Thursday, June 24, 2010

Operating with Integrity

We usually get this question on company surveys: do you act with integrity and honesty in all that you do? The funny thing is that we do create environments where honesty and integrity are punished. Take for example online dating services. These systems have been around for long enough that they provide a rich set of data to analyze. For example, what female attribute are men most interested in? Sadly, not much has changed in a few million years; it’s her weight. On the ladies side, they are mostly concerned with income followed closely with height. The more interesting is the studies show that 90% of applications are actually inflated on these characteristics. Men tend to add 10-20% to their income and slightly adjust their height. Hey, if I wear my Nike Air Max 2010’s I am almost 6 foot. I am not even going to touch the ladies side of this equation. So what does an honest man do? If I say I make $50,000 then potential soul mates are going to reduce that by $20,000 and think I am a bum. The system is built to punish the honest person that acts with integrity. So these types of systems do exist.

Driving home is another example where honest people act in a dishonest way. Everyday where I exit the interstate, at least 5-10 cars will wait until last second to push their way into line versus actually waiting like everyone else. This is very interesting behavior in that these same people would never do this in line at a bank or fast food restaurant. Regardless of the possibility for causing a traffic accident or other issues to those behind them, they know how to game the system.

How about you? Suppose that I tried an experiment on your team of 10 co-workers. Let’s say I give everyone $10 and then asked you to put as much of that $10 into a bucket as you like. Once I collected the money, I would double the dollars and redistribute to the team. Wow, not only did you get $10 but now you can get $20 for free. Sounds like a sweet deal to me. But, what if William and Mary decide to hold on to their $10 which means $80 was put into the pot and you only got $18. Knowing that two people got $28 ($10 for the original gift plus another $18 from the pot) for gaming the system what would you do the next time I offer the same deal?

Despite the amusing aspects of these stories, they point out several interesting dimensions of acting with honesty and integrity. First, we do create systems that benefit those that cheat. In fact, many of these systems go so far as to reward those that cheat and punish those that do not. Secondly, once one person begins to game the system we have little choice but to follow suit. In a hyper competitive world, your core beliefs are challenged on a daily basis by those that game the system.

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