Battling an Irresistible Urge to Cheat? Ethical Slips

Not a month goes by without some highly publicized ethical scandal. Be it tax evasion, executive pay excesses, sexual dalliances and outright fraud, many individuals are simply unable to resist temptation. 

Does this make the perpetrators corrupt sociopaths?

Sometimes, but usually not. They’re often leaders and pillars of the community, and their actions leave us shaking our heads and wondering what were they thinking?

What is the sad truth? Cheating isn’t limited to those in positions of power. While power is certainly fraught with opportunities and temptations, each of us faces daily choices that involve doing the right—or wrong—thing. Only when a CEO, politician, celebrity or sports legend gets caught does the problem rise to front-page news. Just ask Tiger Woods.

But the same ethical traps lie in your path. Even the little guys transgress. Often, people feel an urge to cheat—a strange pull to try to get away with something. Sometimes it’s small; other times it’s scandalous. Sometimes it matters; other times it goes unnoticed.

Ethical Roots

Psychology and other social sciences offer a huge body of experimental studies that demonstrate the allure of cheating. In The Ethical Executive (Stanford University Press, 2008), Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey describe 45 ethical traps inherent in any organizational environment.

Many of these traps are psychological in nature, creating “webs of deception” that distort our perception of right and wrong. Such rationalizations lead us to believe our unethical behavior is normal and appropriate, and they have contributed to large-scale corporate disasters like the Enron and WorldCom affairs.

The Brain Science of Traps

Fish are caught in wire cages with funnel-shaped entrances, which are designed to direct the fish to swim inside.

In the same way, individuals and organizations move in a certain direction—one that may trap them if they fail to reverse an ill-fated course.

At any given moment, we have impulses that motivate us to act. They are reactions to internal or external stimuli, which may be powerful enough to trigger automatic behavior. At this point, we may rationally ignore other (and better) options.

Other times, we’re aware of several distinct choices, but the stimulus’ effect overrides these potential actions. We may desire a specific outcome so strongly that it propels us to move in an unsound direction. Anxiety and stress may also compel us to make choices that alleviate our short-term distress, yet lead to irrevocable long-term consequences.

Four Basic Tribal Drives

Some experts believe we’re motivated by four basic human drives that have evolved from our primitive ancestors:

  1. The drive to acquire and improve our status in the tribe
  2. The drive to bond with others
  3. The drive to learn and acquire knowledge
  4. The drive to defend and protect

These drives are especially evident in American and other modern cultures. We work hard to provide for our families, far beyond our survival needs for food, clothing and shelter. Many of us are highly motivated to land the best job, home and/or salary possible. It’s human nature to want to acquire things that make our families comfortable and happy. Many of us are driven to be the smartest or most  prestigious person in the room.

Much of our energy goes toward protecting what we have and defending our territories, families, positions, rights and freedoms—a strong drive that explains why nations go to war.

Organizations are like theaters, where actors play out their desires to acquire, bond, learn and defend. There’s no better stage to demonstrate our tribal drives, and nowhere are there more daily opportunities to choose between right and wrong.

The Ethical Stage

As children, we were primed to obey our parents. Our very survival depended on it. Some families demanded strict obedience; others were lenient about opposition and rebellion; still others encouraged creativity and individual spirit.

But all families required obedience to authority. This conditioning continued in school. Consequently, as adults, when our boss orders us to do something, we quickly obey—often, without thinking.

If an authority figure orders us to do something unethical, our sense of obedience may be so powerful that we follow orders without acknowledging that we’re going against our ethical principles.

Root Causes of Traps

Obedience to authority is a “primary” trap, which means a strong external stimulus impels us to move in a certain direction, without regard for our ethical principles.

In business, people don’t abandon their ethics simply because they want to maximize profits. Rather, their drive to acquire and improve their status lures them into a social-psychological trap.

This often happens in small steps—yet another trap. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out quickly. But if you place it in the pot and slowly increase the heat, it will remain there and be cooked.

Small steps and choices create minor ethical transgressions that do little harm, but they set the direction that eventually leads to major, irreversible violations.

Primary Traps

Hoyk and Hersey describe three types of social-psychological traps that occur in the workplace: primary, defensive and personality. They include:

  1. Obedience to authority
  2. Small steps
  3. Indirect responsibility
  4. Faceless victims
  5. Lost in the group
  6. Competition
  7. Self-interest
  8. Tyranny of goals
  9. Money
  10. Conformity
  11. Power
  12. Obligation
  13. Time pressures

Carefully review and understand these traps so you can prepare for—and avoid—them. Doing so will help ensure your choices are sound and your moral compass remains intact.

