Honest Behaviour Encompasses Relational and Intellectual Elements

honest behavior
Credit: Tony Alter CC-BY

Most people value honesty while also admitting that it is sometimes advantageous to be dishonest. Because of this tension, people engage in behaviours that push the boundaries of honesty, such as strategically avoiding information, dodging questions, and making misleading statements.

A new paper proposes a framework emphasizing how honest behaviour entails far more than the commonly held belief that it is either telling the truth or lying.

According to the researchers’ new findings, the narrow focus on honest content, which largely reduces the study of honesty to lying versus truth-telling, is problematic and linked to modern-day societal challenges such as misinformation spread.

Instead, the researchers contend that honest behaviour is a multifaceted phenomenon encompassing more than just truth-telling; it is a broader relational act of communication.

“Honest behaviour has relational elements, for example, fostering an accurate understanding in others through what we disclose and how we communicate, and intellectual elements, for example, evaluating information for accuracy, searching for accurate information, and updating our beliefs accordingly,”

explained study coauthor Taya Cohen, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Four Facets of Honesty in Communication

The researchers examined nearly 170 empirical articles on management, organizational behaviour, applied psychology, and business ethics published between 2000 and 2021.

They identified four distinct facets of honest behaviour and highlighted that the process of being fully honest involves:

  • Intellectual Honesty – forming accurate beliefs through an evaluation, search, and incorporation process
  • Honest Content – sharing their beliefs truthfully and without deception
  • Honest Disclosure – ensuring that they provide adequate disclosure without omitting pertinent information
  • Honest Delivery – doing all the above in such a way that listeners can form a clear understanding of the message

As part of this process, the authors described findings regarding the antecedents and consequences for each aspect of honest behaviour, concluding that engaging in honest behaviour has individual, social, and organizational consequences for both communicators and listeners.

Practical Applications

In order to generate ideas for future research, the authors also drew connections between honest behaviour and other prominent concepts in the management literature (e.g., voice/silence and psychological safety) that have not previously been discussed in relation to honesty.

The authors suggest that the framework has practical implications for individuals and organizations seeking to increase honesty. To create a safe and inclusive workplace, it can be used to encourage people to seek truthful information, update their beliefs based on this information, and attempt to foster true beliefs in others as part of the information-sharing process.

“We must consider not just what people do or do not say, but also how beliefs are formed, the extent to which beliefs are updated when needed, and whether recipients walk away from communication exchanges with the same beliefs that communicators meant to convey,”

said lead author Benny Cooper, a postdoctoral fellow in organizational behaviour and theory.

We can develop effective methods for fostering honesty in individuals and organizations by understanding all of these nuanced honesty-related behaviours.

  1. Dr. Binyamin Cooper, Professor Taya R. Cohen, Mrs. Elizabeth L. Huppert, Professor Emma E. Levine, and Professor William Fleeson. Honest Behavior: Truth-Seeking, Belief-Speaking, and Fostering Understanding of the Truth in Others. Academy of Management Annals, 6 Mar 2023 doi: annals.2021.0209