Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Which actually appears to be the case, as in Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, he finds that “when creativity is in our job description we are more likely to say ‘go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.”
So does that mean as a group of self-diagnosed innovators and outside-the-box thinkers, dishonesty plays a major role in the startup industry?
Since the beginning of time, there has been no dearth of creative borrowers. Shakespeare snatched his plot ideas from classical Greek, Roman, and Italian historical sources. Even Steve Jobs occasionally boasted that Apple was shameless about stealing great ideas. And in a recent blog post I mentioned that modern invention is in many cases a compounding and transposing, according to Jonah Lehrer. For example Larry Page and Sergey Brian developed the search algorithm behind Google by applying the ranking method used for academic articles to the sprawl of the World Wide Web. Beyond that people and major publications across the web (looking at you Huffington Post) are copying and sharing content willy nilly prompting people like Maria Popova to try to develop a curator’s code.
As it turns out dishonesty is all around us, and not just in our industry. Ariely’s found that basically we (all people) “have an extensive and expansive ability to justify our dishonest actions and to distance ourselves in all kinds of ways from the knowledge that we are breaking the rules, especially when our actions are a few steps removed from causing direct harm to someone else.” This means that a lot of printer paper or pens in your office might go missing, but rarely petty cash. Furthermore, he found that “one immoral act can make another more likely and that immoral acts in one domain can influence our morality in other domains.”
So how can we try to prevent such dishonesty? We should focus on early signs of dishonest behaviors and do our best to cut them down in their budding stages before they reach full bloom. Simply asking employees to sign something about honesty, before they complete time-sheets can help reduce dishonesty (signing afterwards doesn’t do the trick, as the act has already been completed).
Another interesting finding about dishonesty that can apply to our industry was that “once someone (or an organization) does us a favor, we become partial to anything related to the giving party- and that the magnitude of this bias increases as the magnitude of the initial favor increases.” When applied to business it means we’ve created a bit of a self-reinforcing loop by patting other startups on the back; your shout-out recommending another company on Twitter might go a longer way than you think. And if you take another founder out to dinner, chances are in the long-term s/he might be more likely to do business with you in the future. No wonder gift-giving is so prevalent in sales!
Basically all this means dishonesty is in the startup industry to stay, as it’s in the world to stay. But we can definitely help reduce it.
P.S. Don’t hire anyone with “knock-off” sunglasses. If you’re curious why, check out the book.