In one trial, participants played the role of the seller of a historic building and a potential buyer, with two very different objectives: the seller had to prevent the property from being destroyed, while the buyer aimed to demolish it and build a hotel in its place.

Before starting, half of them were asked to recall a situation in which they had behaved dishonestly in the past and what consequences this had brought. Among them, 45% of the buyers lied during the negotiation phase for the purchase of the property, while the percentage in the other half of the participants was 65%.

In a second experiment, participants were asked to rate whether or not a number of dishonest behaviours at work were acceptable, such as calling in sick to take a day off, stealing pens and stationery from the office, or slowing down the pace of work to avoid receiving additional tasks. By asking some of them to reflect on a series of ethical dilemmas before taking part in the test, the researchers noted that this significantly decreased the likelihood that they would find the dishonest behaviour under scrutiny acceptable. According to the two researchers, Fishbach and Sheldon, the results indicate that it is easier to behave honestly if one remembers the consequences of dishonest behaviour and if one does not prepare oneself in time to resist temptation.

The situation is therefore not so dramatic, fortunately. And to further help increase the human propensity for honesty, there are Nudges. The gentle strategy that helps make even the most complex choices simple.

Being honest is not easy, let's be honest.... And not always do the examples highlighted in the press help us stand firm on our good intentions.

Be careful where you sign

One of the most effective éscamotages is to make the value of honesty salient. How? By having the signature on documents and certifications placed at the top rather than at the bottom, i.e. before completion rather than at the end, as is usually the case. This little nudge has the function of directing attention to oneself and leading to surprisingly powerful effects on the moral behaviour we will then act upon. The signature is a way to activate attention to oneself and to the values in which we believe.

Signing one’s name before entering information (rather than at the end) awakens in us the value of honesty and this will prompt us to answer questions more truthfully. The current practice of signing after reporting seals the damage: immediately after lying, people quickly engage in various justifications, reinterpretations and other tricks such as suppressing thoughts about moral standards that allow them to maintain a positive self-image despite having lied. Put simply, once an individual has lied, it is too late to turn their attention to ethics by requiring a signature.

Is it really that simple? Yes, it is.

To support this Nudge, a number of experiments were conducted, one of which was to measure the honesty of a group of volunteers engaged in solving mathematical problems, the solution of which generated earnings for them.

Following the task assigned to them, the subjects were asked to report their earnings, expenses and travel time, after which they would receive payment. The subjects then had the opportunity to increase their income by reporting exaggerated earnings on the self-declaration form.

The results of the experiment showed little difference between the subjects who signed an honesty statement at the end of the form and those who were not asked to sign anything (63% cheated for those who signed at the end of the form and 79% for those who were not asked to sign anything).

For those who signed before completing the form, dishonest statements were around 37%. This suggests that making the value of honesty salient before people act may have significant effects on their tendency to be honest.

Lack of awareness

One of the reasons why people tend to behave dishonestly is that they do not always have conscious access to their own moral standards. That is, they are not attentive to what leads them to act, what directs their choices and decisions.

People evaluate actions according to internal values and standards. A lack or laxity of self-awareness may therefore lead them to exhibit dishonest behaviour, even if this is not consistent with their moral standards.

Signing a declaration of honesty at the top of the form is in these cases effective in promoting honesty, as it activates people’s internal moral compass before they act.

Although this is not the only incentive designed to promote honesty, the proposed suggestion is quite easy to implement and can potentially have great benefits for both the individual and society. As mentioned earlier, the problem is not that individuals are unscrupulous liars, but that many of us are more prone to a little dishonesty if given the chance. As the evidence suggests, people can be helped to remain consistent with their standards of honesty if their moral compass is activated just before they act.

Laura Mondino

Sources:

Sheldon O.J., Fishback A., Anticipating and Resisting the Temptation to Behave Unethically, May 22, 2015 

Shu L., Mazar N., Gino F., Ariely D., Bazerman M. H., Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end, PNAS September 18, 2012

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