Cheating’s not okay… right?
I distinctly remember a particular ‘case’ at Harvard Business School. The task for my class (‘section’) that day was to debate whether cheating in business was okay.
The “cheating-is-cool” side of the argument amounted to an “everybody’s-doing-it” rationale. This justification could have been easily and rightly dismissed by every person’s mother. But because it was an Ivy-League graduate program, this side of the debate was instead anointed in our pre-reading via an obtuse poker comparison and concomitant contortions. 
In short, the idea was as follows:
(a) business resembles a game,
(b) poker is unmistakably a game,
(c) everyone bluffs in poker,
(d) if you don’t bluff in poker, you’ll lose,
(e) you can’t play poker to lose,
(f) so you should bluff, too, or just not play,
(g) generalizing ‘f’: bluffing is dishonest but necessary in games,
(h) everyone who plays games realizes that dishonesty is part of the game, so
(i) dishonesty must be ethical within games,
and thus magically
(j) dishonesty in business is ethically acceptable.
Q E fucking D
Like you — and thankfully most of the group, I vehemently opposed this logic.
But maybe I was wrong.
I had never been in the private sector before. I entered business school directly from the military. At the Naval Academy (aka Annapolis) and in the SEAL Teams, we spent countless hours on formalized ethical training and debate. So it took some years before it was clear to me how much dishonesty pervades civilian life (aka the normal world 😁).
This is not to say that everyone is routinely dishonest. But most people are.
I am not holier than thou: everybody is prone to ‘shading the truth’ occasionally. Think you’re one of the good apples? Then examine how much you expressed and portrayed 100% absolute truth, accounting for lies of omission, in the following situations:
- Interviews and negotiating that job offer
- Recruiting others to your company
- Making an offer on a house or selling your own
- When the waiter asks how everything tasted
- When you’re late or decline a meeting you don’t want to take
- Blocking your calendar off in advance so people don’t put too much stuff on it
- Haggling on price for a car — or a company
- So much marketing (price endings, brand color, etc.)
- How you appear (makeup, hair dye, plastic surgery)
- Differentiating your product or service from the hundreds of others just like it
To the extent there indeed exist any “good apples” in society, they are generally diffuse in my experience — or consolidated in some silo like the military or that Buddhist monastery across town. It doesn’t matter how many or how few of the above examples made you blush. The point is that everyone tells the occasional fib in conversation. And each of us has a line where we say, “But obviously that’s okay. Everybody does that!” Our tidy little universally applicable morals framework of youth ineluctably evolves to a mere spectrum of discomfort.
Setting aside normative judgment for a second, the bottom line is that dishonesty pervades humanity.
Is dishonesty in society a bug — or a feature?
One study from UMass Amherst showed that 60% of people lied in a ten-minute conversation (with an average of 2–3 lies). Stanford psychologist Jeff Hancock’s research supports the idea that the overwhelming majority of people lie.
In a widely cited study from 1997, Bella DePaulo of UC Santa Barbara showed that 95% of participants lied an average of 1.5 times per day. Lies were told to 34% of the people that participants interacted with. 
Some experts go so far as to say that lying actually strengthens groups. Polygraph expert and Brandeis pyschologist Leonard Saxe claims, “Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We couldn’t get through the day without being deceptive.”
Obviously(?) business is inseparable from life; the economy is based on social interaction. Thus,
If dishonesty is embedded within society (which it is), then dishonesty is unavoidably ingrained in business.
If we were to say that cheating is not okay in business, then we should be persnickety about the little, everyday behaviors. We can’t limit our focus to multibillion-dollar M&A transactions, foisting unsafe products on unwitting customers, or accounting fraud.
These dramatic examples are rhetorically powerful but avoid dealing with the tough question: Does there exist *any* circumstance in which it’s okay to ‘cheat’ in business??