Would Your Employees Fire You?

Part Two of Two

A Strengths-Based Approach

There’s a reason why managers’ focus on strengths and weaknesses is so important. Most organizations are obsessed with fixing weaknesses. They consequently conduct performance reviews, 360-degree assessments and they like to evaluate how well employees and managers are measuring up to predefined goals and competencies.

Managers are instructed to look at an employee’s assessed gap and coach for greater performance in areas of weakness. The goal is to raise awareness of deficiencies and encourage progress toward a set standard, building strength where it is lacking. An executive coach, an offsite training program and in-house learning programs may be assigned.

Such assessments, however, usually pay only cursory attention to an employee’s strengths. The assessment, performance review and subsequent remedial programs focus instead almost exclusively on gaps or weaknesses.

Focus on What Works

Too many managers assume that employees need to be good at many things, rather than excellent in key areas – a decidedly negative view of human capital.

More recent studies in behavioral sciences and organizational performance have firmly established that focusing on what works, followed by a program to scale it to greater levels, is a more practical and efficient approach to developing people and performance.

Managers who take a strengths-based approach help employees identify strengths and align talents with their work. These managers don’t ignore employee weaknesses, but fixing them isn’t their primary focus.

Instead, positive managers focus more on the areas in which an employee excels and how his or her strengths can be leveraged to benefit the employee, team and organization.

Greenberg and Arakawa measured the degree to which managers used strength-based behaviors by asking employees to rate their level of agreement with a series of statements, such as:

  • “My project manager matches my talents to the tasks that need to be accomplished.”
  • “My project manager encourages high performance by building on my strengths.”

They found that managers who focused on strengths enjoyed superior team performance, as opposed to managers who focused on weaknesses.

Their study surveyed more than 100 information technology professionals in different managerial roles at The Hanover Insurance Group. Managers were asked about how well projects met budget, schedule and quality standards.

Using the employee responses, Greenberg and Arakawa ranked the extent to which managers focused on strengths and found that those in the top quartile had much higher project performance results.

Based on retrospective project performance results from 2005, managers in the top quartile achieved an average project performance score of 10.6 on a 20-point scale, while managers in the bottom quartile achieved an average score of 7.09. In 2006, the average score for top-quartile managers was 17.91, compared to an average score of 11.55 for managers in the bottom quartile.

Good managers won’t be surprised to find a correlation between their behavior and employee performance. But even Hanover’s leaders were surprised at how much the two factors correlated.

The Problem-Seeking Mindset

A second important factor in positive leadership behaviors is giving frequent praise and recognition. In 90% of workplaces, this doesn’t happen enough, nor is praise delivered in a way that can be heard or received for maximum effect.

It’s not enough to wait for annual performance reviews or project completion to deliver feedback. Praise must be frequent, ongoing and specific to current behaviors – not vague or general.

Why is it so difficult to provide frequent, positive feedback? Because, in truth, we’re predisposed to look for the negative: in ourselves, in others and for external events. We rarely scan our environment and ask:

  • “What’s working right now… and how can we do more of it?”
  • Instead, we look around and ask: “What’s broken – and how can we fix it?”

The problem-seeking mindset is one of the brain’s shortcomings, while also serving as a protective device to spare us from danger and making mistakes. Psychologists have studied our predilection for the negative, with astonishing results.

The Brain Power of Negativity

In Switch (2010), authors Dan and Chip Heath write about “finding the bright spots” in our work and lives. After extensive research, the two business school professors have documented myriad cases that prove how hard it is to overcome negativity’s pull.

In one study, for example, scientists analyzed 558 words in the English language that denote emotions, and they found that 62% were negative (versus the 38% positive).

Across the board, no matter the situation or domain, we are wired to focus on bad over good.

  • Example A: People who were shown photos of good and bad events spent more time viewing the latter.
  • Example B: When people hear something bad about someone else, they pay more attention to it, reflect on it more, remember it longer and weigh it more when assessing that person. This tendency is called “positive-negative asymmetry.”
  • Example C: A researcher reviewed 17 studies of how people interpret and explain events in their lives, such as how fans interpret sporting events or how students describe their days in a journal. Across multiple domains – work, politics, sports, relationships – people were more likely to spontaneously bring up negative versus positive events.

“Bad is stronger than good,” the Heaths conclude. It’s no wonder performance reviews and feedback are usually aimed at what’s not working. Yet, individuals can override this brain tendency and focus on the positive, at least enough to create successful relationships both at work and home.

