Does Altruism’s Influence Honesty?

February 3, 2021 Association InsightsEmotional IntelligenceGreen SolutionsPeer Powered Performance  No comments

As we are inundated with yet another story of “Moral Flexibility” it seems appropriate to reexamine the characteristics of our own cultures.  Let’s begin with nine simple questions.

Which of these characteristics exemplify your team?

  1. Altruisitic intent is No get out of Jail card for bad board behaviorStrong group cohesion

  2. Close personal connections

  3. Self-policing

  4. Robust privacy policy

  5. High organizational esteem

  6. Internal locus

  7. Flexible metrics

  8. Subjective operational assessment

  9. Altruistic Intentions

If your team exhibits these characteristics, you may have inadvertently created an ideal breeding ground for dishonest behavior according to Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.  I have spent many hours agape, aghast, agog, appalled, astonished, astounded, awe-struck, awed, baffled, and befuddled, listening to his New York Times bestselling book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.  In study after study Ariely uses his favorite “matrix task” of finding pairs of numbers that add up to ten while introducing alternative X factors to test our assumptions about cheating.

Rather than being a simple cost benefit analysis, it appears dishonesty is more like a contagious disease than a personal proclivity.  It has been our personal experience in almost twenty years of nonprofit management that those “Entitled to Lead” are the least inclined to improve.  This kind of overly optimistic self assessment, according to professor Ariely (whose TED talks have been watch 2.8 million times) is not an exception to predictable behavior but more the rule.  When comparing the many opportunities for undisclosed indiscretion, it is doing so for an altruistic cause that tops the scale for infectious rationalization literally doubling what he calls the “fudge factor“.

If you suspect your board meetings could use a little less fudge, here are ten factors that will add more proof to your team’s performance:

  1. Mix things up; add new team members disconnected personally and professionally.

  2. Start each meeting and include in each document a commitment to absolute honesty in all interactions.

  3. Introduce an external auditing influence to independently assess decision-making and budgeting compliance.

  4. Insist on transparency in all communications.  Create a centralized communications area where all significant correspondence is categorized, searchable and available to all stakeholders. (email is easy – it is not transparent)

  5. Benchmark your standards against peers within your industry as well as those “Positive Deviants” who, with the same resources, find ways to do things better.

  6. Remember who you are there to represent.  If you are a board member your first responsibility is to represent the members’ views and not your own.  If you represent a team or customers make sure you are both listening to and expressing their concerns.

  7. Define, monitor, display, share and live by well-defined metricsOpinions oscillate, metrics motivate.

  8.  Be wary of your illusions.  None of us is capable of understanding anything in its entirety.  We all view the world through the narrow slit of our own experience.  Use a systems based approach to ensuring all sides of all issues are considered in their entirety.

  9. Altruistic intentions are not a get-out-of-jail card for ill-advised actions.  Volunteer deliverables require the same accountability as those expected of paid staff members.

  10. Enlist experts.  The volunteer culture must be very careful not to direct activities, commit revenues or advise direction in areas where they lack specific expertise.  The infrequent market feedback inherent in most nonprofit environments must be balanced with expert analysis from independent resources.

  11. If these ideas seem self-evident, maybe that is because professor Ariely is also the founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, which is to say that he specializes in the science of knowing what you already knew.  Now why didn’t I know that?  Oh and in the interest of full disclosure this message has not been approved by anyone of any importance and represents my limited understanding and absolute admiration for Dan’s rationally irrational research.

    Personally I have found Ariely’s writings to be “Disturbingly Illuminating”.  Most importantly his peer-reviewed research influences the way we operate our business every day.  Understanding the gaps in our own awareness has helped us design systems to optimize the influence of all team members.

    There is an incredible freedom in knowing we are both delusional and dishonest.  (Dr. Ariely’s second New York Times bestseller, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty)

    When we no longer feel like we have to have all the answers we are open to new possibilities.  Instead of relying on the 100+ biases and heuristics that often provide shortcuts to misunderstanding we have a foundation for more meaning-full meetings.

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