The fine line between cheating and bending inefficient rules with integrity

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely used some clever studies to uncover why we think it’s ok to cheat (sometimes).

In short, the factor that affects cheating is our self-image & justification.

On the one hand we all want to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, we can cheat a little bit and still feel good about ourselves — we have a “cheating fudge factor”.

So we all cheat a little bit.

I do pick up pens & notepads from work for personal use, and I don’t feel guilty about it at all. I seem to have a little bit of a “cheating fudge factor” there — I easily justify it by thinking that Microsoft has provided these so I can be productive & not waste time going to a store to buy these.

On the other hand, there is the idea that “how you do anything is how you do everything in life”. So is my “slight cheating” with the pens affecting my self-image? Does having a fudge factor there mean I will have a fudge factor in other areas, where I really don’t want one?

Would I feel better about myself if I was 100% black & white, if I followed all the rules to a tee with no fudge factor anywhere?

As Tim Urban from Wait but Why says in his fantastic post on Religion for the Nonreligious

Why would anyone bend and loosen their integrity for tiny insignificant gains when integrity affects your long-term self-esteem and tiny insignificant gains affect nothing in the long term?

I definitely want to live with integrity, but I’m allergic to following all rules blindly. I don’t like following inefficient rules, processes or norms for the sake of it, and am comfortable bending them when appropriate as long as I understand the intent within the system, and I’m not harming anyone.

I strongly identify with the following quotes:

Rules are for the obedience of the inexperienced and the guidance of wise men ~Douglas Bader
There is no sin… except stupidity ~Oscar Wilde
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How then can I navigate the grey area between following rules blindly, cheating, and wisely bending inefficient rules as needed with integrity?

I guess Tim’s point is that living according to your values (not doing things that you’re going to be ashamed of) leads to integrity and long-term self-esteem.

How to clarify grey areas? Sunlight is the best disinfectant!

Some simple ways of clarifying potential “grey areas” are:

  • What if someone captured you doing that on video and posted it online — would you be embarrassed?
  • Can you tell your mother and your son about what you did without feeling ashamed?
  • Can you talk about it openly or on a public blog?

If you need to hide something for it to be OK, you’re probably violating one of your values. You should take a second to evaluate your values/ethics before you proceed.

Eg. Am I OK with taking a pencil from work for personal use?

My answer is yes — those are provided for employee productivity & convenience. And I don’t need to hide it when I take a pencil from work.

Eg. Am I OK with overstating meal expense reimbursements at work?

I won’t get caught and I can justify that as long as it is within the prescribed meal limits the company won’t care, but I know that I would be embarrassed if I was caught skimming an extra $10 off an expensed meal. So, even though the thought crossed my mind once, I will never even think about it again.

I’ve been thinking about this dichotomy ever since I read Tim’s post a few months ago, and simply writing down my thoughts has helped clarify things. This is why writing at least 1 post a week is one of my resolutions for 2016. :)

Happy new year! Cheers to living according to your values with high integrity! :)