John Gottman, a psychologist who studies extensive marital conversations, finds that couples who sustain long-term marriages use language that reflects five times more positive statements than negative ones. In fact, he calls this “the magic ratio” and claims it will accurately predict if a marriage will last.

He urges managers to use a ratio of 5:1 positive statements in conversations with employees. Ask yourself: “What percentage of time do I spend solving problems in relation to the time I spend scaling successes?”

Given the advantages of a solution mindset, it’s surprising that more managers fail to gain a foothold in this managerial style. Remember: You can’t give praise and recognition if you see only the negative and focus on what’s broken.

When Things Go Wrong

Managing long-term, multimillion-dollar projects that involve dozens of people and several workgroups is a complex challenge, and things are bound to go wrong. How managers respond to problems has a direct and measurable impact on both the employees and the project.

Researchers Greenberg and Arakawa asked employees:

  • “When a problem crops up on my project, is my project manager able to help me come up with solutions?”
  • What steps does your project manager take when such a problem arises?”

Here’s what they found:

  • Managers who maintain a positive perspective don’t turn setbacks into catastrophes.
  • They don’t fly off the handle; they control their emotions.
  • They recognize what’s within their sphere of influence (and what’s not).
  • They see and discuss the problem as an opportunity.
  • They provide a solution-oriented perspective.

In other words, they make themselves part of the solution rather than the problem, which frees up employees to tackle the challenge.

Positive Results

Greenberg and Arakawa also discovered that managers who maintained a positive perspective when things went awry experienced greater project performance.

Managers who scored in the top quartile for positive perspective (as reported by their employees, not self-report) had significantly higher project performance than those in the bottom quartile.

Of course, unrealistic optimism and inauthentic happy faces do not bode well for any manager or employee. Honesty is critically important, especially in uncertain times. Luckily, managers can moderate their emotional responses in ways that reassure people, without denying the reality of harsh situations.

In their paper, Greenberg and Arakawa wrote:

“In today’s rapidly changing and uncertain business environment, managers and employees need optimism more than ever before to not only cope, but to innovate and flourish.

“Managers have more influence than perhaps they realize on the employees’ engagement, optimism, and performance, and can consciously use this influence to benefit these employees and the organization as a whole.

“We have employed a strengths-based performance perspective in our technology organization for the past few years,” says Hanover’s Tranter. “Clearly, the outcomes of this study will continue to have a greater influence on how we recruit, interview, select, and hire managers and for our organization.”

Reflect on how you as a manager and leader can implement positive leadership by practicing these behaviors:

  1. Focus on and work with people’s strengths.
  2. Improve the frequency with which you give praise and recognition.
  3. Respond with your best game face when the going gets rough.

Would your employees fire you?

Part One of Two

The No. 1 reason why most Americans leave their jobs is the feeling they’re not appreciated. In fact, 65% of people surveyed said they received no recognition for good work in a previous year, according to Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, authors of How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life (2004).

According to newer Gallup research, what employees want most – along with competitive pay – is quality management. When they feel unappreciated and disapprove of their managers, they leave or stop trying.

Almost 25% of U.S. employees would fire their bosses if given the chance, and about 50% of actively disengaged workers would follow suit.

A Gallup Management Journal survey found that, of all 24.7 million U.S. workers, roughly 18% are actively disengaged. Gallup estimates the lower productivity of actively disengaged workers costs the U.S. economy about $382 billion.

Because of current economic realities, people may not be leaving their jobs. Instead, they join the ranks of the disengaged and become “missing in action.” It rests upon managers to learn better ways of interacting with the people on whom they depend.

3 Steps to Positive Leadership

In 2005, results of a Gallup research study concluded managers play a crucial role in employee well-being and engagement.

Five years later, most leaders are acutely aware of the costs and benefits of engaging their workforce at all levels. Active employee engagement has strong linkages to key business outcomes, including retention, productivity, profitability, customer retention and safety.

But the Gallup research didn’t study what managers did (their specific behaviors) to elicit positive responses from employees.

That’s why Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa put the theory of positive leadership to the test. Greenberg is president of The Greenberg Group, an executive coaching/consulting practice in Andover, CT. Arakawa is a program associate at the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, PA. Both are graduates of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Greenberg and Arakawa wanted to know if managers who apply positive leadership practices have teams with higher project performance and employee engagement, as compared to teams led by managers who don’t apply these practices.

Based on a great deal of previous research, positive managers practice these three leadership behaviors:

  1. Use a strengths-based approach
  2. Provide frequent recognition and encouragement
  3. Maintain a positive perspective when difficulties arise

Past studies have shown these practices have a direct effect on employee engagement, and each is an observable and testable behavior.

