Sharing Benefits Increases Cheating

Today’s post is a thought bubble on honesty and cheating in the workplace following two articles I read recently.  The first is an interesting report on how people are more likely to cheat if the benefits of that cheating are shared with another person, even with an anonymous stranger.  The likelihood of behaving dishonestly doubled (21% to 43%) when participants could point to another’s benefit from their own unethical behavior.

The report was based on experiments involving word games and other online activities in which the researchers left opportunities for participants to over-report their performance.  Splitting the benefits of cheating was considered less unethical by participants than taking the benefits all for themselves.

The article, Cheating more when the spoils are split (Word version), was authored by Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California.    He concludes:

Self-interest clearly motivates people to behave unethically.  However, the studies here indicate that people may actually be more likely to behave unethically when they do not capture all of the benefits that the unethical behavior yields.  Because most of us have a need to ourselves themselves (sic) as moral, we face limits in how unethically we can behave lest we lose the view of ourselves as moral people.  When we can rationalize that our unethical behavior benefits others as well, we may be able to simultaneously act unethically and preserve our positive view of our selves.

What’s the relevance?

The experiment is a distilled characterization of a modern working environment.  Offices are filled with online systems (e.g. status reports through email, electronic workflows, bug tracking systems).  We do a lot of self-reporting (e.g. self-assessments, project progress).  The reports can impact ourselves and our team positively or negatively.  Together we have the ingredients that create incentives for deception.

Drawing general conclusions from a specific experiment is a fraught process.  However, I think we can surmise that:

  • In any organization of reasonable size there is likely to be unethical behavior motivated by self-interest;
  • An organization’s response to internal communication (particularly expected benefits and penalties of good and bad news) may increase the incentive for unethical behavior

Decision Makers Hide Negative Data on Almost-Done Projects

The second interesting report is the flip side of the first.  Where the first describes the exaggeration of positive news for self or shared benefits, the second deals with the suppression of bad news.  The Consequences of Completion: How Level of Completion Influences Information Concealment by Decision Makers found that as a big project gets closer to completion decision makers are more likely to conceal negative information about the project.

In this research groups of undergraduates participated in a fictional business project in which a significant problem arose.  They were asked to decide how much more to invest in it and then to report their reasoning. If the project was near complete (90%) 81% failed to mention anything negative.  Whereas if the project was freshly started (10% complete) only a minority (37.5%) failed to mention anything negative.

The more time that has been spent on a project, the more you stand to lose and the greater the temptation to hide bad news in the hope that it will get back on track.  Sometimes this creates the space for the project team to sort out problems but also risks getting further off track and escalating the problem and the consequences.

This is sometimes called “Hope Creep” which humblepm describes as

For project managers, hope creep happens when the project manager starts lying about the status of the project (which is behind schedule and over-budget) to the stakeholders and the client, while hoping that he will be able to get the project on track before anyone discovers the truth. Since hope creep involves lying to important people either inside or outside the company, the project manager will always be in panic mode because he knows that he’ll most likely be fired when the truth comes out, and it usually does.

Similar to scope creep, nothing good comes out from hope creep. In fact, it is nearly impossible for the project manager to get the project on track (schedule and budget wise) once he starts lying.

Hope creep involves sending misleading status reports about the project showing that the project is on time, on budget, and on schedule.

The behavior is endemic in some organizations because too often the bad news messenger is shot in the search for blame.  Where there is hope, no matter how remote, that the project can be rescued secretly many people will avoid the short term pain and let their optimistic bias kick in.


Most of us have had to confront the ethical and political considerations of how to report problems considering the impact on our own reputation and that of our colleagues.  The reality is that some organizations will punish candid reporting of problems.  That is despite the long-term consequence being the suppression of important information and misreporting that will ultimately punish the organization.  Fostering open communication becomes even more important as projects near completion and, as the research finds, the incentive for misreporting increases.

Reporting bad news may require some courage and test the nerves of all involved.  What a smart organization does is to focus on sorting out the problem while deferring the search for explanations and accountability.

To deal with the behaviors listed above an organization needs a consistent culture that rewards honest communication, avoids shooting the messenger that brings bad news and deals professionally with inevitable hiccups in projects.

Where an organization allows inaccurate or self-serving communication it will slowly create a level of cynicism.  People will start second-guessing the communication of others or read negative motives into communication.  Cynicism is hard to turn around once it enters the workplace.


4 Comments on “Sharing Benefits Increases Cheating”

  1. Paul Regis says:

    The “culture” section of this idea is probably most relevant, looking at incentives and motivation to cheat – be they implicit (e.g. failure to face the truth) or explicit (lying in order to look good or receive reward).
    Some project managers may just hope to move onto the next thing before the true problems manifest, or else they are well practiced in blaming other people.
    In a sense, sharing is a social comfort factor, where people believe that it must be ok if others are also doing the same thing, as we saw demonstrated in the recent UK riots.
    Battling those human behavioural characteristics is one of the qualities of a good management structure.

  2. Paul Regis says:

    I’ve seen positive steps in newer methodologies like Agile, which don’t leave any hiding places or room for people to operate significant hope creep. That could be why so many in big companies find Agile so uncomfortable.
    Culture is a tricky thing, often more than the sum of its parts. I’ve seen good efforts in teams within companies, but never on a company wide level that had credibility. Its because people feel more important when they act as part of a small unit, where their effort is noticed (ie the team) rather than as an anonymous cog in a large machine. The latter will surely encourage cheating. That’s why inspired local management is the most important part of creating that culture. It needs honesty, self-awareness, discipline and a sense of fun and ambition.

  3. […] Sharing Benefits Increases Cheating […]

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