Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm

Have you ever worked at a place where, well, it just seems that typical work-related pronouncements and conversations are big on lies and short on truth?

You’re certainly not alone in that experience, and now management consultant Ron Carucci is sharing a research study that identifies four institutional factors that contribute to lying becoming normal organizational behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains that his research team conducted a 15-year study, incorporating 3,200 interviews drawn from 210 organizational assessments, “to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”

With an emphasis on organizational measures, rather than individual personalities, their study identified four factors that contribute to a propensity to engage in frequent lies. From Carucci’s HBR piece:

  • A lack of strategic clarity. When there isn’t consistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, we found it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information.”
  • Unjust accountability systems. When an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust, we found it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Poor organizational governance. When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip. . . . We found that when effective governance is missing, organizations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Weak cross-functional collaboration. . . . When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organization is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. . . . Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented, or blamed.”

Taken together, these characteristics can be deadly for organizational integrity, but Carucci emphasizes that positive change is possible:

Because the factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four is 15 times more likely to end up in an integrity catastrophe than those who have none. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking aim at these four issues, you can make it far more likely that your company will create the culture of honesty you, your employees, and your customers eagerly want.

Integrity catastrophe. I like that term. It says a lot.

Human impacts

As a consultant, Carucci’s focus is understandably on company performance, so his emphasis isn’t so much on how an organizational culture of dishonesty affects workers on the ground level. But we know that in its more toxic manifestations, that experience can be demoralizing, stressful, and head-spinning. It also promotes more of the same.

At the more extreme end, we have the practice of gaslighting, a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In “Gaslighting at work” (revised 2018), I wrote this about managerial pronouncements:

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant), and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When the human resources office announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Lose-lose

When I talk about workplace bullying, I often invoke the term “lose-lose.” In organizations rife with bullying behaviors, workers suffer, and the organizational performance suffers. The same goes for organizational cultures of dishonesty, which breed distrust, cynicism, fear, and anger. Cheers to Ron Carucci and his team for highlighting key institutional factors that fuel habitual lying, and for suggesting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

One response

  1. A very timely and helpful post. Thanks, David. I hope to remind my colleagues of their roles in this drama that plays out across many state agencies and in so many different ways. If you don’t mind, I will be sending a copy of this post in my email to union representatives around the country. If they are not already aware of Minding the Workplace, perhaps this will be a good introduction. I find that gaslighting is a concept easily recognized amongst many union people-even if the term is new to them.

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