None of these characteristics are innate, but all can be learned. Very few executives intuitively know:

  1. How to work with people’s strengths
  2. How to automatically give frequent credit where due
  3. How to respond with your best game face when the going gets rough

Tomorrow I will focus on each of these areas.

Are Your Employee’s Engaged? (Part Two of Two)

Handling “dis-engaged” Employees

Efforts to raise levels of engagement are worthwhile for those in the not-engaged range. Not engaged employees concentrate on tasks and want to be told what to do. They focus on process, not results. Managers who only provide tasks to an employee reinforce “not engaged” behaviors and move away from engaging the heart, mind, and soul of that person.

Employees who feel disconnected emotionally from their coworkers and supervisor do not feel committed to their work. They hang back and do the minimum because they don’t believe anyone cares. The way to get people to become a part of an organization is through relationships.

First, managers need to demonstrate a sense of really caring about employees and what’s important to them. The manager who takes the time to have a dialogue about an employee’s strengths and how these can make a difference forges essential ties and connections that lead to employee commitment.

Expectations, Clarification and Measurement

Managers must provide expectations, clarification, and measurement.  A good place to start is with conversations about expectations for the person in a given role. Get the individual to view his or her role from a broader perspective instead of from a narrow task-oriented point of view. Encourage the employee to see how his or her work contributes to the organizational future by asking:

“What are the outcomes you are supposed to achieve?” 
”What were you hired to do?” 
”How do you contribute to making this a great place to work?” 
”Are you creating engaged customers?”

Next, managers can help employees clarify how they can achieve outcomes. Sometimes they can help employees change their roles to fit their talents better. A person who is not adept at written reports and details can collaborate with someone who is. Measurement is crucial to an employee’s feeling of success, as long as the measurement focuses on outcomes, not steps. Good measurement aligns with outcomes and matches the expectations for the role.

How to Keep an Employee Engaged

Engaged workers produce more, make more money for the company, and create emotional engagement and loyal customers. They stay with the organization longer and are more committed to quality and growth than are the other two groups of not-engaged and actively disengaged workers.

  • Employees must have a strong relationship with their manager
  • They must have clear communications from their manager
  • They need a clear path set for concentrating on what they do best
  • They need strong relationships with their coworkers
  • They must feel a strong commitment with their coworkers so that they will take risks and stretch for excellence


Engaged employees tend to get the least amount of focus and attention from managers, in part because they’re doing what they are needed to do. Great managers spend most of their time with the most productive and talented people because they have the most potential. The challenge for managers comes when the first signs of disengaging appear from an engaged worker. The symptoms need to be addressed immediately or else the disconnection is most likely to continue.

What Employees Want a Manager to Do

For great managers, the path toward engaging employees and keeping them engaged begins

with asking them what they want and what is important in order to be effective in their roles. Here is a summary of what workers responding to the Gallup Q12 survey say they what they want from their managers:

Focus me          Equip me
Know me Help me see my value
Care about me Help me grow
Hear me Help me see my importance
Help me feel proud       Help me build mutual trust
Help me review my contributions Challenge me

Are Your Employee’s Engaged? (Part One of Two)

According to research, only 29 percent of employees are motivated and energized. What, then, is happening to the other two-thirds of the people working in organizations?

This is an even worse scenario than the old joke in which a manager is asked how many people work in his company and he responds, “About half of them.”

The statistics on workforce engagement are shocking.

What is cause of this loss of enthusiasm and commitment? Most people join an organization with engagement. What is it that extinguishes that initial engagement after the first few years of working in an organization? Here are some possible causes:

  • Little or no feedback or guidance from those in charge
  • Lack of opportunity to discuss problems or provide input
  • Lack of resources to solve problems or to do a job well
  • Little or no reward or recognition
  • Little opportunity to develop one’s potential
  • Pressure to perform and achieve more with less
  • Lack of opportunity to interact socially
  • Interpersonal conflicts left unresolved
  • Little joy or humor except for office gossip and cynicism
  • Stress in balancing work and home responsibilities, leading to energy depletion


Measuring Employee Engagement

Since 1997, the Gallup Organization has surveyed approximately 3 million employees in three hundred thousand work units within corporations. This survey consists of 12 questions—called the “Q12” — that measure employee engagement. Results show that those companies with high Q12 scores experience lower turnover, higher sales growth, better productivity, better customer loyalty and other manifestations of superior performance.

The Gallup Management Journal’s semi-annual Employee Engagement Index puts the current percentage of truly “engaged” employees at 29 percent. A majority of workers, 54 percent, fall into the “not engaged” category, while 17 percent are “actively disengaged.”

