The chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Baselga, is well and truly in the hot seat. In the past few days, it was reported that Baselga received payments from healthcare and pharmaceutical companies for work as an advisor or board member while also studying the efficacy of products produced by some of the same companies.  

Whether or not Baselga’s multiple roles led to bias in his work is up for debate. What we do know is the appearance of conflicting interests is real. No matter the explanation, reasonable people will question Baselga’s honesty and character. The two short, easy conclusions some will leap to are: 1. He’s a bad guy, dishonest, and willing to subvert the pursuit of knowledge for financial gain. 2. He is honorable, his research was untainted by conflicts, and he made mistakes of reporting but none as a researcher.

Simple, knee-jerk answers usually have a measure of truth in them but are rarely the whole truth. Why? People are complex, and our environments are as well. Even smart people get tripped up, make mistakes, and can fail to acknowledge what is influencing their decisions.

These are the most common myths about honesty.

Myth One – People are either honest or dishonest.

The easy thing to do is to judge an individual and ignore the context or vice-versa. Most people think they can resist systemic forces and some do but far fewer than we believe. Leaders need to look further than individuals, especially when dishonest behavior has occurred over a long period of time, as is often the case. At the same time, it isn’t enough to blame organizational culture. A culture is defined and maintained by behavior and leaders can and must influence it for the good.

Many a leader lives to regret not paying attention to what looks small at the time but indicates a larger issue. Click To Tweet

Myth Two – People in helping professions are more honest than others.

Groups of people whose mission, individually and collectively, is to help others, are often annoyed at the suggestion that they need to think about issues such as transparency, avoiding conflicts of interest, and so forth. Physicians, scientists and people in helping professions can be very prickly on the topic of honesty and objectivity. Highly educated specialists may assert that few are qualified to review their work. There is some truth to this. But it is a myth that only physicians can review the work of physicians. Review of research requires an understanding of the scientific method.

Myth Three – Rules govern behavior.  

Students in organizational behavior class and leaders have some things in common. Key among them is that rules, codes of conduct, and statements of value determine behavior. They do not and are especially ineffective when leaders say one thing and do another.

Myth Four – Belief that we are honest means we are.   

The human need to see ourselves as good people can be an impediment to honesty. The more defensively we hold to the belief that we are good, the more difficult it is to see mistakes, both past or future.

Warren Buffett doesn’t need to tell us he is honest because he discloses mistakes. Tim Cook is trustworthy, in part because he is not a grand-stander about his own attributes. Mary Barra has not proclaimed her honesty, rather has focused on creating a culture at GM where forthrightness is valued. These leaders have their eyes on the right ball.

Myth Five – Lies make us uncomfortable. 

Most people, when they behave in a way that violates their own sense of ethics, feel badly. They may cringe, ruminate and suffer regret. We tend to think that additional transgressions add to the angst, but that may not be the case. Subsequent actions that conflict with our espoused values can be less disturbing, allowing misrepresentations to continue more easily (falsifying academic credentials is an excellent example.) This is why con-artists like Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay, and the engineers at General Motors and Volkswagen, were able to perpetuate and defend what is not true without any obvious guilt.

What can we do to help people to have the courage to be honest?

  1. Trust that most people want to achieve, to feel proud of their accomplishments and to be free of concern that their success came by cheating.
  2. Leaders must model honesty. If the leader is distant, opaque, cloaked in layers of rationalization, he or she should expect nothing different in their organization.
  3. Select people for character as well as technical skill. Consider attributes and behavior and do so by getting to know the people you hire. Know what you are looking for and spend time with candidates for key positions to ascertain their fit to the job and character. Psychological tests are a poor substitute, especially those available to people who are not psychologists. Those that are widely available, or require only cursory ‘training’, have very low predictive validity. Leaders need to hone their judgment about people the way they sharpen other types of judgment.
  4. Do not over-react to, nor be punitive towards those who bring mistakes forward. To be clear, repeated errors of judgment are a problem but bringing mistakes to light is not the biggest problem. Hiding, obfuscation, colluding with others or threatening is far more serious.
  5. Publicize mistakes, actions taken to mitigate or correct, and the lessons derived.
  6. Do not be swayed by fear that a compliance department will run amok. Good compliance leaders know that there is no such thing as zero risk. As the leader, you must select the top compliance person with as much good judgment as you choose anyone else.

Finally, do not be intimidated by those who display insult at the mere discussion of ethics, independence and freedom from conflicts of interest. In fact, ask yourself why such emotional displays are necessary. If the topic is raised in a matter-of-fact way, without an accusatory tone, there is every reason for people to engage because we are all better off for it.

Many a leader lives to regret not paying attention to what looks small at the time but indicates a larger issue. If only they had paid attention, they often say.

What are you doing to ensure that you are paying attention?

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