The answer is unavoidably yes. For example, there are negotiations in which everyone knows that they are playing a game. And in which I bet even the most honest people otherwise would not have problems shading the truth, overemphasizing trivial details, creating unnecessary time pressure, or omitting key facts when answering questions. But then again, just because other people “do it,” that doesn’t make it ethical. 
Perhaps, though, the fact that such behavior is so widely recognized as part of the process is evidence that at least some parts of business are a game.
All in or fold?
The running joke in my BUD/S class was for random people to shout “I got mine” whenever someone couldn’t find a piece of gear.  In a world where you are surrounded by dishonest people and in some cases where dishonesty is widely recognized as part of the endeavor, should the ethical person just give in and “get theirs”?
“If you can’t beat ’em, join em” maybe?
Not too fast. I believe there is value in allegiance to honesty despite its rarity.  Academic pedants and more prosaic rationalizers like the rest of us can make all the justifications in the world for lying, but society and business are nothing without trust. Friendships, teams, partnerships, and alliances are brittle if the parties are not acting in good faith. Plenty of research in game theory and economics demonstrates how unethical behavior often forces the parties to resort to strategies that are suboptimal for the group as a whole.  While a bad actor can get away with a one-time cheat, the costs escalate sharply in a so-called ‘repeat game.’
Plus, we are wired not only to lie but also to feel remorse when we realize we have lied. Dishonesty just feels crappy. 
If we value honesty, which as demonstrated above we should, I suggest all is not lost. Let’s remind ourselves of the following:
- Establish the ethical ideal: Having clear and absolute principles makes things simple. While we should recognize that the world is not black and white, a principle is the best guide — even if it is only a Platonic proxy for real application. 
- Dismount thine elevated equine: There are no good apples and bad apples. We all are subject to transgressions. The literature on business scandals is littered with accounts of otherwise good people who got caught up in activities that ruined their careers and often got them sent to prison. Thinking you are better than everyone else may make your more vulnerable to lapses in judgment.
- Play the game when appropriate: Business is a game, and approaching some situations like poker is not necessarily reprehensible. (I predict most of us will naturally act like this anyway; we’ll just ignore our actions or rationalize them.)
- No license to kill: The above point does not give us license to lie, cheat, or steal writ large. Most situations are not poker-like, and business scenarios usually involve participants who do not know or agree that they are playing a game. The military has rules to protect noncombatants; we should not prey financially on the unwitting.
- It’s worth it: Acting honestly will have financial and reputational consequences that are negative, but this is ultimately worth every bit of “loss.” I was once criticized heavily for being too pecuniary with investor dollars a la “Who’s side are you on?” But I sleep very well now because I did then what I knew to my core was my fiduciary responsibility.
- Don’t hide behind terms: “Fibbing” and “shading the truth” are poor shelter for the storm of your own guilt. Take a hard stance with yourself, and call it all what it is: lying.
- Know its different forms… and draw a hard line somewhere: Potentially contrary to #6 above, there are different types of dishonesty and gradations of seriousness. Lies of com-mission vs. o-mission. Exaggeration vs. fabrication. Posturing vs. fraud. Getting more in a negotiation vs. physical theft. Agreeing with someone to make them feel good about a personal issue vs. agreeing you contributed more to a project than you did. Lying to the Gestapo about where your Jewish neighbors are hiding. Telling mom her keto pancakes are delicious. (They’re not.)
- Do a retrospective after tough conversations: Researchers have found that participants discovered that they lied more when they were forced to reflect on how honest they were. You might consider going through last week’s calendar periodically to think about how honest you were.
- Do an ethical pre-mortem: Perhaps we should prepare morally prior to entering into sticky situations (at least the ones we see coming). We’ll identify places where we feel vulnerable and also where we seek to gain advantage; these are the soft spots in our righteousness. The desired outcome of this exercise is to have identified worst-case ethical scenarios and relevant prevention measures.
- Be medium-aware: No, I’m not asking you to be watchful in a Goldilocks just…-right way. This one’s about recognizing that dishonesty varies by channel of communication (medium). Studies show that we are highly likely to be dishonest over the phone and in-person (presumably Zoom as well). Meanwhile, we are more likely to tell the truth over email (and presumably SMS). 