Here is how the Gallup Organization defines these three types of employees:

  1. (29%) Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
  2.  (54%) Not-engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting in time—but not energy or passion—for their work.
  3.  (17%) Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.


While leaders of organizations focus intense efforts on building shareholder value, they generally cannot control the stock market. What they should be worried about are the two-thirds of their workforce who are just going through the motions, putting in time at work without commitment. In fact, Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees—the least productive—cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.

Tomorrow I will present Part Two – Handling Dis-engaged Employees.

Don’t play small: Be a world class version of Yourself!

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”  —Baruch Spinoza

Do you, like most of us have a poor sense of your talents and strengths? Throughout our education and careers, there is a lot of attention paid to our weaknesses. We are acutely aware of our faults and deficits, our so-called “opportunities for development.”

There are a lot or “deficits experts” out there – parents, teachers and managers. In fact, most parents, teachers and managers consider it their responsibility to point out flaws and try to help us correct them.

As a result, we become experts in our own weaknesses and spend our lives trying to repair our flaws, while our strengths lie dormant and neglected. The research, however, is clear: we grow and develop by putting emphasis on our strengths, rather than trying to correct our deficits.

Most people choose to study their weaknesses. A Gallup poll investigated this phenomenon by asking Americans, French, British, Canadian, Japanese and Chinese people of all ages and backgrounds the question: “Which do you think will help you improve the most: knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses?”

Is Your Path to Improvement Your Strengths or Weaknesses?

According to the poll, the answer was always the same: weaknesses, not strengths, deserve the most attention. The most strengths-focused culture is the United States, but still only a minority of people, 41 percent, felt that knowing their strengths would help them improve the most. The least strengths-focused cultures are Japan and China. Only 24 percent believe that the key to success lies in their strengths.

The majority of people in the world don’t think that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their strengths. Interestingly, in every culture, older people (55 and above) were the least fixated on their weaknesses. Perhaps they have more self-acceptance and realize the futility of trying to be what they are not.

The Weaknesses Attraction

Why do so many people avoid focusing on their strengths? Weaknesses may be fascinating and strangely mesmerizing. But the attraction lies in the fact we deeply fear our weaknesses, our failures and even our true self.

Are you reluctant to investigate your strengths because you fear there isn’t enough real talent, or that you are just average (again, ingrained from education models). Or, is there a feeling of inadequacy, an “imposter syndrome,” and an underlying fear of being found out.

Despite your achievements, you may wonder whether you are as talented as everyone thinks you are. You suspect that luck and circumstance have played a big part in getting to where you are today.

However, if you do not investigate your strengths, or any of the fears and feelings of insecurity, you will miss out on discovering more of who you really are.

Too Close to See?

You’re probably not as cognizant of your strengths as you could be because most of us take them for granted. We are so embedded in our strengths, we are not aware of them as strengths. We think everybody is that way too. It never occurs to us to be any other way; it is just natural for us. 

This way of thinking excludes developing our strengths and becoming even more brilliant. You can’t develop what you don’t recognize. You can’t expand what you are not aware of.

Building on your strengths is also about responsibility. You probably don’t take pride in your natural talents any more than you would take pride in your sex, race, or hair color. Natural talents are gifts from God and your gene pool.

However, you have a great deal to do with turning your talents into real strengths. You can take your talents into the realm of excellence. It involves becoming acutely aware, developing an action learning plan, and “practice, practice, practice”.  Viewed in this light, to avoid your strengths by focusing on your weaknesses is practically a sign of irresponsibility.

The Courage to Be Brilliant

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We ask ourselves, `Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” —Marianne Williamson

The most responsible — yet most challenging — thing to do is to face up to your natural talents. It is an honor to have such blessings. Do not waste them. Step up to the potential inherent in your talents and find ways to develop your strengths. Be true to yourself by becoming more of who you really are.

This advice is easy to give and difficult to practice. It is easier when working with a trained professional coach. Working with your coach can make it easier for you to identify your talents and strengths. There are also a number of online self-assessments available to help. Once your five top strengths are identified, you can examine how they show up in your life.

It is a process of a few steps back, a few steps forward, and learning as you go. It is not the same as book learning. The only way to learn about your strengths is to act, learn, refine, and then act, learn, refine. Open yourself to feedback. This means you must be strong and courageous. Personal development is not for the faint hearted.

Discovering your true strengths is the path towards improvement and success. When you pay attention to your deficits and try to overcome them, you are placing emphasis on becoming what you are not. Don’t live a second-rate version of someone else’s life, step up and live a world-class version of your own!