Fighting the “Feel Good” from Cheating

News flash: Cheating gets you high.

A recent study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by researchers at the University of Washington, the London Business School, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania comes to the surprising conclusion: “Cheating is associated with feelings of self-satisfaction.” The study, “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior” also found that the good feelings do not depend on financial gain.

So is it time for ethics and compliance professionals to find different jobs?  I would argue instead that this presents an opportunity to better understand the enemy – human nature – and to formulate a better defense.

We already know some of the reasons that cause otherwise good people to do bad things. As authors Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel conclude in their 2011 book Blind Spots, there are four main causes: ignorance, pressure, lack of accountability and self-interest. Leaders in organizations can do a lot to neutralize these drivers and help employees stay on an ethical path.

  • Ignorance can be reversed with training and periodic communications about behavioral standards and staff ethics and compliance responsibilities.
  • Pressure is part of the work world, but leaders can monitor for and address pressure that gets excessive. They also must make sure to temper any message to perform with an equally strong comment about performing with principles.
  • Lack of accountability can be changed through the leaders’ good example of doing what they commit to and by holding others consistently accountable – fairly and with respect.
  • Self-interest may be addressed by helping employees recognize rationalizations when they say them or hear them. “It’s only this once” or “I deserve it” may be the first step toward a slippery slope or an entitlement orgy.

Now we can add “euphoria” to the list of reasons people do the wrong thing – and the pursuit of feeling good is hardest to fight. Maybe the answer is to offer a better “high?”

Here are some (strictly legal) ways for organizations to do it:

  • Public Recognition – Some companies struggle with the idea of contests or awards for doing what’s right. But recognition makes people feel good. And peers who hear about a colleague’s recognition also feel good. This can be something as simple as employee-written newsletter stories or it can be big like, “The President’s Award for Ethics.” Celebrating ethical acts may do more to promote compliance and ethics than issuing discipline. I would love to see some data.
  • Personal Reward – Everyone feels good from receiving unexpected cash.  Putting teeth into performance reviews that tie specific, identifiable steps for promoting an ethical culture to discretionary compensation may turn ethics bonuses into a better high than cheating.
  • Create a cultural standard of “right doing” – This is the brass ring for organizations, but it is clearly not simple. I would argue that this has to start at the top. Volumes have been written about the role of leadership, but it truly is a social pyramid scheme where the currency is reward, recognition and “feeling good.” Any behavior that depletes the currency is not tolerated. And leading the consistent enforcement effort is the person at the top. Period.

The bottom line is that we still need strong ethics and compliance programs to administer both the carrot and stick – at least until they make a pill that makes cheating feel bad.

Chat with a solutions expert to learn how you can take your compliance program to the next level of maturity.

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