Group Activities Can Breed Deceit: How to Keep Them Honest

By Tiffani Sherman
November 2, 2017

Research shows that team members who talk only among themselves can affect the quality and accuracy of the work they produce

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Enforcing consequences and reminders about norms seem to be key when keeping groups honest. Research shows it’s easy to persuade even highly ethical people to behave badly in some group situations.

“People come up with many arguments about why they can misbehave in groups. They reinforce each other, and it seems they are quite successful doing so,” says Simeon Schudy, a behavioral economist and assistant professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen in Germany.

The research published in the journal Management Science shows groups lie more than individuals.

The implication for leaders? Group members who communicate only among themselves can affect the quality and accuracy of the work they produce.

In the study, Schudy and his partners looked at 273 participants in individual and group situations. They had to report the number shown on a video of die rolls. A higher number meant more financial compensation. In the group setting, people could chat anonymously with each other before reporting the outcome of the roll. Results showed even people who reported truthfully in individual settings misreported when in the group.

“The group aspect of exchanging your thoughts with others is what changes the behavior,” Schudy says, adding “if we have group communication, misreporting goes up a lot.”

The research shows it’s difficult to convince yourself to cheat, but if someone else says others are doing it, it’s easier to go along. Schudy says if one person came up with the idea to cheat, others quickly jumped onboard. “They are very quick in convincing each other the dishonest act is the way to go.”

But hope is not lost. Strong arguments about honesty and enforcing negative consequences for unethical behavior can turn groups the other way.

“It’s not that arguments for honesty are meaningless; at least make sure someone is in the group to argue for the moral act,” Schudy says. “Understand that norms held by team members may be different from the code of conduct or what the firm really is.”

In each group, he says, try to make sure someone has incentives to act ethically.

“If you make more arguments for behaving honestly, it reduces the likelihood of behaving dishonestly in the groups,” he says.

Accountability is also important. In this study, there were no negative consequences to misreport, something Schudy says needs more research. Also, group members could only communicate with each other.

“What a leader should always take into account is if group members are able to communicate with each other and nobody outside, they are able to convince each other it is not so bad to behave dishonestly,” Schudy says.

Rotating team members doesn’t seem to change the outcome, the research shows.

“You send around team members that are already persuaded,” he says, and the new person can share news that other groups cheated so it’s OK for this group to cheat.

Reinforcing positive norms, monitoring teams more closely, and rewarding honesty are ways for leaders to encourage moral group behavior, Schudy says.

“If you can reduce the opportunities [to act unethically] and it’s not too costly to do so, it’s the easiest way,” he says.

Limiting communication defeats the purpose of group activity, but encouraging positive and moral conduct should be a part of the discussion.

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance writer based in Florida.

Topics: Management

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