Beware the "Cheater's High"!
Beating the Kick of Lying and Cheating
(Also known as the "Duper's Delight")
Good character going bad is like a beast escaping its cage; it will be hard to capture it again.– Israelmore Ayivor, leadership coach.
You'd probably react with shock if someone accused you of dishonesty. But can you say, hand on heart, that you've never been a little untruthful at work?
You may be surprised to learn that research has shown some people lie on average twice each day, and during as many as one in five social interactions. Worryingly, studies also show that people can actually get a buzz from some unethical behavior, rather than feel guilt. This has been described as the "cheater's high."
People behave dishonestly for different reasons. Anxiety, fear and pressure push some towards cheating and telling the occasional lie; others can be motivated by the potential for financial gain. More frequently, though, people may lie or cheat even when there's no tangible reward for doing so, just for the cheater's high.
In this article, we explore why some people chase the cheater's high, and we look at how to identify it and deal with it.
What Is the Cheater's High?
The cheater's high is an emotional boost, or thrill, that some people get when they successfully cheat or deceive another person or organization. The rush they enjoy can lead them to repeat their dishonesty, even when there's no reward other than the high itself. If there is anything remotely positive to take from this behavior, it is the finding that, in most cases, getting the high depends on their actions not directly harming anyone else.
The unethical or deceitful behavior of the cheater's high does not have to be severe or criminal. For example, it can be exaggerating your management experience in an interview, "borrowing" items from the stationery cupboard, or logging more hours than you actually worked.
Looking honestly at your own behavior, try to recall whether you have ever felt a buzz or a kick at getting away with a lie or some form of cheating. If you have, you've experienced the cheater's high.
The high itself is more than just a superficial reaction to what you've done. Research shows that a chemical change takes place within your brain when it perceives a beneficial action taking place. Nerve cells release a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, which brings on pleasurable feelings of self-satisfaction. And this high is what can lead to a desire to repeat the behavior, sometimes to the point of addiction.
The action doesn't have to be something unethical; it can be anything beneficial, like meeting a friend for coffee or winning a new client. But if someone does think that he or she has successfully lied or cheated, this can trigger the same feelings that Ruedy et al call the cheater's high.
For some people, though, the rush becomes addictive and can lead to a vicious circle of destructive behavior that can impact reputations, damage workplace relationships, and even undermine careers. And because the root cause of the behavior could be anxiety about work, an intention to hide mistakes, or simple greed, the deceptions could, in extreme cases, put a team or organization's stability and security at risk. At this point, with the likelihood of others being harmed, the motivating factor stops being the high, and it's the bad behavior and its rewards that becomes addictive.
The motivational thrill can spread, too. If other people collaborate with a cheater, or gain from his misdeeds, they can share in the high. And as the rewards of cheating become more widely known, the cheating itself can become more widespread, too. This ripple effect can lead to an organizational culture that tolerates dishonesty. An organization functions best when everyone works together for a common cause but, if it fails to act on cheating or deception, relationships can suffer and serious behaviors like fraud and embezzlement can follow.
Dealing With the Cheater's High
There are three steps to tackling the issue: recognizing that the problem exists, identifying the tell-tale signs of dishonest behavior, and dealing with those behaviors.
Step 1. Recognizing the Cheater's High Exists
As a manager, you need to recognize that the issue exists and may be present within your team or organization. The first instances of dishonest behavior may stem from anxiety, fear or the chance of personal gain. But instead of the cheater feeling guilt, shame or regret at her actions, she may get a kick or a high. Once she feels that high, it can become the reason for future dishonesty.
Step 2. Identifying Dishonest Behavior
Identifying lying or cheating behavior is tricky. After all, the dishonest person is trying to prevent people from uncovering the truth.
Start by establishing a baseline for each of your team members. This should happen naturally, as you get to know them. For example, if you know how a team member speaks and acts when you discuss uncontentious topics and he's telling the truth, you're more likely to notice any changes in his speech or mannerisms when he is being deceitful.
Knowing how to interpret body language can be a useful skill. There are certain signs to look for that may suggest someone is not being truthful. For example, she may avoid facing you or swallow more frequently than usual. Her breathing may become heavy and audible, and she may display nervous tics such as touching her nose. Other clues include making sudden head movements when you ask direct questions, or gesturing angrily.
