High-Status, Successful Employees More Likely to Use Deception

A working paper at Harvard Business School reports that successful, higher-status employees are more likely to react to unfavorable comparisons with peers by engaging in deception designed to make the comparisons less unfavorable. The authors tested their hypothesis primarily with academics, finding that those further up in the hierarchy were more likely to use deceptive self-downloads on SSRN. The authors posit that the self-esteem of employees with a high level of past achievement at work tends to rely more strongly on continued perceptions of success. This leads them to feel negative comparisons more keenly and impels them toward deception as a way to bolster their standing.

It should be noted that although more highly-tenured and successful employees were more likely to engage in deception, the vast majority of full professors nonetheless did not choose to do so, even when faced with unfavorable social comparisons. However, if these findings can be generalized outside academia to the world of business, there are harrowing implications to consider. If successful individuals are more likely to deceive others to maintain the appearance of success, we should expect to see more and more deception as we go up the ranks of profit-drivers, managers, leaders, and C-suite executives within a company. Competition and social comparisons are endemic to the corporate world, inviting frequent opportunities for people with high status to fudge their numbers and inflate their responsibilities. This structural weakness, which is embedded in all organizations to the extent they display social hierarchies, highlights the need for systematic attention to performance evaluation and for metrics that are less susceptible to manipulation. Rewards programs that tie an individual’s value (and hence self-esteem) to factors other than raw “success” may also be necessary to foster an ethical culture wherein social comparisons are less instigative of deceptive behavior.

For more information, please see our page on cheating and honesty, as well as our page on accounting, which covers several methods by which deception may increase the appearance of success.