Why Do We Cheat?

Cheating is nothing new.

We’ve been cheating throughout the course of our history.

We cheat in our relationships and exams, we falsify academic findings and our résumés, we cover up mistakes and misdeeds, we take performance-enhancing drugs, we pretend we’ve achieved certain qualifications.

We cheat for a variety of reasons; to gain an edge, an unfair advantage, to win.

We cheat to elevate our status in the eyes of others.

We cheat because we fear failure will highlight our weaknesses and flaws that we prefer to keep hidden.

It is a selfish act performed in secret, designed to avoid discovery.

The expectation is we will get away with it.

The pain of being caught out.

The bigger question has to be why, because the penalty for getting caught is public shame and humiliation and that’s a pain far worse than any physical pain we could endure.

It’s a pain that goes deep and lasts a long time. It destroys reputations, relationships and in the absence of adequate internal and external support can lead to mental illness.

To become a laughing stock or be pilloried by the press is simply the modern version of public shaming that has been around for centuries.

In medieval times culprits would be made to stand in pillories with their heads and wrists secured between wooden posts in public places, where members of the public would throw rotten vegetables, eggs, the odd dead cat or dog or stones as punishment. It was a way of dealing with less serious demeanours that didn’t warrant prison.

As unfun as that sounds, it was also quite dangerous with death or serious injury not uncommon.

In 1703, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe was put in a pillory for three days as punishment for the publication of his “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters” that was deemed seditious libel.

Poor Daniel.

The reason public shaming hurts so much is because social pain shares common neural pathways with physical pain. Being hardwired to connect and become part of a tribe conferred safety from an evolutionary perspective. We continue to use the same cerebral circuitry today with the main danger being the loss of status, respect and trust of our tribe, rather than being eaten.

With this in mind, it might appear weird we would even contemplate taking such a risk, but we do because we believe

  • We won’t get caught
  • That the potential upside for getting away with it outweighs the risk of getting caught
  • That the outcome/consequences won’t be that bad
  • That there is no other option
  • That there isn’t time to do things properly
  • That there is a culture that condones it

In other words, we easily convince ourselves that cheating really is the best way forward.

Oh dear.

At work, cheating can take a number of forms. Perhaps you’ve witnessed it in action.

  • Others taking credit for work that wasn’t theirs
  • Covering up failures and blaming others
  • Pretending work has been completed
  • Denying wrongdoing, even when it’s obvious to Blind Freddy
  • Corporate or systemic cheating (VW, Enron)

Is it possible to reduce the level of cheating going on?

Yes. This is where self-awareness, individual and collective mindsets come to play.

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s work on mindset has enabled us to better understand what works to change how we approach learning and development. This is achieved by nurturing a growth mindset that incorporates the belief we will achieve greater success by applying effort and being willing to accept failure because it provides the means to do better next time.

The idea of continual learning and improvement provides the space needed to explore, consider and experiment. This leads to greater innovation and more effective teams.

Focusing on optimising every individual’s potential, celebrating all wins and nurturing positive interpersonal relationships makes it easier for the success of others to be celebrated rather than being seen as a threat.

Dweck’s work has shown how employees with growth-oriented mindsets are:

  • 47% more likely to say they find their colleagues trustworthy
  • 34% more likely to have a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the company they work for
  • 65% more likely to say their organisation encourages risk taking
  • 49% more likely to say their organisation fosters innovation

In other words, if the expectation for certain outcomes is fostered through the adoption of a collective growth-oriented mindset, the risk of cheating can be substantially reduced because the focus is forward focused rather than defensive and optimistic rather than fearful. Focus is enthusiastically curious rather than defensive and optimistic rather than fearful.

Less time spent cheating, means more time for useful and rewarding work.

That sounds like smarter thinking by design.

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