It's important to remember that everyone's personal body language is slightly different. If you notice some of the typical signs of lying, do not jump to conclusions but use these signs to probe further. Also, be aware that people's actions may have a different cultural interpretation.
There are also some verbal clues to when someone is not telling the truth. A combination of some of the following speech patterns can alert you to potential dishonesty. The speaker may:
- Pitch his voice higher than usual.
- Switch the conversation to a new subject.
- Use phrases like, "It's the truth," "Honestly," and, "To tell you the truth."
- Make false starts, stutter, hesitate, and repeat himself.
- Make the story he's telling excessively elaborate.
- He may go on the offensive, in an attempt to make you feel guilty for doubting him.
- Give indirect, evasive answers.
- Stall when answering questions, or ask you to repeat them.
- Get tongue-tied, or lose his train of thought midway through a sentence.
There are a few practical measures you can take to spot potential cheating. For example, knowing how long it should take to complete a task can help you identify possible timesheet abuses. And if your people know that you monitor things like office supplies and payments to vendors, they will likely be less tempted to misbehave. You can make these processes part of everyday work, so people view them as part of the workflow, rather than as signs that you don't trust them.
Step 3: Turn Around the Behavior
The next step is to create an environment where people won't feel compelled to lie or cheat, or think that they can get away with such actions. Here are some ways to do that:
- Don't push too hard. It's fine to expect your people to work hard and perform to the best of their abilities but, if you make unreasonable demands, some might be tempted to cheat or cut corners to meet them.
- Encourage collaboration. Healthy workplace competition can drive people to perform at the highest level. The danger comes when it tips over into damaging personal rivalry. Some team members could turn to unscrupulous means to get the upper hand and the thrill that goes with it. Our article, How to Manage Rivalry in the Workplace, can help you deal with unhealthy competition and promote collaboration within your team.
- Lead by example. If you expect your team members to be honest, fair and truthful, then you have a responsibility to demonstrate those same values. You have to walk the talk. If you ask your people to stay late, you can't pack up and leave early because you don't want to miss a family or social event.
- Deal with offenders. Remind everyone of your organization's policy on dishonest employee activity and its consequences. If you don't have a policy, raise the issue with your HR department. Our articles on Bad Behavior at Work and Formal Warnings explore potential disciplinary options. But if you have any concerns about how to deal with bad behavior, you should seek advice from HR.
- Expose the cheating. If you have proof of a team member's dishonesty, challenge her with it, calmly and sensitively in private, or take the information to your HR department.
If you know certain members of your team are thrill-seekers, try to find positive ways to channel their need for excitement. Our article on The Inverted-U Model explores the relationship between performance levels and pressure, so you can find the optimal balance of the two. You can also consider what kinds of rewards and recognition they respond best to.
To get a cheater's high, the cheat has to believe that no one suffers because of his actions, but no dishonest behavior is truly victimless. Make people aware of the costs that others have to pay for their dishonesty.
Trust people to behave honestly and ethically. They can view controlling and monitoring practices, such as checking internet usage and keeping timesheets, as challenges to overcome. Trusting others isn't always easy but when you've monitored someone's behavior for a while and he's earned your trust, believe in him to do the right thing. In doing so, you remove one temptation for him to lie and cheat. If that fails and he takes your trust as a license to cheat even more, then you need to consider taking the appropriate disciplinary measures or referring the matter to HR.
If you recognize that you may be addicted to, or at risk of succumbing to, the cheater's high yourself, you can adapt these strategies to suit your own circumstances. You can also use relaxation techniques, meditation or other stress-busting tools to help keep your emotions under control.
The cheater's high is a physical and emotional "rush" that people feel when they've successfully lied or cheated, and believe they have done so without harming others.
Experiencing the high can become addictive, and people can get locked into a cycle of dishonest behavior. The short-term buzz can give them an emotional lift but, in the longer term, this behavior negatively affects their lives. It can also spread to other people and infect whole teams and organizations.
By recognizing the cheater's high and identifying dishonesty in others and in yourself, you can take steps to tackle it and encourage honest, ethical behavior.
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