Lying, Stealing and Cheating Teams

The goal of any organizational team is to be high functioning – to get results.

Unfortunately, as teams come under increasing pressure in the work world to handle highly complex problems and undertake ever-more critical decision making, research shows that high functioning teams can act unethically.

Look no further than the scandals associated with Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia Communications. These organizations relied on teams, especially upper-management groups, to guide company choices.

Teams that behave unethically display certain characteristics, according to researchers Matthew Pearsall of the University of Maryland and Aleksander Ellis of the University of Arizona.

Recently, they studied the behaviour of 378 management school students, divided into 126 three-member teams, engaged in a class project in which the opportunity to cheat was made easily available.

They identified two key elements of teams with a tendency to cheat:

1.     Outcome Oriented

Teams more likely to cheat include members who tend to be focussed on the end result of decisions, especially when those decisions result in benefits to the individual and the team.  The tendency to overlook acceptable behaviour is higher in these groups. These teams exemplify the “ends justify the means“ way of thinking.  Also, these groups tend to be forward looking  and innovative, seeking the best way to take advantage of opportunities.  In some cases, these teams appear to be the epitome of a high-performing group, coveted by many organizations.

However, scratch the surface of such teams and you might find that they have reported profits to hide poor returns or losses, or keep poor-quality products on the market.

What makes an otherwise high-performing team stoop to these levels to appear successful?  The answer is that they lose sight of the long-term consequences of their behaviour.  Being creative and proactive are only beneficial to teams that have a firmly articulated set of corporate values that guide decision making.  Companies with management that lacks a long term way on which to base decisions are like high performance cars without steering wheels—they inevitably crash.

Interpersonally Safe

The researchers noted that to behave unethically, teams need to be able to feel comfortable among other members in general. That way, they will feel comfortable about proposing controversial tactics such as lying, cheating or stealing as solutions to their business problems.

Team’s where members feel safe raising unethical ideas freely, where members aren’t rejected or embarrassed for speaking up and know they won’t be ridiculed for voicing unpopular stances, tend to provide the ideal environment for decisions that may entail lying, cheating or stealing. Again, these teams are highly sought after in organizations and team building exercises that are designed to increase trust, and build safety and encourage dissent amongst team members help to nurture these team cultures.  So there’s an increased likelihood that a suggestion to break rules may be more warmly received than otherwise thought.

There is a dark side to the most cherished elements of high-functioning teams:  when used to break societal rules or side-step the law, they tend to make and implement unethical decisions.

However, the answer is not to water down a results-oriented team focus or decrease the sense of trust that a team may have built over time.  Rather, the organization must embody a set of values that preclude unethical decision-making in top performing teams.  The executive management teams that make unethical decisions—like those that brought down the likes of Enron, have a responsibility to set the tone in the organization.  If the predominant value of the organization, particularly at the most senior levels, is “anything goes, as long as it makes money,” then difficulty with ethics is inevitable.

Guarding against unethical team behaviour is key, since, as the researchers demonstrated, it is not the low functioning teams that are most susceptible to unethical decision-making;  the highly motivated ones are.  Without adequate direction and a strong moral organizational compass, companies that permit their most successful teams to run unchecked without grounding in particular values, or a clear understanding of the ethical rules of the game, risk losing it all in the long run.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:


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