- Finally, build that wall!: I like to think of building one’s character as adding layers to a fortification. Each time you choose the right path, the easier it is to continue doing so: you add a brick to the wall. More importantly, you’ll be ready for even harder ethical challenges in the future. To use a different analogy:
The slope is slippery, but your behavior changes the incline.
Choose what games you play and how you play them. Victory is easiest when you define it.
The side pot | Afterword
When I was a brand new Navy ensign, I worked in a set of buildings on the hill that overlooks the Pentagon: the Navy Annex. There’s an office in those unobtrusive yellow walls called Flag Officer Detailing; it’s kind of like HR for admirals. Funny enough I talked daily with the most senior officers as the most junior officer in the Navy.
One thing I learned is that the officers who fail to make it past the rank of O-6 (Navy Captain) are those who can’t cut it in politics. Either their record is too colorful (read: human) to make it through Congressional approval, or they are too honest and direct for the rarified air of politics. 
Movie scriptwriters would call the latter group “boy scouts,” but ironically some of the nation’s best leaders are among this set. I believe they are prouder of their contributions. Long after they have left service, those who served under them still speak of them as legends.
About the author: Sri hosts The Warrior Poet podcast, a show on the philosophy of leadership based on his experience in the SEAL Teams, at Harvard Business School, on Wall Street, and in tech. Shows every Monday. Follow him on Instagram @sri_the_warrior_poet and @sri_actually.
All the way wet | The footnotes
 “All the way wet”: Something an instructor might say to students at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
 …in a formally published document by Harvard professors mind you. Btw, Harvard University Press is supposedly a money-making machine.
 Interestingly the results are based on participants self-reporting their lies. Meanwhile, the numbers I cite are my own calculations to simplify the results from two cohorts.
 To be clear, I am not saying that anything goes just because it’s a negotiation.
 It was a joke for three reasons: (1) The entire class, not just that individual, was likely to pay a price with instructors for one person not having their gear. (2) Most people there, especially after Hell Week, were quite honorable and unlikely to steal someone else’s stuff. (3) Pre-Hell Week, there were multiple instances of desperate slackers “discovering” gear to save their hides.
 What may be to some a conspicuous lack of religious justification here is intentional, as this treats a question as settled before the debate even starts. Such reasoning is unsatisfying even to the religious themselves, let alone to those of other stripes.
 We might consider whether it is possible to fib yet still act in good faith.
Meanwhile, based on a fair amount of reading on game theory, I am confident in the latter assertions. However, I recognize that I am not citing any specific studies and hope the reader will recognize that this is not an academic journal. That being said, I may modify my assertion if readers push back in the comments. FYI: The book Strategy: A Concise History has a lengthy and interesting section on game theory as applied to nuclear arms.
 That’s a technical term ;)
 Read Ray Dalio’s Principles if you have not already. Heads up: narration on the audiobook switches between the author and a longtime employee at Dalio’s firm Bridgewater. The switching and overall performance make it meh. Get the actual book.
[Y] There’s an interesting side question of what the ideal for society is. Interestingly, Kant’s logic of ‘the categorical imperative’ entwines individual judgments with societal outcomes. This post does not take a position on that, but Kant was an insanely smart dude.
 To some this is counterintuitive; the explanation is twofold: We are more deliberate with our written communication, and we know it is less emphemeral. (Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, i.e. that we are more deliberate simply because we know it the medium is anything but ephemeral. Thus, SMS may be slightly more dishonest on average for reasons that are hopefully obvious to the reader.)
 I’m generalizing, of course. There are indeed officers at every rank who, as Peter said, have risen to their level of incompetence and therefore are not deserving of promotion.
To Harvard Business School. You’d think that they don’t need any praise, but raising controversial questions and ideas is what our most esteemed academic institutions are supposed to do. At times I myself have failed to appreciate that.